In Search of "Casey's" Companions: "A Tale of Two Clowns"

The dedicated sleuthing of MLB's official historian, John Thorn, has brought to light a "companion piece" to "Casey at the Bat," dating to October 1889--the month in which the New York Giants won the World Series in a crosstown shootout, defeating the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (the future Dodgers) six games to three. Thorn presented his findings in a January 6 post to his "Our Game" blog, entitled "A Tale of Two Clowns." The two clowns in question were DeWolf Hopper and fellow baseball crank Digby Bell--both renowned players in vaudeville and musical theater of the late 19th and early 20th century. Hopper's autobiography was subtitled "Once a Clown, Always a Clown."

Once a Clown Always a Clown, (1927) DeWolf Hopper's autobiography presents Thorn's engaging article below, just as it appeared this month. But first we'll venture a few comments.

This post will be the first of several in which we will explore both Casey's "companions" as well as his "counterfeits"-- the culmination of years of research into the first baseball poems to find their way into American culture.

Thorn rightly notes that many of Ernest Thayer's contemporaries grasped the close resemblance of the "Ballad of the Republic" (Thayer's subtitle) to the epic saga of "Horatius," by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  As outlined elsewhere in this blog (see "Why the Ballad of the Republic," October 30, 2019)  , "Casey" should be understood as Thayer's brilliant misprision--a "creative misreading"-- of Macaulay's 1842 ballad. Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome--which contains "Horatius" and other battle-poems--was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century both in Britain and in America. "Horatius" was particularly popular with the generation of Americans born in the 1840's who would fight the Civil War. Ohio Colonel Dan McCook notably inspired his brigade with lines from "Horatius" as they stood to arms before the battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

We know that Thayer and his classmates at the Classical and English High School in Worcester grew up both hearing and participating in recitations of "Horatius" --just as my generation memorized and recited "Casey." Thorn is right that Thayer had a bone to pick with Macaulay--and with his iconoclastic humor (which classmate and Lampoon contributor George Santayana claimed to share) young Ernest turned Macaulay's rollicking Roman triumph into a Mudville tragedy.


Page from physician Arthur Bloomfield's 1954 monograph comparing the texts of "Horatius" and "Casey at the Bat"

The Arthur Bloomfield monograph [1](1954) comparing "Horatius" and "Casey," cited by Thorn, is one of the rarest items in what Martin Gardner referred to as the "Casey canon." A renowned California physician, Bloomfield (1888-1962) cited several of the obvious likenesses between the two ballads--though he missed others. By the mid-20th century, Macaulay's verses were (especially in America) "more admired than read"--a backhanded compliment once applied to Milton's poems. But from Thayer's time on, scholars, poetry lovers, and practitioners of the dramatic arts (like DeWolf Hopper) were convinced that the dramatic framework of "Casey at the Bat" was constructed on a specific classical model.


As Hopper famously opined regarding "Casey," There is no day in the playing season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes for the moment {emphasis mine} does not befall on some field." Hopper should have known that Aristophanes was the Greeks' most famous comic--not tragic-- dramatist, but he 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]

Aristophanes (ca 450 - ca 388 BC), Athenian playwright often called the "Father of Comedy"

One last note before presenting Thorn's "Tale of Two Clowns. " John Thorn adds, after his review of the evidence linking "Horatius" and "Casey:"

For me, the takeaway is that Thayer’s poem is literary — that is, written to be read, whether or not it was ultimately to be performed."

On this one point--and this point only--I dare to disagree with Thorn. "Casey at the Bat" was in fact written to be declaimed--whether or not it was to be read! Hopper's genius, and the source of his undying connection to the saga of "Casey," was his recognition of this fact. Hopper's career-long performance of "Casey" --constantly demanded by Hopper's audiences, even when (as the evidence shows) Hopper occasionally tried to unshackle himself from his alter ego.

For "Casey," just like the saga of his predecessor "Horatius," was from the beginning deeply rooted in the oral tradition of tales and ballads studied and taught by Francis J. Child. As Harvard's first professor of English, Child collected and published the ancient folk ballads of England and Scotland. Thayer's Harvard classmates considered Child the most significant influence on Thayer's poetic style and creativity. In this way, "Casey" owes a significant debt to the spare, unsentimental narratives of the English and Scottish ballads which Thayer learned from Child. From antiquity, these ballads were set to music by poets and minstrels, as referenced in Thayer's subtitle "A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888." And oddly, like the anonymous folk ballads collected by Professor Child, "Casey at the Bat" sprang into American culture seemingly without an author--its origin identified (if at all) only by the cryptic pen name "Phin."


Harvard College's first Professor of English, Francis J. Child (1825-1896), Harvard College Class of '46. Thayer learned the history and art of the folk ballad in Child's class. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (public domain).


[1] Bloomfield, Arthur L. (1888-1962) Horatius at the Bridge & Casey at the Bat. San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, undated. Private folio printing (75 copies) for presentation to the Roxburghe Club, a society of bibliophiles who have met since 1928 in San Francisco. The original Roxburghe Club was formed in England, dating to June 1812 when the enormous library of the late Duke of Roxburghe was put up for auction. Both the San Francisco and English clubs continue to be active.

[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.


A Tale of Two Clowns: Digby Bell’s lost companion piece to “Casey at the Bat”-- from "Our Game" blog by MLB official historian John Thorn

“Casey at the Bat” is an American classic, and deservedly so. When it made its public debut on August 14, 1888, its author was unknown and it had been read only by those who happened to purchase the San Francisco Examiner on June 3 of that year, its only appearance in print. The man who made “Casey” a sensation on Broadway and then across the nation was not the poet, later to be revealed as Ernest Lawrence Thayer, but instead a comic actor named DeWolf Hopper.

Digby Bell (left) and DeWolf Hopper
A baseball night on Broadway: from New York Herald June 4, 1893
Casey’s first appearance in print; SF Examiner, Jone 3, 1888
Grabhorn Press, 1954
Digby Bell, costumed as an Irishman
The Tough Boy on the Right Field Fence, Victor Record, 1909

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