The History of "Casey At The Bat"
The poem, "Casey At The Bat" has almost as rich a history as the game of baseball itself. While its initial publication on June 3, 1888 precedes the "modern age" of baseball, the emotions and the suspense portrayed in the poem are as real today as they were 114 years ago. That, in part, speaks to the magnificence of the piece.
The story of "Casey At The Bat" begins with George Hearst, a United States Senator from California from 1887 until his death in 1891, who had acquired the small San Francisco Examiner as a repayment for a gambling debt. His son, William Randolph Hearst, upon his graduation from Harvard College, where he had been editor of The Harvard Lampoon, took over the responsibility of The Examiner. Hearst brought with him three members of the Lampoon staff; Eugene Lent, F. H. Briggs, and Ernest L. Thayer. Thayer wrote a humor column for the Examiner using the pseudonym of "Phin," his college nickname of Phinney. On June 3, 1888, supposedly on page 4 of the Sunday edition of The Examiner, reportedly for a grandiose sum of $5, a poem entitled "Casey at the Bat, a Ballad of The Republic" appeared over the name "Phin".
It was met with practically no accolades. In fact, the only response to its publication was the reprinting of the last eight stanzas in one of New York City's newspapers, the New York Sun a few weeks later with the author listed as "Anonymous".
Then the novelist Archibald Clavering Gunter entered the picture. In today's world of high finance baseball, Gunter would most likely have served as Casey's agent. Gunter in his travels was always looking for something interesting and apparently cut out the poem when it was first published in The Examiner and put it in a file as something that might prove to be fodder for a future novel.
"Casey" remained in Gunter's files until August of that year when Gunter read that the Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Chicago Cubs) and the New York Giants (now known as the San Francisco Giants) would be attending a performance of the comedian, De Wolf Hopper, at Wallack's Theater (Broadway and 30th Street, the current location of Macy's) in New York City. Gunter and Hopper were good friends and Gunter gave Hopper the clipping of "Casey" and suggested that the baseball teams would enjoy a recitation.
Reportedly earlier that August 14, 1888 day Hopper, a big baseball fan, had attended the game between Chicago and New York at the old Polo Grounds and that evening Chicago stars like Cap Anson and Hugh Duffy, and Giant stars like John Montgomery Ward and Buck Ewing joined with the New York elite for this black-tie performance of Hopper and "Casey". In his memoir "Once a Clown Always a Clown, Hopper wrote of this first reading, "When I dropped my voice to B flat, below low C, at 'but one scornful look from Casey, and the audience was awed,' I remember seeing Buck Ewing's gallant mustachios give a single nervous twitch."
While Casey, as per usual, struck out, Hopper had homered. The New York World newspaper reported, "The audience literally went wild with enthusiasm." Hopper and "Casey" were such a huge success that three people immediately claimed to be the anonymous author, Phin, in the hopes of getting Hooper to give them royalties for the performance of the poem. None could provide legitimate authorship and Hopper kept it in the act. A number of years later, however, Thayer attended Hopper's performance in Worcester, Massachusetts. He gave Hopper the rights to perform "Casey" without having to pay royalties in part because in spite of the enormous popularity of the ballad, Thayer considered it a minor accomplishment.
But "Casey" had a major league impact on the American public who embraced the poem and embraced Hopper, who estimated he performed "Casey" over 10,000 times. Little could Thayer have imagined the impact his poem would have on audiences over the last 114 years as "Casey At The Bat" has found its place in the batting order of the most famous of all American poems.
Like baseball itself, "Casey At The Bat" is shared from generation to generation. Hall-of-Fame pitcher and baseball raconteur, Dizzy Dean said, "Let the teachers learn the kids English. Ol' Diz will learn the kids baseball." The mighty "Casey" does both.
Compiled by Bill Chuck.