Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Finding joy in Muddville: The Literary Mystery of Casey at the Bat

The crack of the bat is certainly a sound that many associate with summer. And what better way to celebrate that than with a little poem. But not just any ordinary poem…but with the legendary and beloved baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat”.

Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”, despite being memorized by generations of American kids, is considered to be a modern literary mystery, its origins clouded with a bit of intrigue about where the poem came from, and just who wrote it.

“Casey” first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, and it was first made popular that same year by the actor, comedian, and baseball fan, DeWolfe Hopper. Hopper made it a national sensation when he declaimed it in a New York theater in August, 1888 in front of his beloved New York Giants on the day his dear friend (and Hall of Fame pitcher) Tim Keefe had his nineteen game winning streak stopped.

Hopper went on to recite it countless times on the Vaudeville circuit, on radio, and even as a short film in 1923. It also became famously attributed to Victorian baseball legend Mike “King” Kelly, but Kelly was not the author, but rather like Hopper, recited the poem (poorly, in fact) before audiences. With Kelly and Hopper, by the turn of the 20th century, “Casey” had become part of the modern American cannon.

Our beloved “Casey” first appeared in a hard cover book fourteen years later, 1902, in the volume, A Treasury of Humorous Poetry: Being a Compilation of Witty, Facetious, & Satirical Verse Selected from the Writings of British & American Poets. Dedicated to one of America’s greatest satirists, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and edited by Frederic Lawrence Knowles, it was published by Dana, Estes & Company. Knowles inclusion of “Casey” was logical, but unfortunately, the poem was misattributed to one “Joseph Quinlan Murphy”, an error which was soon corrected, by striking Murphy’s name from the author index in front of the book and properly crediting Thayer in the poem index at the rear. The copy featured here is the original uncorrected printing and is part of Hoole Special Collections Library’s Rare Books collection.

Miscredited "Casey" from Hoole's copy, page 299.

Today we are more than reasonably sure that Thayer was in fact the author of “Casey”. Thayer graduated from Harvard in 1885 and was hired by William Randolph Hearst as the humor columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, a post he held from 1886-1888. On June 3, 1888, Thayer signed his name as “Phin” to the very last piece he wrote for the Examiner, a poem entitled “Casey,” adding to the confusion over who actually wrote the poem. It is also said that Thayer denied having written the poem for some time, than later recanted.

(Corrected 1919 edition from Google Books)

At his Harvard class reunion in 1895, Thayer recited the poem himself, lending further credence to his place as the author of this beloved poem.

“Casey” lives on in many forms, an American legend, memorialized in a 1927 movie, Walt Disney cartoons, and a commemorative postage stamp, as well as books, and ballads that respond to “Casey” by numerous authors. The following are just a few noteworthy performances of and homages to “Casey at the Bat”, by Hopper, Disney, James Earl Jones, and Jackie Gleason.

No comments: