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June 3, 2024 11 mins

On this day in 1888, Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” was first published in the San Francisco Examiner. 

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and Welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that rounds the basis of history one day at
a time. I'm Gabe Luesier, and in this episode, we're
talking about the most popular baseball poem in history, the

gripping Saga of Casey at the Bat. The day was
June third, eighteen eighty eight. Ernest Thayer's Casey at the
Bat was first published in the San Francisco Examiner. The

poem was written in the early years of professional baseball
and shows the prominent place the sport had claimed in
the American psyche in just a short time. The humorous
ballad tells the tale of a fictional star player named Casey,
who stepped to the plate in the final inning, with
the whole town of Mudville watching and the fate of

the game on the line. The poem didn't make much
of an impression on its first printing, but it was
later popularized through public recitations and has since become one
of the most celebrated examples of sports poetry in the world.
It's also been the subject of numerous parodies over the years,
and has been adapted for music, TV, stage plays, and movies,

including a nineteen twenty seven animated short from Disney. Ernest
Lawrence Thayer was born on August fourteenth, eighteen sixty three,
in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He later attended Harvard University, where he
served as the editor of the school's famous humor magazine,
The Harvard Lampoon. After earning his degree in philosophy, Thayer

accepted a job offer from his friend William Randolph Hurst
and began writing for the San Francisco agag Examiner in
eighteen eighty six. He wrote a wide variety of material
for the paper over the next two years, including sports reports,
humor columns, editorials, and even advertisements. He opted to use

a pen name for his credited works, with most of
his pieces attributed simply to Finn, which was a shortened
form of his college nickname Finnie. Such was the case
with Thayer's most famous work for the Examiner, a humorous
poem about baseball titled Casey at the Bat, A Ballad
of the Republic, sung in the year eighteen eighty eight.

It was published on June third of that year, but
the paper's editors didn't seem to think much of it,
as they tucked it in the fourth column of the
fourth page, just before an article titled Prattle. Although not
a home run with the public, Casey would get another
turn at bat a few months later, when Thayer's poem
was reprinted in The New York Sun. The paper only

published the last eight stanzas of the thirteen stands a poem,
and since the editors didn't know who Finn was, they
just signed its author as a noon short for anonymous.
Even then, the poem went mostly unnoticed by the public,
with one notable exception. A New York novelist named Archibald
Gunter clipped out the poem and saved it for some

undetermined future use. A few weeks later, Gunter came across
an article about an upcoming performance at the Wallack Theater
by a personal friend of his, actor in vaudeville star
de Wolf Hopper. The show was set to take place
that August, and members from the New York and Chicago
baseball clubs were expected to attend. Gunter suddenly knew exactly

what to do with the clipping of Casey that he
had saved. He passed it along to Hopper ahead of
the show, believing that the baseball players in the crowd
would get a kick out of it. Hopper agreed and
staged the first public performance of the poem that August
de Wolf. Hopper's recitation made the poem a hit almost overnight,

and he would go on to recite it at least
ten thousand more times during his lifetime, though some sources
say it was more like forty thousand. Many recordings of
his popular recitations were released over the years, several of
which are now preserved in the Library of Congress, including
this clip from a nineteen twenty two recording.

Speaker 2 (04:32):
He outrook, what brilliant nine that day that paw stood
fall to two with buck one inningma to play, And
so when Koony died at first and burrowed the same,
how thickly Highland fell upon the papers of the game,

How rackling you got up to go and sleep? Just
fell the red belong to that bold? Wait, bring the
kernel in the human right have they thought it? Oh?
Ly chase they caught? But yet now whack that back? Ah,
we put up even money. Now we're taping, but flim.

Speaker 1 (05:20):
Breed, as you just heard. The poem is essentially a
game report delivered in the form of rhyming four line stances.
The audio is a little hard to make out, but
that was Hopper reciting the first two stances, which read
as follows. The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine

that day. The score stood four to two, with but
one inning more to play. And then when Cooney died
at first and Barrows did the same, a pall like
silence fell upon the patrons of the game. A straggling
few got up to Goh in deep despair. The rest
clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human prest.

They thought, if only Casey could but get a whack
at that, we'd put up even money now with Casey
at the bat. There's a long standing debate over which
town in which player may have inspired the ones in
the poem. The two potential models for Mudville are Stockton, California,

and Holliston, Massachusetts, both of which have pretty good evidence
to support their claims. Holliston, for instance, used to have
a neighborhood called Mudville, and it was just down the
road from where Thayer grew up. Stockton, on the other hand,
was actually known as Mudville before it was incorporated in
eighteen fifty, and Thayer was said to have covered the

town's baseball team during his stint as a reporter. As
for the Mighty Casey, his name was borrowed from one
of Thayer's friends, Daniel Casey, and while the author always
insisted that the character of Casey wasn't based on any
particular player, many believe he was at least partially inspired
by Mike King Kelly, an outfielder for the Boston bean Eaters.

Thayer had covered the team during the eighteen eighty seven
eighty eight off season, and some of the language he
used when describing Kelly's at bats was strikingly similar to
how he wrote about Casey. In fact, Kelly was such
a ringer for Casey that when the poem was reprinted
in the New York Sporting Times, the title was changed

to Kelly at the Bat, and the city of Boston
was substituted for Mudville. Ernest Thayer wasn't the first or
the last to write poetry about baseball, but more than
a century later, his poem is by far the most
memorable verse on the subject ever written. It's hard to
pinpoint the exact reason for that enduring appeal, but I

think it has a lot to do with how the
poem ends. After making his way to the plate, Casey
basks in the adoration of the crowd and sneers at
his opponents. Then, watching with what Thayer describes as haughty grandeur,
he lets two perfectly good pitches streak right past him.

Because Casey is just as confident in his ability as
his fans, he decides to ratchet up the tension and
maximize the drama by having the whole game come down
to a single hit. With two of his teammates on base,
Casey prepares for the third and final pitch, with Thayer
writing quote, 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. 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 somewhere children shout. But
there is no joy in Mudville. Mighty Casey has struck out.
What seems at first glance like a simple poem about
baseball can also be interpreted as a cautionary tale about hubris,
and that reading takes on an even deeper meaning when

you consider the close connection between the United States and baseball,
a connection which there himself highlights in the poem's subtitle
A Ballad of the Republic, but socio political metaphors aside,
the poem's ending also functions as commentary on the cyclical
nature of baseball and of pro sports in general. Even

the most talented player strikes out eventually, and when their
time in the spotlight draws to a close, the next
star player is waiting in the wings take their place.
As de wolf Hopper once put it, quote, there are
one or more cases in every league, bush League or
Big League, and there is no day in the playing

season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes
for the moment, does not befall on some field. The
good news for baseball fans is that even after a loss,
life goes on, and it's never very long before someone
somewhere gets their own turn at back. I'm gabeluesiay, and

hopefully you now know a little more about history today
than you did yesterday. If you'd like to keep up
with the show, you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook,
and Instagram at TDI HC Show, and if you have
any comments or suggestions, feel free to send them my
way by writing to This Day at iHeartMedia dot com.

Thanks to Casby Bias for producing the show, and thanks
to you for listening. I'll see you back here again
tomorrow for another day in History class.

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