Printer Friendly

Casey hits 100.

To the great embarrassment of its author, a Phi Beta Kappa Harvard graduate, a bit of doggerel penned in 1888 became baseball's most beloved literary classic.

Remember Casey at Me Bat, that Rall-American classic with the say-it-isn't-so ending? It celebrates its 100th birthday this summer.

During the past century it has inspired movies-silents, talkies, Disney productions-poems, recordings, TV productions, and even an opera that traveled America and played Japan. And with the passing of time it has come to be regarded as the most famous American sports poem ever written.

"You could look it up," as another mighty baseball Casey-the former manager of the New York Yankees Casey Stengel-used to say.

If you do, you'll find that the poems about that poem include a series by Grantland Rice and Growltiger's Last Stand, a parody by T. S. Eliot about a cat, featured in the Broadway and London musical hit Cats. It has even been incorporated in the Penn and Teller magic act, in theaters nationally and on television. Penn speed-reads Casey as Teller, trussed in a straitjacket and suspended by his ankles above a bed of spikes, tries to wriggle free before the poem is completed.

You'll also discover that two of the poem's most memorable recordings were narrated by that legendary thespian Lionel Barrymore-with sound effects-and by the also legendary former New York Yankee golden voice Mel Allen. Mel did his emoting on a Golden record.

But now, the plot thickens . . . for Casey at the Bat isn't what it seems!

How many are aware that it was written by a Harvard philosophy scholar? And how many realize that it was first published by one of America's most controversial newspaper magnates? Both appreciated the heartfelt, cornball emotions we lavish on child's play and straw heroes. Neither thought it was worth more than a filler for a daily newspaper.

And, though almost everyone remembers Casey's shattering strikeout, it's only the rare individual who knows about the modest writer who put that ineffectual bat in Casey's hands. It seems a shame, but the fact is that the author originally wanted it that way.

The truth is that Casey's creator, Ernest Lawrence Thayer, talented as he was, was in some respects as absurdly pathetic as his mighty batsman. The truth is he went to great pains to remain anonymous, to dissociate himself ftom his work. Finally, he was known to have privately agreed with those critics who called Casey maudlin and overdramatic.

Yet Casey became a giant precisely because of these "flaws." And America as a nation has always loved it-the promise, the tragedy, the pathos of misplaced bravado. Perhaps that's because we've all been there and we understand. Perhaps that's why Casey, and its wide-eyed appeal, has been hailed as pure Americana-as compelling as a freckle-faced kid with his first baseball glove.

But not to Thayer.

His ballad first appeared on Sunday, June 3, 1888, in the fourth column of the fourth page of the San Francisco Examiner. Thayer didn't even sign his name to the piece. Instead, he used his college nickname, "Phin," to identify himself--a ploy that helped him remain anonymous for years.

And nobody would have known the difference if it hadn't been for a young vaudevillian who read the poem realized its potential, and effectively incorporated Casey into his stage routine. In this manner he carried the saga across the nation and enthralled audiences with its drama.

That performer was William de Wolf Hopper, the husband of the Hollywood legend and columnist Hedda Hopper. He had, he admitted, fallen in love with Casey and, by his own count, had recited it more than 10,000 times, consistently rousing his audiences.

He used it first, and most dramatically, in New York's Wallack Theatre in 1888. In that audience were James Mutrie's New York Giants and Pop Anson's Chicago White Stockings, who rose, cheering, after the 5 minutes and 40 seconds-exactly-it took Hopper to deliver the verse.

By the turn of the century, as Hopper toured the country with it, and as many publications reprinted the poem, it seemed that every baseball fan in America had become familiar with the woebegone hero.

And Thayer was so embarrassed by all the fuss that when it was discovered that he was the legitimate author, he refused to discuss payments for reprint rights. And he was wealthy enough to afford this luxury.

"All I ask is never to be reminded of it again," he pleaded.

When he finally admitted authorship and personally recited his Casey to the man whose eloquent phrasing had helped make the poem famous, he shocked William de Wolf Hopper so badly that the vaudevillian had to be helped to a seat.

Hopper said that Thayer's delivery of the poem was the "worst" he had ever heard. He described Thayer's mayhem this"In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper [Thayer] 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."

No matter. America had adopted it as its own.

And, though Thayer continued writing verses for years, he never produced another Casey. Yet, he continued insisting that Casey was not poetry at all. Stripped bare, he said, it was merely a simple rhyme with a vigorous beat. He had wanted to write an epic that could be read quickly, understood immediately, and be laughed at by newspaper readers who enjoyed baseball. Instead, he had written an American legend.

Unlike his larger-than-life Casey, Thayer was slight, soft-spoken, and hard of hearing. Though a baseball fan, he did not play the game. He led the life of a modest, gracious, and not-too-healthy scholar. He actually retired at 49 because of poor health; he married in 1913 at the age of 50. He died in 1940 in Santa Barbara, California, where he and his wife, Rosalind Buel Hammett Thayer, lived childless for 27 years.

At his death, even such English professors as William Lyon Phelps of Yale had hailed his poem as a masterpiece. "The psychology of the hero and the psychology of the crowd," he said, "leave nothing to be desired." Then, to make certain he was not misunderstood, Phelps added"There is more knowledge of human nature displayed in this poem than in many of the works of our psychiatrists."

That the poem captured the imagination of the American public can be aftested to by the large body of works imitating or adding to the Casey legend.

Probably the most satisfying revision of Thayer's epic was Grantland Rice's 1906 version, called Casey's Revenge, Rice, then the sports editor of the Nashville Tennessean, allowed Casey to connect. He wrapped up the rewrite this way:

0, somewhere in this favored land

dark clouds may hide the sun,

And somewhere bands no longer

play and children have no fun.

And somewhere over blighted lives

there hangs a heavy pall,

But Mudville hearts are happy

now, for Casey hit the ball.

Finally, for the records, the intellectuals took the field with an opera about Casey by William Schuman, later president of New York's Lincoln Center. It premiered in Hartford, Connecticut, surfaced again on the CBS-TV "Omnibus" show, and even appeared on stage from Annapolis to San Francisco to Japan.

Casey was in the books-an American legend.

Thayer the author would never understand. But William de Wolf Hopper and the American public never seemed to have that problem.*
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:centennial of Casey at the Bat
Author:Isaacs, Benno
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1988
Words:1238
Previous Article:The promise of irradiated foods.
Next Article:A strategy to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Topics:


Related Articles
BASEBALL: A MULLIGAN FRESHMAN SHOWS HE'S GOT IT RIGHT FOR VALENCIA.
Johnnie Walker(R) Brings 'Casey' to the Plate.
SAUGUS STARTS AS UNDERDOG CENTURIONS OPEN BASEBALL PLAYOFFS AT SECOND-SEEDED CHINO.
Tracking Casey through city and town.
Gutman, Dan: Casey Back at Bat.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters