“Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

A bad stick man

Books Reviews
“Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

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.

Paste reader, these first lines come from “Casey at the Bat,” maybe the best-known poem in American literature…and most certainly among our best-known comic poems. For now, consider these opening lines a warm-up pitch, a practice swing.

Let me also throw a high hard surprise under your chin. You won’t believe it, surely, if I tell you this rollicking poem about baseball and hubris and dashed hopes issued from the pen of a philosophy major…and a former editor of The Harvard Lampoon?

With the poem’s publication in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, Mighty Casey strode into the dugout of Americana to sit on the pine bench of legend right alongside Davy Crockett and John Henry and Annie Oakley and all those other American myths created or perpetuated by our able yarn-spinners and storytellers.

With a poem so well-known, you’d think the writer would be a household name—a Robert Frost or T.S. Elliot or even an Emily Dickinson.

Not so.

Ernest Lawrence Thayer was born in a town bearing his middle name, Lawrence, Mass., and he grew up a New Englander, true and blue. At Harvard, he took a magna cum laude in, yes, philosophy, then William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper plutocrat, hired him to go west, young man, and write for the San Francisco Examiner.

Thayer took New England with him. While working on the West Coast, he wrote and published under his college pen name, Phin, as in Phineas. (The affected appellation may come from Phineas Finn, the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series.)

The West Coast proved good to Phin. At just age 25, he penned a poem of an over-proud baseball slugger with the hopes of 5,000 citizens of Mudville pinned to his big bat. The poem leaps from the page, in a galloping meter and rhyme meant as much for the ear as the eye.

Thayer, or Phin, as it were, wrote the poem about a baseball archetype, the kind of big bruising haughty slugger on most every baseball team, a beast strong enough to grind sawdust from a bat handle as he takes his grip, then win a game with a single swing…if he connects.

Every baseball fan knows the type—hitters like Barry Bonds in his day or Miguel Cabrera today, those feared princes of the batters box. In mythology, such sluggers swagger and strut to the plate. They send outfielders to new positions on the warning track. They back up infielders so deep they turn into outfielders.

If the slugger wears the uniform of your team, you understand the joy of the bottom-of-the-ninth walk-off home run. You also know the ashes in the mouth, if the slugger happens to suck all the air out of the ballpark with one terrific swing…only to miss strike three and end a game.

In “Casey at the Bat,” the writer Thayer played on the American love for a game that in its time brooked no rival as The American Pastime. Every 1880s schoolboy…and a fair share of schoolgirls too…chased baseballs through pastures after their chores and on Sundays after church. Little kids dreamed of one day playing for teams named the Chicago White Stockings and the Cincinnati Kelly Killers and the Boston Beaneaters.

One Beaneater, a mighty slugger named Mike “King” Kelly, likely served as Thayer’s model for Mighty Casey. Kelly played a long career with teams named Whitestockings and Beaneaters and Reds, and Thayer covered some of Kelly’s games when his team made a West Coast tour. Much hype preceded the well-paid baseball star, and for a bean-eating journalist in the employ of the Hearst newspaper kingdom, the hype and the big money might just have gotten under Thayer’s skin.

King Kelly, by the way, happily holds a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He received the honor in 1945 in just the second vote after the Old Timers Committee formed to recognize great former players.

Kelly may, in fact, have suspected Thayer pegged him as the model for Mighty Casey. The notorious love-him-or-hate-him baseball player made a sideline career for himself in his playing days—he became a Vaudeville performer, sometimes reciting “Casey at the Bat”…very badly, it’s reported.

Another performer got it right…and delivered a hit night after night.

On Thayer’s 25th birthday, Aug. 14, 1888, an actor named DeWolf Hopper first delivered a dramatic presentation of “Casey at the Bat” from the stage. At this performance, two baseball teams, the Chicago White Stockings and New York Giants, sat in the cheap theater seats…this time the ball players watched a performance, not vice versa.

Talk about a hit! Hopper’s recitations would in time make him famous—he delivered the poem to audiences more than 10,000 times in his lifetime…and it’s really the only reason Hopper’s curious name (“Are you The Horse Whisperer? No, I’m DeWolf Hopper”) lives on today.

Thayer himself recited or read his poem publicly a few times too…but according to Hopper, the poet ought to have used a pinch-hitter. The 1940 obituary for Thayer in the New York Times quoted Hopper thus:

“Thayer indubitably wrote ‘Casey,’ but he could not recite it…. I have heard many others give ‘Casey.’ Fond mamas have brought their sons to me to hear their childish voices lisp the poem … but Thayer’s was the worst of all. In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper he implored ‘Casey’ to murder the umpire, and gave this cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet. He was rotten.”

Casey would be parodied and dramatized and acted on screen and done to death on radio. The poem today may have lost a little of its ubiquity, as the game of baseball has slowly given way to faster-moving, media-blessed sports like football and basketball.

Still, Mighty Casey takes the field in the memory of this baseball fan every year about this time, when the pennant races heat up…and in most places where, “in this favored land the sun is shining bright.”

Here, for your remembrance and reading pleasure, Paste gives you “Casey at the Bat” in its entirety. I suggest reading it aloud.

And don’t give up on Casey. This reading…who knows? He just might knock the cover off the ball.

Casey at the Bat

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.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
They’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a pudding and the latter was a fake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

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.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

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.

Charles McNair’s second novel, Pickett’s Charge, publishes September 20 with praise from Charles Frazier, Colum McCann, Mark Childress, Ron Rash, Rosanne Cash, Thomas Mullen, Tom Franklin, Tom Junod, John Holman, Hillary Jordan, and other noted writers. Charles also wrote the Pulitzer-nominated novel, Land O’ Goshen, and he happily works as Books Editor at Paste.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin