Casey at the Bat

Happy 125th birthday “Casey at the Bat”

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Last week I noted my favorite baseball poem — Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto” — but today marks the 125th anniversary of baseball’s most famous poem, “Casey at the Bat.” It was on June 3, 1888, in the San Francisco Examiner, when the words of Ernest Thayer were published for the first time:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day;The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game …

Five hundred and twenty-eight words later the “air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow,” and that sickly silence, in all likelihood, turned to booing. For, as we all know, I hope, mighty Casey struck out.

It has been argued that “Casey at the Bat” was inspired by the guy who, at the time, was likely the most famous baseball player around: Mike “King” Kelly, who had recently made headlines for a west coast tour, which Thayer covered. He was also recently famous purchased by the Boston Beaneaters from the Chicago Whitestockings for a then-princely sum of $10,000. Alex Rodriguez was a well-loved and popular ballplayer until he cashed in for huge money. Then everyone decided they loved to see him fail.  The same thing, it seems, was happening 125 years ago. The only difference, it seems, is that today’s hate comes in Mike Lupica columns and frothing-at-the-mouth blog comments rather than verse.

But there was one thing in common with the frothing-at-the-mouth blog comments: it was originally published anonymously. Under the pen name “Phin.”   The reason the thing was under a pen name at first was because Thayer — a buddy of Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst — signed all of his humorous contributions that way. Probably so it didn’t look like Hearst was just giving columns to buddies. I have not seen a picture of Thayer, but I’m going to choose to picture him as Joseph Cotton in “Citizen Kane.”

For weeks little notice was taken of the poem, until a fellow named Archibald Gunter cut it out of the New York Sun — where it was once again published anonymously and gave it to a comedian named De Wolf Hopper, who would be performing at the Wallack Theatre with two baseball teams in attendance. Hopper recited “Casey at the Bat” and brought the house down. Probably because one of the baseball teams in the audience was Kelly’s former Chicago Whitestockings and, perhaps, they were getting a chuckle at the expense of their now-departed, highly-touted and highly-paid teammate.

Not that Kelly had any problem with it.  While Hopper became the most famous reciter of “Casey at the Bat,” Kelly himself would go on tours giving live performances of it as well.

The popularity of the poem has never really faded. It was recorded by Hopper and others as soon as recording technology was invented. It found its way into kids’ schoolbooks as the 20th century wore on. It has been recited countless times by figures as diverse as Elliot Gould, Jackie Gleason, James Earl Jones and Penn Jillette.  Jillette’s version was recited as his partner Teller tried to escape from a straight jacket. If he couldn’t do it before the end of the poem he’d be dropped on sharp blades. I bet that woulda brought the house down at the Wallack Theatre too.

A minor league team was named after the Mudville Nine, even if it was only for one year. “Casey at the Bat” was even was immortalized in Disney animation:

Beyond those on-the-nose inspirations, both Casey and Mudville have become metaphors of sorts, expanding even beyond baseball. Whenever there is pride before a fall, it’s handy for a writer to invoke the mighty slugger. Whenever there is a disappointed mob of fans of any stripe, the lack of “joy in Mudville” is appropriately trotted out.

It is in this way, I think, a funny little bit of verse about a ballplayer has transcended its origins, tapping into a major vein of human emotion. No, it doesn’t move one like T.S. Eliot or even make us think like Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto,” but it does invoke anxiety and schadenfreude and says a little something still pretty relevant about hero worship. Relevant even 125 years later.

Video: Minor League Manager goes on epic rant

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Frisco RoughRiders manager Joe Mikulik got his money’s worth last night. He was ejected after arguing an automatic double play on an enforcement of the slide rule, and he didn’t go gently into that goodnight.

Rather, he threw things, kicked things, threw things and then subsequently kicked those same things, gave overly-demonstrative slides and safe signs and basically went all Earl Weaver/Lou Piniella on everyone.

Double-A baseball is the best minor league because you tend to see more prospects there than you do at Triple-A. But it’s also the best because, when you’re a manager who is not quite a heartbeat away from getting your shot at the big leagues, you’re a little less uptight about things. Or at least Mikulik was. Or maybe he was more uptight. I don’t know. He just went with it, and going with it has its charms.

 

(h/t Big League Stew)

A must-read oral history of the 1998 home run chase

7 Jul 1998:   American Leaguer player Mark McGwire #25 of the St Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa #21 of  the Chicago Cubs answer questions during  the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Coors Field in Denver,  Colorado.The American  League defeated the
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It’s hard to believe that it’s been 18 years since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated the nation with their epic chase of Roger Maris’ home run record. But it has been, and after years of reaction, counter-reaction and, of course, baseball’s reckoning with the performance-enhancing drugs which helped fuel the chase, it’s probably finally time to do our best to contextualize it historically.

Today one of my favorite news outlets does that with an oral history. All of the key figures weigh-in on it, from McGwire and Sosa to Bud Selig to Tony La Russa. Randy Johnson makes an appearance as well, reminding us that it wasn’t just the sluggers who had an amazing year in 1998. Indeed, his story, including his being traded to Houston and going on an amazing second-half run, has almost been lost to history.

This is bookmark material, my friends. For savoring later if you can’t read it now. And for revisiting at another time given the depths to the drama which justifies multiple readings. I’ll just warn you that there is some adult language in the story, but that’s to be expected given the passion the 1998 baseball season inspired.

Go check it out.

UPDATE: Asdrubal Cabrera leaves Mets-Nats game with back spasms

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12:  Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera #13 of the New York Mets throws to first from his knee after diving to catch a ground ball to get Joc Pederson #31 of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second out of the sixth inning at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Dodgers won 5-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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UPDATE: Cabrera was removed from the game due to back spasms.

1:21PM: This is not good: Asdrubal Cabrera was removed from today’s game against the Nationals with an apparent injury.

It’s unclear what the injury was, as Cabrera had yet to even play in the game. Matt Reynolds came on to play shortstop in the bottom of the first inning, but Cabrera didn’t bat in the top of the first. It could be an illness. Or some freak occurrence.

We’ll update when we hear more.

There are apparently unwritten rules about manager replay challenges now

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 05: Manager Joe Maddon #70 of the Chicago Cubs shakes hands with manager Mike Matheny #26 of the St. Louis Cardinals before the Opening Night game at Wrigley Field on April 5, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Last night’s Cardinals-Cubs game was a blowout, with the Cubs beating the Cards 12-3. Apparently, however, in the ninth inning of the game, Reynoldsburg, Ohio’s own Mike Matheny played the Cardinals infield in, which is a move you never see in a blowout. Why did he do that?

He hasn’t said yet, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon just spoke to the media before today’s game and he’s speculating that Matheny did it as a form of protest:

God, I hope that’s true. I hope that manager replay challenges, which are already dumb enough inasmuch as they turn what should be an officiating correction device into a strategic tool, are now turning into another front in the Great Unwritten Rules Wars. I hope that we now have a bunch of people talking about how there’s a right way and a wrong way to use the replay system and that one can disrespect the other side if they do it the wrong way. The way the replay system has been implemented often resembles tragedy. Why not make it farce?

Oh well, I guess it beats throwing at someone for doing that wrong. And I guess it’s just a reminder that no matter what we do, baseball is always gonna give us an opportunity for petty bits of silliness.