Transcript of Episode 1, Sept. 25, 2017
KING KAUFMAN –– DeWolf Hopper was a musical theater star, and a real New York Giants “crank” – that’s what they called fans back in 1888. He was starring in the comic opera Prince Methusalem when he brought the whole company up to the Polo Grounds to watch the local nine play the Chicago White Stockings, who we now know as the Cubs. At the game, the showbiz folks invited the ballplayers to come to their show that night, and Hopper wanted to think of something special to do for them on the stage. He had a friend named Archibald Gunter, a novelist, who had just the thing: a newspaper clipping he’d saved on a recent trip to San Francisco. It was a poem. Hopper loved it. He quickly memorized all 13 stanzas and, between acts that night, he began.
DEWOLF HOPPER — The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville 9 that day
The score stood 4 to 2 with but one inning more to play
And so when Cooney died at first and Barrows did the same
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game
KAUFMAN –– It was Casey at the Bat. That’s a recording of Hopper from 1920, but it all started that night back in ’88. Casey was a sensation. The newspapers reported audience members standing on their chairs and cheering.
JOHN THORN — The shock of its first public recitation by DeWolf Hopper, August 14th, 1888, was that a happy ending was expected.
KAUFMAN ––John Thorn is an author and the official historian of Major League Baseball.
THORN — The slugger is going to hit the ball, Mudville is going to be joyful. So to have it all fall apart at the end is cataclysmically wonderful.
KAUFMAN –– Decades later, Hopper wrote that as he recited Casey that first time, he dropped his voice to B flat below C on “the multitude was awed.”
HOPPER — (But one scornful look from Casey and) the audience was awed.
KAUFMAN –– Hopper wrote that he was watching the great Giants catcher Buck Ewing and saw his gallant mustachios…
IMPERSONATED HOPPER — …mustachios give a single nervous twitch. And as the house, after a moment of startled silence, grasped the anticlimactic denouement, it shouted its glee! — DeWolf Hopper
KAUFMAN –– The anticlimactic denouement is that Casey strikes out. I didn’t give you a spoiler alert because, come on, you know that, right? “There is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casey has struck out.” Everybody knows that. But do you know any other 19th century poems? Maybe the Night Before Christmas or the midnight ride of Paul Revere, but beyond that? And here’s this one little bit of verse about a fictional baseball game. It’s tucked onto Page 4 of a newspaper 130 years ago. That survives. It’s hard to think about it because Casey at the Bat is so familiar, but when you think about it: What the hell?
I’m King Kaufman, and this is Can’t Win 4 Losing, a podcast about losing. In this episode: Casey at the Bat. A poem about a guy who strikes out with the game on the line, written by a guy who didn’t want anything to do with it after it was published. Rub some dirt on your hands, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. This is Can’t Win 4 Losing.
The poem’s full title is Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888. The guy who wrote it, Ernest Lawrence Thayer, was a one-hit wonder, the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch of poetry. It was such a smash he could have written nothing else for the rest of his life and he’d still be famous for it. And that’s pretty much what happened.
ACTOR — (A straggling few got up) to go in deep despair, the rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast
They thought if only Casey could but get but a whack at that
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat
KAUFMAN –– Thayer had been a brilliant student at Harvard and the editor of the Harvard Lampoon, where he had a pal named William Randolph Hearst. Young Will was given the San Francisco Examiner to run by his dad, and he talked Thayer into coming west and writing funny columns and verses. This went on for a couple of years before Thayer went home to Massachusetts to run the family business, woolen mills. He’d already gone east when he sent in his last piece: Casey at the Bat.
ACTOR — But Flynn proceeded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake
And the former was a lulu, and the latter was a cake
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat
HOPPER –– But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball!
And when the dust had lifted …
ACTOR –– and the men saw what had occurred
There was Jimmy safe at second, and Flynn a-huggin third
KAUFMAN –– DeWolf Hopper knew he had a hit on his hands with Casey, and he performed it for the rest of his life, more than 10,000 times by his count. This was before copyright law, so it was reprinted in newspapers, books and magazines, parodied for decades on end. Grantland Rice practically made a second career of riffing on Casey. Some of this stuff is just as fun as Casey at the Bat, but it hasn’t had the same staying power. Here’s John Thorn.
THORN — The sequels are as wonderful from a verse standpoint as the original. But do we really want to know that Casey 20 years after, or Casey’s son, vindicated Casey? No, we don’t want vindication. What we want is for the balloon to have been punctured.
KAUFMAN –– As the poem got more and more famous, various major leaguers claimed to be the inspiration for Casey. The most notable of those was King Kelly, the great batting champion and base-stealer who was the inspiration for the first pop song that was ever a hit record, Slide Kelly Slide. That’s another story, but Kelly thought he was the the real Casey, and he performed the poem, as Kelly at the Bat, in his vaudeville act. Ernest Thayer wrote under a pen-name — Phin, with a P-H —so pretty much everyone who’d ever put pen to paper claimed to have written Casey. Everyone but Ernest Thayer.
THORN — Maybe 10 years later he confessed to his Harvard classmates that he was indeed the poet, but there were challengers going into the mid-20th century. There was a particularly ornery fellow named George Whitefield D’Vys who went to his deathbed believing he had written Casey at the Bat.
ACTOR — Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat
THORN — So everybody wants to be Casey, everybody wants to be Casey’s author, and Thayer found the whole thing icky.
KAUFMAN –– Not only that, but Thayer didn’t think this particular bit of silliness was any better than any of the other silly things he’d written for the Examiner.
IMPERSONATED ERNEST THAYER — Its persistent vogue is simply unaccountable, and it would be hard to say if it has given me more pleasure than annoyance. The constant wrangling about the authorship has certainly filled me with disgust. All I ask is never to be reminded of it again. — Ernest Thayer.
KAUFMAN –– One night in the 1890s, DeWolf Hopper was performing in Wooster Massachusetts. Of course he did Casey. That was his jam. Thayer sent word that he was the author and he wanted to meet. You have to picture this. Thayer was this unassuming little guy who ran woolen mills. Hopper was a big star. And I mean big. He was 6-foot-2 and well over 200 pounds, with a booming voice and Broadway charisma. Thayer’s friends are all “hey, why don’t you recite the poem for the great Mr. Hopper.” And he did, and there was no standing on chairs, no cheering. It was not a sensation. Hopper wrote that when Thayer got to the crowd yelling “kill the ump!”
IMPERSONATED HOPPER — in a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper he implored Casey to murder the empire, and gave the cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet.
ACTOR — There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat
KAUFMAN –– Thayer always said there was no real Casey, though he did admit there was a bully in high school named Casey, and he may have been influenced by that memory when he went to name his pompous hero. Everyone who could have laid claim to being the real Casey is long dead now, but not so with Mudville, which Thayer also said wasn’t real. But, you know, what did he know?
JOANNE HULBERT — My name is Joanne Hulbert. I live in Holliston Massachusetts. I live in that part of town which has actually been known as Mudville since the 1850s.
KAUFMAN –– Joanne Hulbert is an emergency room nurse — and baseball poetry researcher — who believes her town is the real Mudville.
HULBERT — We live the mythical dream, OK? We have absolutely no basis for saying that — certainly Thayer did not make up the term Mudville, OK. … I have found out that the term Mudville was used to describe that sort of place that you really didn’t want to go to. It was like the bad end of town.
KAUFMAN –– Holliston Mass has a little rivalry going with Stockton, California, over which is the real Mudville. Stockton’s minor league team even officially renamed itself the Mudville 9 for a couple of years. As a California kid I have to side with Stockton, but we’re going to let them sort it out among themselves.
ACTOR — Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped —
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.
KAUFMAN –– It wasn’t just big stars like Dewolf Hopper who recited this kind of thing. Poetry was everywhere. Joanne Hulbert:
HULBERT — You know, during the deadball era, especially between 1900 and 1920, this is the golden age of baseball poetry. It was when baseball writers, it was a requisite of them to throw in some poetry in their sports reporting. In the game reporting.
KAUFMAN –– Hulbert told me a story about the legendary sportswriter Ring Lardner going to work at the Chicago Tribune in 1913. In his first column, he told the story of a kid who comes to the big city to write for the newspaper.
HULBERT — So he goes to the head editor of the sports department of the Tribune. And He says “Hey, I want to be a sportswriter.” “Oh yeah, kid? How’s your poetry?”
KAUFMAN –– And it wasn’t just in print.
HULBERT — You would go to a bar, for instance back in those years, [1900 to 1920] and somebody would come in and start reciting a poem, and there might be somebody else that could give you the second verse or the third. In other words, it became a group activity. Casey at the bat, it had all of the characteristics of a really good barroom poem, kids can read it, it’s nice and clean and everything, but also it has a crescendo where you’re going up, and it looks as though he’s going to win the big one, but bang he goes down. And hey, everybody loves a loser.
KAUFMAN–– And Casey’s well on on his way. The at-bat is not going well.
ACTOR — From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”
KAUFMAN –– We don’t have this kind of detail for 1888 but in today’s game hitters with an 0-2 count have about a 450 OPS. Better than pitchers, but not by much. As silly as Casey at the Bat is, and as familiar as it is to most of us, it’s easy to overlook how well written it is, how if you tried to rewrite it, even change a word here and there, you’d be hard pressed to improve on it. Hal Bush is a professor of English at St. Louis University who’s an expert on 19th century American literature.
HAL BUSH — From the benches black with people, there went up a muffled roar. People just tended to be a lot more literate. They tended to read the King James version or other versions of the Bible. I mean if you read people’s, especially educated people, the way they wrote personal letters was often quite literary.
KAUFMAN –– And it’s easy to memorize and recite, which is a tribute to Ernest Thayer’s skill. He may have been a woolens manufacturer at heart, but he really could write.
BUSH — It’s in the old standard 14-er mode, it’s the rhythm. Ba-bum Ba-bum Ba-bum Ba-bum Ba-bum Ba-bum Ba-bum. That’s a very common meter for poems that we tend to remember. Name a famous hymn, it’s probably a 14-er, so there’s something kind of naturally melodic. It could be a song, you know.
ACTOR — “Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the multitude was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again
KAUFMAN –– The key to Casey’s enduring place in our culture, though: it has to be that ending.
THORN — I think those who say there’s no joy in Mudville or can only say that mighty Casey has struck out, may not know very much else about the poem. But they do know that when a blowhard is brought down, this will echo across the generations.
KAUFMAN –– Historian John Thorn.
THORN — We do not like pomposity. We like our heroes to be just like us. Only more so!
KAUFMAN –– Almost a century after Casey at the Bat appeared, A. Bartlett Giamatti, future president of Yale and later commissioner of baseball, wrote a famous essay about the game called “The Green Fields of the Mind.” You probably know its opening sentences:
GIAMATTI — It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.
KAUFMAN –– You could almost call it a sequel to Casey at the Bat. That heartbreak is what brought down the house when DeWolf Hopper first performed it.
IMPERSONATED HOPPER —The crowds do not flock into the American League parks when the Yankees play solely in anticipation of seeing Babe Ruth whale the ball over the centerfield fence, for the Sultan of Swat can miss the third strike just as furiously as he can meet it, and the contrast between the terrible threat of the swing and the futility of the result is a banquet for the malicious…which, includes us all. — DeWolf Hopper.
THORN — The idea that we come back to baseball not only for recurring joy, but also for recurring pain …
KAUFMAN –– Historian John Thorn
THORN — is that it’s because it mirrors life. This is the way life is. Not every day is a holiday, as my father was fond of saying when something went wrong. “Not every day is a holiday.”
ACTOR — The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
BUSH — Now, we don’t know what that means.
KAUFMAN –– English professor Hal Bush.
BUSH — We know that he swung the bat really hard, but usually we think of the word blow as kind of, he actually hits the ball, right?
KAUFMAN –– Major League Baseball historian John Thorn
THORN — I think when you view heroes doing something extremely hard and failing, it gives you hope. And it expands your chest to think that you can face your difficulties, which are certainly as great as facing Clayton Kershaw. That you can somehow surmount your inevitable failure, and that there is no failure that dooms you. That you come back the next day and you try just as hard again. This is the model of the long season, and this is what makes baseball so wonderful.
KAUFMAN –– In the 1990s, the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of stamps commemorating American folk heroes. There was Paul Bunyan, there was Pecos Bill, who lost his girl. John Henry, who won a race but lost his life. And there was the mighty Casey, who struck out.
HOPPER — Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
Somewhere bands are playing, somewhere hearts are light,
Somewhere men are laughing, somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville. Mighty Casey has struck out.
KAUFMAN –– The music in this story was used under the Creative Commons Attribution license. It was “Movie Piano Theme” by EK Velika, and piano roll recordings by Razzvio and Dave Incamas. Sound effects by Touch Assembly, Sandy RB and Corsica S were used under the same license. All of it via Freesound.org. Voice performances were by Neil Rogers, Jonathan Luhmann, Joe Goffeney and, in vintage recordings, Bart Giamatti and DeWolf Hopper. Hopper’s memoir, published in 1927, is called Once a Clown, Always a Clown. A couple other Casey at the Bat books. My favorite is The Annotated Casey at the Bat by Martin Gardner – it’s filled with those parodies and sequels I mentioned, plus all sorts of background information on them and the original. There’s also: Ernest Thayer’s ‘Casey at the Bat: Background and Characters of Baseball’s Most Famous Poem by Jim Moore and Natalie Vermilyuh. You can buy all of them at cantwinpodcast.com.