The Joy of Mudville
By Bill Chuck
June 3, 2002 marks the 114th anniversary of "Casey At The Bat," a poem so timeless that it's been ingrained in our culture for more than a century.
As befitting its broad appeal, "Casey At The Bat" has been performed countless times in countless settings. It has been performed in theatres, ballparks, and classrooms. It has been performed on a stage in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, and it has even been performed on "Saturday Night Live."
There are traditional performances, and some not as traditional. For example, one unique performance begins with the large magician/illusionist, Penn Jillette holding in his hand a red rope that suspends his partner, the meek, the mild, Teller, up in the air. By the way, Teller is in a strait jacket AND hanging upside down, AND suspended over sharp wooden spikes.
Penn, in his big, booming voice makes clear to the audience that if (and when) the rope is released Teller will be impaled upon the spikes. Penn then ties the rope to a folding chair, sits down, and explains that he will read a poem from the book he is holding. At the reading's completion, Penn will stand up and take a bow, at which point the chair will go flying up and Teller will go flying down. Penn then leafs through his book, finds the poem of his choice, and starts reading aloud to the audience. Thus begins the Penn & Teller performance of "Casey At The Bat." The likelihood is that this is the most unusual, and certainly most dangerous, reading of America's classic baseball poem written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer and published first on June 3, 1888.
De Wolf Hopper, a comedian/actor has become the actor most synonymous as the voice of "Casey" having performed it over 10,000 times by his own estimation. Hopper was the first to perform it August 14, 1888 on Wallack's Theatre in New York City and he started a long and glorious tradition of performance, for example:
For many children the first voice of "Casey at the Bat" that they hear is that of Jerry Colonna, one of Bob Hope's sidekicks, who provided the voice over in Disney's 1946, cartoon classic, "Casey At The Bat." Since then, radio humorist Garrison Keillor, has performed his version of "Casey" and to no one's surprise, baseball aficionado and voice of the fans, Bob Costas, has performed it as well.
You might find it scary to hear the Vincent Price rendition of Casey but reassuring to hear it read by the mellifluous voice of James Earl Jones.
You will always remember Ralph Kramden, but Jackie Gleason's reading of "Casey" is unforgettable.
The Favorite Poem Project is the brainchild of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky who believes that poetry is a vocal art, an art meant to be read aloud. On May 8, 2000, as part of the project, Pinsky celebrated the baseball season with "Casey at the Bat" read by Lee Samuel, a young fan from Atlanta.
There are stories of fifth-graders reciting the words and famous Mass General Hospital surgeons and politicians performing in classrooms and in front of Pops Orchestras throughout the world but there is also the story of Hall-of-Famer Ralph Kiner as a child reciting it to a truant officer, named John Casey.
Teammates of former Chicago Cub, Boston Celtics, and television's "Rifleman" recall Chuck Connors performing "Casey" in the locker room.
Peter Nero, the Music Director of the Philly Pops Orchestra and Florida Philharmonic recorded Frank Proto's musical, "Casey at the Bat" with the Philly Pops and former relief pitcher Tug McGraw as the narrator. Hall-of-Fame catcher, Johnny Bench performed it with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Amongst the many works of American musician and composer, William Schuman, were The Mighty Casey (opera), Casey at the Bat (cantata), and the separately published Choruses from the Mighty Casey: The Orchestra Song and The Band Song. Schuman's "Casey At The Bat" opera premiered on May 4, 1953, in Hartford, Connecticut and has been performed by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as well.
Composer and concert bassist Frank Proto performed his "Casey" concert hundreds of times with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Robert Merrill brought joy with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington's Kennedy Center.
You'll be speechless if you see mime Michael Trautman silently perform the story from the pitcher's point of view.
As long as there is someone who knows what a baseball is, there will be someone reading or reciting "Casey At The Bat". Someone like Penn Gillette who reads with drama, emotion, and as Teller makes progress escaping, Penn reads the mighty poem with increasing speed, practically racing as his partner seems ready to escape. And if the esteemed Mr. Thayer will forgive the poetic license:
"Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy for Penn Gillette - silent Teller has jumped out."
Bill Chuck is a contributor to MLB.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its