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.