"Casey's" Unanswered Questions

On August 14 two years ago, on the occasion of Ernest Thayer's birthday in 1863, Smithsonian.com published Kat Eschner's article "'Casey at the Bat' Leaves A Lot of Unanswered Questions." We reproduce the article in full, below--a welcome addition to contemporary writing about the legend and legacy of Ernest Thayer's "Ballad of the Republic."

And after you read the Eschner article--read on. Caseyatthe.blog will suggest that these questions as well as other enigmas regarding "Casey" are nested within each other like so many matryoschka dolls.

"Casey at the Bat" Leaves A Lot of Unanswered Questions (August 14, 2017 in Smithsonian.com)

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.” So begins Ernest Thayer’s epic baseball poem “Casey at the Bat.” As opening lines go, pretty solid. Sadly for Casey, he ultimately strikes out. But the poem that bears his name was a winner.

Today is the anniversary of Thayer’s birthday in 1863. Thayer, a Massachusetts one-hit wonder, made a name for himself with a poem that has been called “the nation’s best-known piece of comic verse.” Thayer himself “did not share in [the] fame of [his] ballad,” as The New York Times wrote in his obituary. Because the poem was written under a pseudonym, it took some time to be traced back to the journalist. Given Casey’s popularity more than a hundred years after being written, many are eager to get in on his legacy. These contesting claims have fired rivalries as strong as that between Mudville and the opposing team–and revealed that, for all the poem’s apparent completeness, it has left successive generations of readers grappling with a few key questions.

Who was Casey?

Though Casey is a fictional character, several baseball players have been named as potential inspiration. “Speculation has centered on late-1800s baseball star Mike ‘King’ Kelly,” writes Larry Canale for Sports Collector’s Digest. “Thayer, during baseball’s 1887-88 offseason, covered some baseball exhibition games featuring Kelly, so he saw him play not long before he wrote ‘Casey at the Bat.’”

However, many believe that the inspiration behind Casey was Samuel Winslow, who was the captain of Harvard’s baseball team in 1885, when Thayer was still attending. The pair were close friends, Canale writes.

 Where is Mudville?

Another question that has stumped ‘Casey’ fans is the location that inspired the fictional Mudville where Casey strikes out. There are a few cities who lay claim to the Mudville name–even though both baseball historians and the author himself held that the poem had “no basis in fact,” according to Katie Zezima for The New York Times.

There’s Holliston, a town near Boston which does have an area known as Mudville. It has a ceremonial mayor, writes Edgar B. Herwick III for WGBH News. Thayer’s family had a local connection, so it’s probable that the baseball enthusiast came down to see games there.

But there’s also Stockton, California, near where Thayer worked for San Francisco’s The Daily Examiner. One of the subjects he covered: baseball. It makes sense “that he would be writing about the local scene, seeing as he was writing for a local audience in a local paper,” Stocktonian Bill Maxwell told Herwick.

Does it matter?

“Casey at the Bat” was first published in the June 3, 1888 edition of the Examiner. A look at the page reveals that the poem is nestled in the fourth column of the page. “Clearly the editors had no inkling that ‘Casey’ would become the most popular baseball poem ever written,” writes Peter Armenti for The Library of Congress. In fact, it didn’t take off until it was republished in New York, writes Cait Miller, also for The Library of Congress. There, it was picked up by performer DeWolf Hopper. “Hopper’s performance popularized the poem and he went on to recite Thayer’s words at least 10,000 times over the course of his life,” Miller writes.

“There are one or more Caseys in every league, bush or big, and there is no day in the playing season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes for the moment, does not befall on some field,” Hopper said of the poem. Having recited it so many times, he'd be the one to know.

--Kat Eschner, Smithsonian.com August 14, 2017

Holliston, Massachusetts has a solid claim to the inspiration for Thayer's "Mudville," with an historic neighborhood populated in the 19th century by Irish immigrants. Thayer's mother's family, the Darlings, owned a nearby mill and Thayer's family kept a summer home not far away in Mendon. Caseyatthe.blog will pose a new question; "When was Mudville?"

As Kat Eschner has described, the puzzles surrounding Thayer's now-famed "Casey at the Bat" have previously been confined mainly to the question of authorship; secondly to the real-life identity of the character of "Casey," (whether or not there had ever been an actual person upon which "Casey's" character and exploits were modeled); and thirdly to the true geographic location (if any) of the ill-fortuned "Mudville." That geographic title has been claimed by various locations--most plausibly Stockton, California, and Holliston, Massachusetts.

DeWolf Hopper, who performed "Casey" for the first time on August 14, 1888, likened Casey's "supreme tragedy" to those of Aristophanes (450-388 BCE). But was Hopper, a renowned comic opera performer, really unaware that Aristophanes was the Greeks' most famous comic--not tragic--playwright? Yet Hopper, citing Aristophanes, may have had it right after all. It was Aristophanes to whom Plato attributed the sublime dramatic insight, often quoted by Churchill: "The qualities required for writing tragedy and comedy are the same, and a tragic genius must also be a comic genius."[2] Hopper himself confirmed this view in his autobiography, in a comment on Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (1833-1893), whom Hopper held in high regard:
"...No man ever was a truly great tragedian who lacked the comic sense. I doubt that a man ever reached the full measure of greatness in any vocation without that saving grace of humor."[3]

Amazingly, considering the ballad's rapid adoption into American popular culture in the 1890's, and its enduring appeal well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries-- or perhaps because of "Casey's" popular appeal and adoption as an American cultural icon--"Casey at the Bat" seems to have never been fully examined with a view to its literary merit and provenance. Thayer himself put forward only a brief and self-effacing version of his poem's origins. And since Thayer's time, scholars and journalists alike have been focused on the baseball field rather than on the literary and historic antecedents of "Casey". As a consequence, the classical origins of "Casey at the Bat"--as well the cultural currents through which Thayer navigated--have never been fully explored. But these same currents in the year 1888 constituted equally powerful influences in the work of Samuel Clemens, Ambrose Bierce, Edward Bellamy and other American writers.

As Thayer ("a man apart," as remembered by classmate George Santayana) piloted his own creative vessel through the cultural currents of his era, we also know that during the critical year of 1887-88 Thayer barreled through a whitewater of emotion. The more I read about this period of Thayer's life, the more I became convinced that "Casey" (and others of Thayer's contributions to the San Francisco Examiner during this time) afford us insight into a personal drama about which we have never been fully aware, and which otherwise we would never have been able to understand.

Thayer's biographers have hinted at a love affair, but significant details until now have not been known. "Phinney's" brief but memorable adventure in San Francisco--and the profound impact upon him of those who befriended him, with whom he worked, and whom he loved--are reflected in this deeper understanding of "Casey" and his creator. We will see how Thayer's youthful faith in the superiority of "Wit" over "Strength," though shattered, was ultimately transformed by his artistry.

William Randolph Hearst invited Ernest Thayer and other Harvard classmates to work on the San Francisco Examiner. Thayer joined the staff in the summer of 1886 and worked as a reporter and columnist through the end of 1887.

In this way the real story of "Casey" represents the unraveling of a mystery. And as so often happens, the investigation of one mystery exposes others concealed within the first. I began this work originally to answer a series of questions posed and considered by editors, journalists, sportswriters, biographers, and scholars, some never satisfactorily answered or explained, regarding that thirteen-stanza poem published in the San Francisco Daily Examiner in 1888. Thayer's ballad appeared seemingly without precedent, emerging from the obscurity of a newspaper column over the pseudonym, "Phin," from an author otherwise unknown to the American public, whose diffidence about the genesis of the poem--and shyness about his own identity as its author--only abetted the curiosity surrounding the poem's origins, and about Thayer himself, among the baseball cranks of America's Gilded Age.

Already by the 1890's, Casey had entered the pantheon of American cultural heroes. The near-anonymity of the ballad's author only enhanced the folklore status of The Mighty Casey.

Caseyatthe.blog will explore several enigmas which when unveiled, will tell us much more about Thayer's idiosyncratic creativity, and about the literary and cultural landscape from which "Casey" emerged. In this perspective, "Casey" will appear not just as an entertaining poem whose cadences have been treasured by baseball-lovers over the past 13 decades--but as a true Ballad of the Republic. The most interior of these nested puzzles reveals Thayer himself as a young man--in an episode which deeply scarred his young life, and which as he grew older he would rather have preferred to forget. But as we shall see, the character and fate of "Casey" owes much to this heretofore unrecorded drama of a love triangle-- whose origins may lie as far back as Thayer's junior year at Harvard.  


The Unresolved Mysteries of Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" 

These questions, shown graphically, expand the list of unresolved mysteries of "Casey" to be explored in future blogs. Examining from the outside, inward:

  • Was the character "Casey" created by Thayer, or borrowed by him? If borrowed, from whom?

  • Was there an historical Casey?

  • Where was Mudville--and When?

  • Why did Thayer undertake an investigation by detectives into one "particularly atrocious" claim to authorship of "Casey?"

  • Why did Thayer add the subtitle: "A Ballad of the Republic?"

  • And regarding Thayer's personal life, who won the battle of Strength vs Wit--first posed by Thayer in the Lampoon in January, 1884?

  1] John Evangelist Walsh, The Night Casey Was Born: The True Story Behind the Great American Ballad "Casey at the Bat" (New York: Overlook Press, 2007), p. 62.

2] William Manchester, "Preamble," to The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1983 Hardcover edition), pp. 28-29.

[3] DeWolf Hopper, in collaboration with Wesley Winans Stout, Once a Clown, Always a Clown: Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper (Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc.), pp. 130-131.

Attribution goes to Kat Eschner, freelance journalist in Toronto, contributing editor . Also creator of the CREATURE FEATURE newsletter: http://goforcreaturefeature.com . And please follow @SmithsonianMag on Twitter!
 -- kat.eschner@gmail @KatEschner 


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