“Casey at the Bat” and its Long Post-Game Show
This year marks the 125th anniversary of “Casey at the Bat,” a 52-line narrative about the ninth inning of a professional baseball game, which is perhaps the most enduring poem of American popular culture. Its only rival for that distinction is Clement Moore’s 1823 poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“Casey at the Bat” captured public attention in an era when newspapers, not literary journals, were the main channel of distribution for poetry. The San Francisco Examiner published “Casey” as the work of “Phin” (an undergraduate nickname of the author) on June 3, 1888. The following month The New York Sporting Times published an unauthorized and outrageously edited version, and then the New York Sun reprinted the original text shortly thereafter.
The Sun publication caught the eye of a successful comedian named De Wolfe Hopper (whose son William would later star as the detective Paul Drake on The Perry Mason Show). With future Hall of Famer Tim Keefe and many New York Giants in the audience, Hopper recited “Casey” in an August 1888 performance and allegedly recited it over ten thousand times over the course of a career built primarily on these recitations. You can read the original text of “Casey” and hear a Hopper performance of the poem at www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_case.shtml.
Tens of millions of Americans memorized these 13 quatrains of somewhat ragged fourteeners. (Fourteeners are written in lines typically having 14 syllables and seven feet.) Parodies and unauthorized “sequels” soon followed, and in 1926 the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a tribute poem called “He Never Heard of Casey!” that mocked a fictional odd duck who had never heard of the poem. Rice also wrote his poem in quatrains of ragged fourteeners, although he needed one more quatrain than “Casey” did. You can read Rice’s poem at www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_case4.shtml. The Secretary’s Report for the 30th reunion of Thayer’s Harvard Class complained about all these parodies and imitations, in addition to complaining about Anheuser-Busch’s use of the poem to sell beer.
“Casey” stimulated artistic as well as beer executives’ imaginations. In addition to a 1927 silent film version in which the author refused to appear, Disney released a film adaptation in 1946. In 1955 the highbrow CBS show Omnibus broadcast William Schuman’s opera “The Mighty Casey,” which played to sharply divided reviews. You can judge the merits of its title song for yourself at www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7peip8e1ps.
Rod Serling’s legendary TV show, The Twilight Zone, broadcast an ill-fated episode called “The Mighty Casey” in 1960. It involved a robot named Casey who played baseball; the episode had to be reshot because one of the lead actors was visibly ill and died shortly thereafter of a heart attack. The poem subsequently popped up from time to time on other hit shows such as Northern Exposure and The Simpsons. Rock stars also appreciated the poem; there are allusions to it in the lyrics of Joe Walsh, John Fogerty, Blues Traveler, and Death Cab for Cutie. Garrison Keillor wrote a poem from the perspective of his imagined Mudville Nine opponents, the Dustburg Nine, which concludes:
But there is no joy in Dustburg, no joy so pure and sweet
As when the mighty Casey fell, demolished at our feet.
Beloved polymath Martin Gardner edited a version of “Casey at the Bat” in 1967 and future Poet Laureate Donald Hall published an edition in 1988. Stephen Jay Gould, the distinguished science writer, alluded to the poem in the title of his 2004 book, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville.
As with “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” authorship of “Casey” was originally unclear. Opportunists tried to claim the poem as their own, most notably George Whitefield D’Vys (1860-1941), and there are still some holdout conspiracy theorists who challenge the authorship of Ernest Lawrence Thayer. Thayer was a brilliant philosophy student but an awkward man who was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 14, 1863, into a wealthy Massachusetts manufacturing family. After graduating from Worcester Classical High, where he was the editor of a satirical underground paper called the Monohippic Gazette, he entered Harvard in 1881, edited The Harvard Lampoon from 1884-1885, and graduated magna cum laude in Philosophy (having studied under William James) in 1885.
Thayer’s Harvard Lampoon staff was talented and privileged. Future philosopher George Santayana was an editor who focused on illustrations, and William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane, was a business editor. Thayer was neither the most accomplished nor prolific poet of his peer group; most of his contributions were brief “insider” prose pieces. The Lampoon’s premier poet, Thomas Parker Sanborn, succeeded Thayer as editor in 1886, then committed suicide in 1889.
Thayer wrote at least 11 credited poems for the Lampoon, and probably deserves full or partial credit for some of the anonymous work. His debut, in 1882, was a dreadful long poem called “The Soldier’s Prayer,” which Thayer apparently intended as a spoof of P.T. Barnum. It involves a female horseback rider with dramatic hair, in addition to an armless soldier who nonetheless manages to lift his arm. Almost equally bad was “Wit VS. Strength,” three quatrains in heroic couplets that emphatically argue without wit or apparent irony that it is swell that modern men woo modern women with words rather than swords. The young Thayer’s “A Spring Morning” borders on the incoherent and his unrhymed quatrain “To a Boardinghouse Steak” is a butchered attempt to be funny based on failed wordplay between “chews” and “choose.”
Thayer’s Harvard poems have just a few hints of either “Casey” or any poetic talent at all. I will spare you the forty-nine quatrains of his mock epic “Ye Romaunt of a Warte,” but this narrative about Hermann of England, an antihero with a skin problem who survives a trick ending, does perhaps flash a few slight intimations of “Casey.”
Much of Thayer’s better juvenilia discussed young love. As Lampoon editor his senior year, he allowed himself the indulgence of publishing a sober but sweet love lyric called “Love and Music,” which ends clumsily with mixed metaphors. “The Landlord’s Cruel Daughter” is twenty lines of dull set-up for a moderately amusing punch line.
The paired four-line poems “Rhapsody” and “Recantation,” while awkwardly executed, are punchier than “The Landlord’s Cruel Daughter” and involve the successful premise of a young man quickly falling in love and then falling out of love just as quickly based on a second look at his beloved. To my mind, Thayer’s most successful Lampoon poems were his taut 1883 “A Pastoral” with its weird but hilarious punch line and his self-deprecatory 1884 “How Maria Felt” (despite the atrocious “inquire/Maria” rhyme). I am grateful to Harvard University for allowing Light to publish these poems for the first time since the Administration of Chester A. Arthur:
Cheering are sweet Thetis’ smiles;
Cheering, too, are riches;
But nothing’s quite so cheering as
A hornet in your breeches.
How Maria Felt
I held her soft warm hand in mine
Good gracious, how it thrilled me!
Its contact made me feel divine
And with sweet po’sy filled me.
I wondered if my horny palm
Produced a sim’lar feelin’;
And thought it wouldn’t do no harm
To find out by appealin’.
But ’fore I could of her inquire
She cried out sudden, “Sammy!”—
I softly murmured, “yes, Maria”—
“Your hand is cold and clammy.”
In 1886 Hearst persuaded Thayer, who had been practicing his French in Paris for a year, to become a humorist for one of his family’s newspapers, The San Francisco Examiner. Thayer also apparently wrote whatever needed writing, from editorials to advertisements, as well as light verse either anonymously or under the name of “Phin.”
In 1887 Hearst also recruited Ambrose Bierce, future author of the classic The Devil’s Dictionary, by knocking unannounced on the door of Bierce’s Oakland apartment. “Casey at the Bat” would appear for the first time next to Bierce’s weekly column, “The Prattler.” Given Bierce’s humble beginnings and disdain for pretension, my guess is that he loathed his effete young colleague, but regrettably there is no historical record on that point.
“Casey” was probably a bit of a surprise for Thayer’s readers in 1888; many of his poems in that election year bolstered his employer’s Democratic editorial stance, such as “The Republican War Song,” which appeared on July 5, 1888:
The Republican War Song
“Oh, give us free whiskey, free whiskey and rum!”
It’s the rattle of every true patriot’s drum!
We’ll shout it through sunshine, we’ll yell it through storm,
Free whiskey and glory, free rum and reform!
Death, death to the traitorous, hell-minded crew,
Who talk of reducing war revenue;
Who prate of the surplus—Great Jupiter! We
Will swallow the surplus when whiskey is free.
Then down with the Democrats, infamous band,
With their plots to bring woe on our dear native land,
With their schemes to make cheaper our products and pave
The land of the free with the stiffs of the brave.
That clothing is costly cannot be denied,
But when whiskey is free we will warm our inside;
And when rum’s to be gotten our joys to enhance,
We can walk on our uppers and stop wearing pants.
Oh, when whiskey is free the eagle shall shriek,
For we’ll load him with whiskey clean up to the beak;
And we’ll guess old England will hesitate some
About sassing our eagle when chock-full of rum.
Free whiskey and rum, then, is what we demand.
Free whiskey and rum—on that issue we stand.
We’ll shoot it through sunshine, we’ll yell it through storm,
Free whiskey and glory, free rum and REFORM!
“The Republican War Song” shows us a more thematically and technically mature Thayer. While the poem has some clunky moments and metrical filler, the unexpected “stop wearing pants” has some of the delightful surprise of his punchline, “A hornet in your breeches,” and the image of the American eagle getting loaded is both very funny and very effective rhetorically.
Thayer followed “War Song” on July 11, 1888, with this similarly-themed abecedarian in rhymed couplets of an erratic meter:
Republican Politics for Young Americans
A is for Alger, who bought up a boom.
B is for Blaine whose withdrawal left room.
C the Convention, which made a great break.
D is Depew, who got none of the cake.
E was for Eels—delegates from the South.
F for Foraker, who is troubled with mouth.
G is the Gresham they easily beat.
H is for Harrison, doomed to defeat.
I is one Ingalls, who wanted it bad.
J was for the Jubilee the Chinamen had.
K was the Knife the Blaine men displayed.
L is for Lincoln, who ran away dismayed.
M is for Morton, whose money is needed.
N is Blaine’s No, which they shouldn’t have heeded.
O is for Office, long sought by these cranks.
P is for Platform, made up of queer planks.
Q is the Quarrels of factions contending.
R is the Ruin, that is later impending.
S is for Sherman, whose boom always busts.
T is the Tariff in favor of trusts.
U is the Union they wish to roll over.
V is the Votes they need to beat Grover.
W, the Workman with taffy they tease.
X, Xplanations about the Chinese.
Y is the Yarns they already are spinning.
Z is for Zero, their chances of winning.
Thayer seemed to have tired of his task at this point, but plodded on. He went after Benjamin Harrison, who won the election anyway, with a snarky “Ben Serenades the Workingman” on August 5, 1888. Despite the irony of Thayer going after anyone on the basis of pedigree, he followed that piece with “Benny’s Little Pedigree” on August 10, 1888, a nasty little piece which played on local prejudice against the Chinese. Apparently short of new invective, on August 12, 1888, Thayer recycled the pedigree and Chinese themes in a dull song lyric called “Grandfather’s Ghost.” On August 19, 1888, he produced yet another anti-Harrison song lyric called “When Jimmy Pulls the String.” To be fair, Ambrose Bierce’s anti-Harrison poems in the Examiner were not much better.
Before the publication of “Casey” in 1888, Thayer had returned to the family home at 67 Grafton Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, to recover from an illness; he mailed in “Casey” from Worcester and received five dollars for it and subsequent poems. He never returned to The San Francisco Examiner and began puttering in the family textile business.
Around 1893, Thayer disclosed his authorship to Hopper and the two went out drinking together, probably at the Worcester Club. At his 10th Harvard reunion in 1895, Thayer recited “Casey” and publicly acknowledged his authorship. Although the subsequent paper trail is limited, he apparently did little work for American Woolen Mills and wrote little, if any, poetry except for a brief period from 1896-1897, when he eked out a few poems for The New York Journal which I will discuss later in the essay; he seems to have spent much of his time reading philosophy and classical literature. He “semi-retired” by 1903 and had ample time to write a 1905 letter attacking “King” Kelly for claiming to have written “Casey,” a safe attack because Kelly had died in 1894.
After traveling in Europe, particularly Italy, for several years, in 1912 Thayer retired, if that is the appropriate word, to Montecito, a small affluent town outside of Santa Barbara, California. On September 9, 1913, he married a widow, Rosalind Buell Hammett, whom he had met in a local hotel the previous year. With this marriage he acquired a stepson, who would commit suicide in 1945. During World War I, Thayer served as the publicity chair for three Liberty Loan drives, while Rosalind volunteered for the Red Cross.
At Thayer’s 50th Harvard reunion in 1935, he was greeted by a banner celebrating his authorship of “Casey.” When Thayer died in 1940, he received less respect in his New York Times obituary, which quoted the ungrateful De Wolfe Hopper describing a Thayer reading: “In a sweet dulcet Harvard whisper he implored ‘Casey’ to murder the umpire, and gave this cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers on a velvet carpet.” Thayer’s widow passed away in 1956.
For all its fame, the doggerel of “Casey” has discouraged scholars from examining it closely, which is unfortunate because the poem is interesting in several respects. Perhaps most importantly, “Casey” was the first significant piece of American literature to recognize our obsession with organized sports. It is easy for us to forget that in 1888 football had no professional teams, basketball had not even been invented, and professional baseball was a new and fragile enterprise. The phrase “the patrons of the game” in line 4 of “Casey” reminds us of that newness because it uses the language of opera to describe the crowd rather than the term “fans” that would later become the obligatory word for people who support a team.
Although Thayer would always deny that a slugging catcher/outfielder named Mike “King” Kelly inspired his Casey, that denial persuaded few people even at the time. Kelly had been purchased for what was then an enormous sum ($10,000) by Thayer’s hometown team, the Boston Beaneaters (subsequently the Boston Braves, then Milwaukee Braves, and then Atlanta Braves). He led the 1888 Braves with a .318 batting average and was second in home runs with nine (www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BSN/1888.shtml). Casey’s inspiration was sufficiently clear that the bastardized version of the poem published by New York Sporting News substituted Kelly’s name for Casey’s; after Kelly’s career ended, he performed “Casey,” quite poorly by all accounts, in vaudeville shows.
Thayer would eventually acknowledge to The Syracuse Post-Standard that he had drawn the name “Casey” from “a big dour Irish lad of my high school days,” almost certainly a very large classmate and future teacher named Daniel Henry Casey. Apparently some joke on Casey by Thayer went over badly; in a letter to the Post-Standard printed on September 3, 1935, Thayer states that he remembers Casey’s “big clenched hands were white at the knuckles.”
Thayer’s passion for classical literature helped him sense that the public had begun thinking of King Kelly and other stars as epic heroes. Infused with class and ethnic prejudices typical of privileged people of the time (as many as 40 percent of the professional baseball players of this era were Irish in an era when Harvard almost totally excluded the Irish from its student body), Thayer saw this hero worship as a ripe area for satire. Accordingly, he used an expansion of the heroic couplet, rhymed fourteeners, to create a mock-heroic tone for his satire.
A.E. Stallings, a contemporary poet who expertly pulled off rhymed fourteeners in her translation of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, notes in her introduction the wide influence of George Chapman’s (1559-1634) translations of Homer’s Iliad and Arthur Golding’s (1536-1605) translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These works almost surely inspired Thayer even though he doggerelized their meter for comic effect.
Stallings suggested to me the likely additional influence of Thomas Macaulay’s (1800-1859) once-popular Lays of Ancient Rome, retellings of classical tales in a style and form similar to those of “Casey.” She also noted that the title “Casey at the Bat” may echo the title of Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge” and that the first line of both poems includes the word “nine,” a feature which she describes as “almost a winking invocation to the Muses.” Ann Lindblad, too, pointed out a probable connection between these two poems in a 2007 newspaper article.
Casey’s mock-heroic tone helps to set the expectations that Thayer then tried to deflate with his surprising final line. Thayer fails to deflate Casey’s heroic stature, however, because in the minds of baseball “patrons,” Casey remains “mighty.” We know that baseball is a game where even the best fail most of the time and we sympathize with Casey rather than ridicule him; baseball, like life, offers no guarantees. In other words, we remember a poem very different from the satire that Thayer intended us to remember.
Thayer’s final couplet wasn’t his only attempt to smear, rather than glamorize, baseball. In describing the crowd of 5,000 (a huge number for the era), Thayer ominously declares that the stands are “black with people.” The crowd calls for the death of the umpire, and in lines 35 to 36, Thayer assures us that they meant what they yelled. This description is not unfair; violence (and other forms of bad behavior) in the stands of 1888 was not uncommon.
Thayer also takes shots at the star and his hometown. The ballplayer’s mouth forms a “sneer” and, strikingly (pun intended), his teeth “are clenched in hate” (recall he described the high school Casey’s “clenched” fists”). Indeed, even the location of the team, “Mudville,” is derogatory. With all due respect to the claims of Stockton and Holliston, Boston probably inspired “Mudville” because of the Kelly connection and the disdain of residents of both Worcester and Cambridge for their larger urban rival. For what it is worth, the New York Sporting Journal changed the location of the game to Boston when it changed Casey’s name to Kelly. None of these characterizations, though, ultimately diminished Casey’s mightiness in the American imagination.
For decades Thayer fought the idea that “Casey” was his legacy and he refused countless offers to promote or profit from the poem. His brief second act at The New York Journal from 1896 to 1897 did not expand his legacy. Although some of his work from that period is undoubtedly lost among other anonymous poems, he did publish two poems under his own name, both of which have Irish characters as the target of his satire.
The shorter of these two Journal poems, ascribed to “Phinny Thayer,” was “Malony’s Wife.”
The boys do kiss Malony’s wife,
And it’s wrong.
But you can’t resist her to save your life
You ought not to do what it’s wrong to do,
But you look at her and she looks at you,
And then you commit Malony to
Malony’s wife comes passing by,
As it were;
And firm is the gait and cool is the eye
There’s merely a wee bit lift of the brow
But it says quite plain, “Where are you now?”
And ye pick one off, no matter how,
I’ll sup with the wife and Malony, too,
He’ll sit and read his whole meal through,
“O’Shane,” says she, “will yes have a bun?”
There’s a glint in her eye and the deed is done.
“Malony,” thinks you, “yer a son of a gun,
But speak no ill of Malony’s wife,
Her heart is gold and as true as life,
It’s sly St. Vitus, with imp’s design,
Who tickles a nerve of her eye divine;
She isn’t to blame, but she takes it fine
For a cure.
I’ll start on a positive note. The form of the poem is inventive, if not unique. One can also imagine an eye twitch being mistaken for a come-on as a promising premise for a Saturday Night Live skit, but this poem is poorly executed even by the standards of the day. As with several of Thayer’s Lampoon poems, it is mostly a mechanical accumulation of clichés padded with metrical filler. The main virtue of the second and third stanzas is that they lull the reader into a bored haze that sets up the surprise punchline. The syntax is awful, even for doggerel, because it makes the poem’s meaning unclear. One has to reread the third and fourth lines to infer that Thayer is trying to say you can’t resist Malony’s wife “for long.” Similarly, the wandering appositive “His Star” in the third stanza is awkwardly forced. More importantly, Thayer doesn’t seem interested in exploring the comic possibilities of his premise, only in slogging through to his punchline.
Unfortunately, “Malony’s Wife” is the better of the two poems. Thayer’s last attributed poem is an eighty-eight line hot mess called “The Very Moving Ballad of Ross McCann.” It appeared on November 1, 1896, with elaborate comic illustrations, including a baseball batter and a banner crediting “E.L. Thayer author of ‘Casey at the Bat.’” It is written in ballad stanzas, probably due to the influence of W.S. Gilbert’s The Bab Ballads, a collection Thayer admired greatly. Despite the almost postmodern sensibility of the title, the poem is not funny and, ultimately, not even coherent.
Thayer takes up fifteen lines of faux-quaint ungrammatical warmup before he even mentions McGann in the fourth stanza:
For, were that heart of adamant,
Or you or any other man,
Must well—I tell it well, I grant—
To hear on Ross McGann.
In the eighth stanza we learn that “Ross McGann was hated by a man.” In the tenth stanza this unknown man for unknown reasons beats McGann to “(a) bleeding corse, all but.” For unexplained reasons, McGann, rather than his assailant, serves a long jail sentence. The poem concludes in this excruciating way:
His hair was white, his gait was slow.
His timid glance about
Betrayed a nature crushed, and, oh!
His sands must soon run out.
Too long the sport of wanton fate,
Too long that heart had bled
And when the birds began to mate
His gentle spirit fled.
Henceforth on angel’s wings he’ll skim
Through Heaven’s unmeasured reach;
Let’s hope the saints who skim with him
Are guarded in their speech.
This literary effort marks Thayer’s last known turn at the literary bat. As with all his other swings other than “Casey,” he whiffs. His legacy lies with one poem that Americans have interpreted in a way he never intended, and it is their defanged reading that has made this poem a sentimental favorite of our culture.
Casway, J. Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball. Terre Haute: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.
Dooley, L. “How ‘Casey at the Bat’ Became a Hit” June 5, 1988 Albany Times Union.
Gardner, M. The Annotated Casey at the Bat. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1995.
Lindblad, A. “The Casey Connection; Poem penned in Worcester” April 25, 2007 Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Lucretius & Stallings, A. (trans.). The Nature of Things. London, Penguin Group, 2007.
Redmond, M. “ ‘Casey at the Bat’ Author Lived in Montecito” November 12, 2012 Santa Barbara Independent.
Roe, A. Worcester Classical High School and English High School: A Record of Forty-Seven Years. Worcester: Self-published, 1892.
Rosenberg, H. Cap Anson 2: The Theatrical and Kingly Mike Kelly. Arlington: Tile Books, 2004.
Zezima, K. “Mudville Journal; In ‘Casey’ Rhubarb, 2 Cities Cry
‘Foul!’ ” March 31, 2004 New York Times.
“Prominent Alumni” at www.godeke.org/Deke_Alumni_Ernest_Thayer.html
“Ernest Lawrence Thayer” at www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03512.html
Thirtieth Anniversary Report (Report VIII) of the Secretary of the Class of 1885 of Harvard College
I am grateful to my friends Michael Peich and Alicia Stallings for their important contributions to this essay; all mistakes are mine. I am also grateful to my research assistants, Brittany Fishman and Alexander Smith, for their work in the New York City Public Library and University of California at Berkeley Library. Finally, I am grateful to the Harvard University Archivist for permission to republish material from The Harvard Lampoon.
A.M. Juster‘s most recent books are Horace’s Satires (U Penn Press 2008) and Tibullus’ Elegies (Oxford University Press 2012). His book of original poetry, The Secret Language of Women (University of Evansville Press 2003), won the Richard Wilbur Award and he is a three-time winner of The Formalist‘s Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. In his senior year of high school, Mike threw a four-inning no-hitter in an exhibition game and yet his team still managed to lose 2-1.