Casey at the Bat, Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s great comic baseball ballad, has played an important role in my life, and the story of its beginnings is a fascinating one - (Honest, it really is).
Its author was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and grew up in Worcester. He went to Harvard where he was editor of its humor magazine, the Lampoon, for which he also wrote. He signed his pieces, simply, “Phin,” his nickname while in college. One of his pals, Will Hearst, was the magazine’s business manager. (Remember that. It’ll come in handy later.)
Thayer graduated from Harvard in 1885. His friend Will, however, had been thrown out of school after his junior year for insubordination. His crime was sending chamber pots to faculty members with their names on them, not much of a sin by today’s standards but apparently a capital offense at Harvard during the nineteenth century. As it happened, Will’s father had acquired the San Francisco Examiner as a means of furthering his candidacy for U.S. senator from California (he won). He put his college dropout son in charge of the paper. The lad turned out to have a knack for the newspaper business; Will was to become somewhat better known by his full name, William Randolph Hearst, the greatest newspaper mogul of the twentieth century - (What’d I tell ya?).
Hearst invited his friend, Phin Thayer, to come to California to write humorous features for the Examiner. Phin jumped at the chance. After a year or so, however, Thayer’s health began to fail and he returned to Massachusetts. He continued sending pieces to the Examiner for a while until a final one appeared on Sunday, June 3, 1888. It was on page four, right next to a column by the renowned writer, Ambrose Bierce, and it was signed, simply, “Phin.” It was, you guessed it, Casey at the Bat.
The next day an entirely new edition of the San Francisco Examiner was published, and the day after that, and the day after that. The Sunday paper got thrown out with the trash, Casey along with it. That was that – or it would have been had not something happened several months later clear across the country, in New York City.
A young comic actor named DeWolf Hopper, who was appearing in a show at Wallack’s Theater on 30th and Broadway, got word that the ballplayers from the New York Giants and the Chicago White Stockings had been invited to a future performance by the theater management. Hopper saw an opportunity to insert a special piece of material into the show on the night players were there.
But what material? Hopper didn’t have a clue.
A friend of his, Archibald Gunter, himself a writer, said he had the perfect answer. He reached into his pocket and produced a tattered clipping he had cut out of the Examiner during a visit to San Francisco a few months earlier. He had saved - you can’t make this stuff up - Casey.
Hopper committed the verse to memory and, on the night the players from the two teams were in the house, in the middle of the show, he stepped forward and, in a deep baritone voice, launched into his recitation.
He recalled in his memoir, Once a Clown Always a Clown, that he knew he was onto something when, with two strikes on the mighty Casey, he noticed a nervous twitch in the mustache of Giants Catcher Buck Ewing. When he reached the poem’s surprise denouement (remember, no one had ever heard it recited before and the audience assumed that Casey would end the game with a dramatic home run) the theater erupted in a standing ovation that stopped the show.
Hopper, no fool he, kept the poem in the act, always getting the same delighted reaction from the audience. Soon word got out around town that something special was going on down at Wallack’s Theater and crowds began showing up at the box office. The newspapers picked up on the story, and when New York papers ran with something, papers everywhere else followed suit. Reprints of Casey appeared in periodicals all across the country. It wasn’t long before Casey at the Bat and DeWolf Hopper were nationally famous. The poem became Hopper’s signature bit and he recited it at every performance he gave for the rest of his life. There was just one thing.
Nobody knew who had written it.
Who was the mysterious “Phin?”
Hopper, although he had made the ballad famous, had no idea. By the way, he was later married to Hedda Hopper, the legendary Hollywood gossip columnist - (Another fascinating factoid, don’t you think?).
William Randolph Hearst knew who Phin was, but nobody thought to ask him. Thayer himself, a quiet, bookish type who was operating one of his father’s woolen mills, was not interested in coming forward. In his absence all kinds of pretenders came forward to claim authorship.
About five years after first reciting the poem, Hopper, by then touring the country doing his Casey schtick, played Worcester, Massachusetts one night. He received a note backstage asking if he’d like to meet the real author. At last, the man who wrote Casey at the Bat came face to face with the man who made it famous. Hopper wrote in his memoir that Thayer was prevailed upon to recite the poem for him. Thayer’s rendition of it was so lousy that Hopper was convinced that he must have written it.
Once the word was out, Ernest Lawrence Thayer must have spent the rest of his days basking in the glory of having written such a great comic verse, right? Wrong!
He didn’t have a particularly high opinion of his work and, in fact, regarded it as a curse that his authorship became known because people never stopped pestering him about it. (C’mon, Phin, lighten up a little.)
DeWolf Hopper, who continued reciting Casey for more than forty-five years, faded into the dust bun of history following his death in 1935.
Thayer retired from the woolen mill business in 1912 and moved to Santa Barbara, California where he died in 1940 at age of seventy-seven. He never wrote anything else of note but, whether he liked it or not, achieved a kind of immortality. He had caught flame in a bottle back in 1888. While Casey at the Bat might not be great poetry in the classic sense, it is a great piece of Americana. It strikes a chord in the national psyche and it will live for as long as the game of baseball is played.
Robert Service, whose ballads of the Yukon gold rush achieved an immortality of their own, put its impact into perspective when he wrote:
I’d rather, I can tell you flat,
When for Parnassus bound,
Have written Casey at the Bat
Than odes of Ezra Pound.