Behind the lines of an American classic
IS any poem more authentically American than “Casey at the Bat?”
By happily making fun of our national pastime, it teaches us the civic virtue of humility and the literary value of irony. It tells us not to be too proud of our past accomplishments or rewards that may come in the future: Watch that banana peel!
It shows us that even a subject as solemn as baseball -- the sacred American baseball! -- can stand a good strong horse laugh to keep it in perspective.
Those are some of the poem’s major virtues. It also has introduced generations of children to the pleasures of poetry. It has taught them rhyme and meter; it has opened willing ears to the unbearable excitement of suspense in a story.
It is, as they say, a bundle of laughs. But behind the rollicking exterior there lurks, as in all true comedy, an Awful Truth: In this world, if you know what is good for you, you cannot afford to strike out.
Where did this thing come from, this tale of hope and woe so solemnly recited by American elders to their young (preferably around a campfire in a handy wilderness nearby)?
John Evangelist Walsh, the cheerful chronicler of many odd and curious bits of American and other history (Edgar Allan Poe’s death, Emily Dickinson’s hidden life, the flight of the Wright brothers, among others) explains it all in a delightful book that explores the poem and its author, as well as the baseball and theater culture of the 1880s.
Thirty-four photographs enhance the book’s nostalgic appeal as Walsh takes us out to the ball game with a devil-may-care mood perfect for the hopeful, innocent days when the first games began.
The poem’s author, it turns out, was a fine-looking, well-to-do young man whose prosperous family owned woolen factories in Worcester, Mass. Ernest L. Thayer was 24, just three years out of Harvard and wondering what to do with himself. He knew he would some day run the mills, but what he really wanted was to be a literary man. He’d been editor of the Harvard Lampoon, the college’s humor magazine, and he had written two shows for the college’s Hasty Pudding Club. And for 18 happy months he worked on the San Francisco Examiner, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst Jr., the father of a classmate.
Like nearly everyone else in America in the 1880s, Thayer got hooked on the new sport, baseball. With its identifiable teams and stars, it appealed to the newly increasing masses of people drawn to big cities who were beginning to have a little extra time and money for spectator sports.
In fact, Thayer did a good deal of enthusiastic baseball writing in San Francisco. It’s fun to read how he slipped into the circumlocutions and extra-fancy writing that the day’s baseball “scribes” were already trying on: The ball, for instance, was referred to as “the spheroid.”
Back home at his parents’ house in Worcester, after the end of a painful love affair, Thayer wrote “Casey” and popped it into the mail to the Examiner.
In San Francisco, A.C. (Archibald Clavering) Gunter, a writer who once was more famous than Mark Twain, spied the poem in the paper of June 3, 1888, and took it back with him to New York. From there, Walsh writes, it found its way into the hands of theatrical producer John A. McCaull. It was he who inserted Thayer’s poem into a popular show, “The Lady or the Tiger,” to be recited by its star, DeWolf Hopper, and thereby “Casey at the Bat” entered American life and lore.
Hopper went on to recite the poem’s 13 stanzas, or 52 lines, thousands of times, and Thayer was happy to let him do so -- without payment. The Victor Record Company made three recordings of Hopper reciting it, all of which proved lucrative.
And who today does not get a thrill from the tense, even ominous opening?:
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
Or in the melodrama’s searing denouement:
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville -- mighty Casey has struck out.
Anthony Day is a former editor of The Times’ editorial pages.