The Lit Maven

Baseball and Poetry – who would have thought?

Posted on: July 30, 2013

The 2013 baseball season is mid-way through. Since the All-Star Game is now over and in the history books, media and fans alike will start World Series speculation.  Teams as well as individual players will work on their statistics, break records, injure themselves and opposing team players, sweat, spit, crack bats and get thrown out of games.  Let the excitement begin!

It was a bit early in the 1888 baseball season (June 3) when William Randolph Hearst’s The San Francisco Examiner featured a 13-stanza poem about a star-slugger named Casey.  It was written by a staff member, Ernest Thayer (1863-1940), who signed his poem as “Phin”, a throwback pseudonym from his days at Harvard. A few weeks later, Casey at the Bat: a Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888, was republished partially in The New York SunDe Wolf Hopper, a popular actor and singer known for his skill in comedy, performed the poem for an audience that included members of the New York Giants and the Chicago White Stockings at Wallack’s Theater on Broadway on August 14, 1888.  He went on to perform the poem at least 10000 before his death in 1935.  That first performance is considered legendary to this day and brought attention to a poem that had largely been unnoticed in San   Francisco.  The authorship of Casey remained a mystery until around 1901. Thayer was very humble about his poetic accomplishments for decades and finally ‘fessed up to writing it, although he felt disgusted by the several authorship claims of others.  By the time he was discovered as the poet, the independently-wealthy Thayer had returned to his native Massachusetts, helped his family run a mill, married, and wrote articles on philosophy.   Another mystery that surrounds the poem to this day is the identity of Casey himself.  Speculation is that the player is Mike “King” Kelly, a Boston baseball star in the 1880’s.  Thayer covered the team as a reporter in the 1987-88 off-season. Perhaps Kelly did inspire him, but he never confessed to it or denied it.  Casey at the Bat has been republished and reworked into movies, songs, an opera and countless performances and Mighty Casey himself is as much of an American folk legend as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. The Baseball Almanac calls it “the single most famous baseball poem ever written”.  So, take a good long read and, when your favorite team player strikes out in the bottom of the 9th inning to lose the World Series this year, remember that there was no joy in Mudville either.

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