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As Cincinnati launches the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Reds' fabled first baseball season, it's a good time to recall the cultural traditions which have accompanied the team along the way. Together with beer and big reds the legend of the Mighty Casey has been recited (and sung) in Cincinnati for thirteen of the Reds' fifteen decades.
Mike "King" Kelly 1857-1894The first mention of "Casey at the Bat" in the Queen City appeared in the sports page of the Enquirer on March 15, 1889, only eight months after comic opera star DeWolf Hopper had first performed the ballad for an enthusiastic Broadway audience on the night of August 14, 1888. In a special dispatch from Boston to the Enquirer, under the title "Mike Kelly's Stage Fright," came the report that the Boston Beaneaters' future Hall of Famer had failed to appear for an Elks Club benefit recitation of "Casey at the Bat." Behind the scenes, the official excuse of a cold and sore throat was refuted by the account that Kelly had succumbed not only to his usual stage fright but to the fear that John Morrill, a fellow Beaneater whom Kelly had disparaged, was in the audience threatening to hiss Kelly off the stage. "I won't go on," Kelly was quoted. "They'll hiss me, and I believe I should faint if they did."
Though by 1888 Kelly was best known for his exploits with the Chicago White Stockings and the Boston Beaneaters, Enquirer readers had an extra reason to chuckle at news items regarding Kelly's budding side career on vaudeville stages. In fact, Kelly had made his big league debut with the Red Stockings in 1878, playing with them for two seasons before Al Spalding acquired him for the Chicago White Stockings.
Was Kelly Thayer's real-life model for his Mighty Casey? There is no doubt that Thayer saw Kelly play in California while he covered baseball for the Examiner; and Kelly was one of the superstars of that era. But in an interview in the 1930's, Thayer revealed he had another Casey in mind--an actual classmate at the Classical and English high School in Worcester who did not, in any event, play baseball. Thayer was notably sly about the true origins of his ballad, but there is also no doubt that he was upset with Mike Kelly's supposed attempt to claim authorship of the poem he often recited to music-hall audiences. Kelly's biographers deny that Kelly had made such an attempt.
The subtext of the 1889 Enquirer story also tells us a number of things about the early history of "Casey at the Bat." Though the poem had been published less than a year earlier (in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888), "Casey's" authorship was still in question--opening the door to mis-attribution and even to a later brazen attempt to steal it. But like the anonymous folk ballads and sagas on which it had been patterned by the shy and self-deprecating Ernest Thayer, "Casey" had already by 1889 threaded its way into American popular culture.
Like those ancient folk legends, "Casey at the Bat" was born to be recited, performed, and dramatized. DeWolf Hopper, not only a popular music hall comedian, but a baseball "crank" as fans were then known, recognized it immediately for what it was-- the great American comic poem. "It is as perfect an epitome of our national game today as it was when every player drank his coffee from a mustache cup....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."Was Hopper single-handedly responsible for "Casey's" remarkable rise to legendary status--or did "Casey" propel Hopper's career to a height far greater than he could ever have achieved in musical theater alone? Probably each helped the other: Hopper was Casey's godfather, so to speak; but Casey was to Hopper as "Hamlet" was to 19th-century actor Edwin Booth--the unique role that each was destined to play.
After several years of acclaimed recitations of "Casey," Hopper finally tracked down the ballad's author. He was introduced to Ernest Thayer in 1892 after a performance in Worcester and the two socialized at the Worcester Club, whereupon Thayer graciously assigned "Casey's" unrestricted rights to Hopper. By his own reckoning, Hopper would perform the ballad throughout his career an estimated 10,000 times.
One of those performances came to the Grand Theater in Cincinnati as the baseball season got underway in April, 1895--with both the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh teams as Hopper's guests. The Enquirer review the next day failed to mention the headlined comic opera, a lighthearted but forgettable work entitled "Dr. Syntax." The real interest was in Hopper's recitation of "Casey," for which he received an immense floral tribute from the "Cincinnatis."
Parallel to its great baseball tradition is that of Cincinnati's musical history. Already by the time of the first May Festival in 1872, Cincinnati was known as the classical music capital of the Midwest--founded on the German community's love of symphonic and choral works. Earlier in the same year that Hopper came to town with "Casey," the Cincinnati Symphony had performed its first concert. Conductor Frank Van der Stucken would later present the American premier of a Mahler symphony and invite Richard Strauss to guest conduct.
Frank Van der Stucken--first conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Ernest Thayer had subtitled "Casey" as A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888. One of several classical references imbedded in the poem, the singing of ballads hearkened back to the epic sagas of ancient cultures. William Howard Schuman (1910-1992) was the first American composer to develop the musical potential of "Casey's" drama with his 1953 opera, "The Mighty Casey." Both the Cincinnati Symphony, and later the Cincinnati Pops, would commission well-known settings of Thayer's modest masterpiece.
Frank Proto (1941- ) composer, and Johnny Bench, narrator
of Proto's "Casey at the Bat: An American Folk Tale"
The Cincinnati Symphony's own Frank Proto, bassist and composer-in-residence, created in 1973 the symphonic poem "Casey at the Bat: An American Folk Tale for Narrator and Orchestra." Though overshadowed in recent years by the highly entertaining 1996 Steven Reineke arrangement of the ballad, which was recorded by the Pops with the sonorous narration of James Earl Jones, in my mind the Proto composition weaves a rich background tapestry for the drama on the field, assembling elements of blues, jazz and electronic music--and evoking classical composers Gershwin and Dvorak. It may surprise you (as it did me) to hear the immortal Johnny Bench give Proto's narrative a full blues treatment in stanzas six and seven:
"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..."
To hear the Cincinnati Symphony with Johnny Bench narrating "Casey at the Bat," click the following link:
No shrinking violet on stage like his predecessor Mike "King" Kelly, Bench immersed himself in the narration of "Casey" with the same intensity that he brought to his years behind the plate--and at the bat--with the Cincinnati Reds. Best of all, Johnny Bench is a vital part of the Cincinnati Reds community. Wouldn't it be great to include Proto's symphonic folk tale of "Casey," with the wonderful narration of Johnny Bench, in the commemorative celebration of the rich baseball and musical traditions of the Queen City?
 DeWolf Hopper, Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper (New York: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1927), p. 93.
 See program notes by Audrey Lelash in the Compact Disc American As Apple Pie, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel
Vox CD3X 3035