The Man Behind “Casey at the Bat”

A little tribute today to a distant cousin of mine, Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1863-1940), best known for his comic 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat”. Thayer was the son of a wealthy wool manufacturer in Worcester, Massachuetts. (My 8th grandmother Grace Thayer was one of these Worcester Thayers. It’s a family with American roots going back to the mid 17th century.) Ernest was actually born in the industrial town of Lawrence, hence his middle name. Thayer went to Harvard, where he edited the Harvard Lampoon and was a member of Hasty Pudding. One of his classmates was William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst acquired the San Francisco Examiner, he brought Thayer with him, much as we saw Charles Foster Kane bring Jed Leland in Citizen Kane. Thayer worked as a humor columnist for Hearst from 1886 to 1888. “Casey at the Bat” was originally published under the byline “Phin”. The poem became wildly popular, easily the most famous thing that ever came out of his pen. Surely the phrases “no joy in Mudville” or “Mighty Casey has struck out” have come into your life at some point?  DeWolf Hopper performed it thousands of times on the stage, and it was turned into an animated cartoon in 1946 by Walt Disney, with Jerry Colonna doing the narration. And now, “Casey at the Bat”:

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 go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit 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.

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 flashed 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.

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 it’s likely they’d have 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 dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered
     “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience 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.

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 favoured 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.