- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

Ernest Lawrence Thayer sat at his desk in the San Francisco Examiner newsroom and wondered what to write. It was an important decision because young publisher William Randolph Hearst was paying his former Harvard classmate $5 a day to compose clever things.

Thayer’s thoughts slipped back to his high school days in Worcester, Mass., a few years earlier. A certified WASP, he had started a pamphlet in which he ridiculed a burly Irish student named Daniel Casey. There had been a heated confrontation that left Thayer shaken. At its end, Casey stomped off just short of fisticuffs.

Now Thayer pulled out a sheet of paper, licked the nib of his pen and began putting down his wordy title: “Casey at the Bat, A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.” Then came the opening verse:

The outlook wasn‘t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;

The score stood four to two with but one more inning to play.

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,

A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game. …

The 13-stanza, 52-line poem was published on Page4 of the Examiner on June3, 1888. One hundred seventeen years later, it remains a classic of American poetry and the most famous baseball verse.

Only two challengers come close: the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer in 1908 and Franklin P. Adams’ “Tinker to Evers to Chance” rhyme published in the New York Evening Mail the same year. But each of these pales in both length and content to “Casey.”

As with most legends, facts collide with fancy where “Casey” is concerned. Various versions have been published over the decades, but the original seems the most accurate. For years, baseball fans tried to identify the “real” Casey, with 1880s star Mike Kelly considered the likeliest candidate. But in 1935, five years before his death at 72, Thayer insisted there was no such person.

“The poem has absolutely no basis in fact,” he wrote at the time. “The verses owe their existence to my enthusiasm for college baseball. In my brief connection with the Examiner, I put out large quantities of nonsense …”

But it hardly matters, several lifetimes later, whether Casey was a real person or a figment. In one sense, he will endure as long as baseball is played as its quintessential figure of failure. Talk about long slumps! This poor guy never gets a hit.

Thayer must share the credit for the poem’s longevity, however, with a young stage actor named DeWolf Hopper, who obtained permission from Thayer to recite it without paying the author royalties and did so 40,000 times by his own estimate before his death in 1945.

Upon publication, the poem was attributed only to “Phin,” and for years Thayer denied he had written it. After it belatedly became popular, thanks mostly to Hopper’s stirring renditions around the country, several wanna-bes claimed authorship before Thayer finally admitted he had done the deed.

William DeWolf Hopper (his full name) was a strapping 6-foot-2 man with a deep, booming voice made for Shakespearean drama. Instead, he was doing comedy on Broadway in 1888 when a fellow actor convinced him that their opera company should invite players from the Chicago White Stockings and New York Giants to a performance after a game at the original Polo Grounds.

Hopper wanted to perform new material but wasn’t sure what. A friend named Archibald Gunter remembered “Casey,” which had been largely ignored when it was published two months earlier, and pulled a tattered clipping from his wallet. At first, Hopper rejected the idea because his infant son was ill, and the actor wasn’t sure he could concentrate enough to memorize such a long piece.

Finally he agreed — and baseball/entertainment history was made.

“The audience went wild,” the New York World reported the next day. “Men got up on their seats and cheered. It was one of the wildest scenes ever seen in a theater.”

There is little question that Hopper made the poem and the poem made Hopper. For years, the actor had no idea of its author’s identity until he met Thayer during a performance at a private club in Worcester in the early 1890s.

On that occasion, Thayer himself was persuaded to recite his poem and gave what Hopper later recalled as one of the worst versions he had heard.

Said Hopper, rather uncharitably: “In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper, he implored Casey to murder the umpire and gave the cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet.”

Thayer’s reaction was never recorded, but we may assume the word “ingrate” would have been involved. Later the verse was recited by many other actors, including Jackie Gleason and Chuck (“The Rifleman”) Connors. Nowadays, James Earl Jones would seem a perfect choice to resurrect “Casey.”

Although the poem is obviously dated, that only adds to its charm. In a 1966 book called “The Rise and Fall of the New York Yankees,” longtime New York and Washington sports columnist Jack Mann wondered what kind of league would have teams in New York and Mudville. Thayer also refers to two of Casey’s teammates as “a lulu” and “a cake,” which presumably are not complimentary terms.

Many versions and variations of “Casey” have emerged over 117 years, but the original is still the best. Its sad story reflects not only the frequent failure endemic to baseball but the frustrations and dashed hopes encountered by all of us at one time or another. Perhaps that is why it endures as nothing less than, literally, pure poetry.

The late Joanne Marino, a journalism teacher at Fairfax County’s Mount Vernon High School, used to mark the beginning of every season by reciting it tearfully to her students. Like Opening Day itself, “Casey” remains a cherished part of the history and tradition that separates baseball from every other American sport.

Just listen …

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;

It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;

It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,

For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;

He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,

And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;

But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

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