Arts and Leisure

‘Casey at the Bat,’ The One Poem Wonder

Ernest Thayer wrote one good poem in his lifetime: Casey at the Bat. And then a Broadway actor made it famous by reciting it as many as 15,000 times.

DeWolf Hopper as Casey at the Bat

DeWolf Hopper as Casey at the Bat

Thayer was born in Lawrence, Mass., on Aug. 14, 1863, and grew up in Worcester, where his family owned several woolen mills. He graduated from Harvard magna cum laude with a degree in philosophy.

In college, Thayer was a member of the Harvard Lampoon staff. When the Lampoon’s business manager, William Randolph Hearst, went to California to run the newspaper his father gave him, Thayer and two other Lampoon writers went with him.

On June 3, 1888, Thayer published Casey at the Bat under the nom de plume Phin in the San Francisco Examiner. It was his last column. He would return to Worcester to help run his family’s mills, later moving to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he wrote scholarly articles about philosophy.

On Broadway

DeWolf Hopper, a stage actor and comedian, made the poem famous. (Watch him recite it here.)

Hopper was an ardent New York Giants fan, and a friend of his clipped the poem from the New York Sun and gave it to him.

Hopper first recited Casey at Walleck’s Theatre in New York City on Aug. 14, 1888 – Thayer’s birthday and the day his friend Tim Keefe ended his record 19-game winning streak. Members of the New York Giants were in the audience.

Mike “King” Kelly

(Keefe, by the way, was a Hall of Fame pitcher and another New Englander, born in Cambridge, Mass.)

Hopper went on to perform Casey at the Bat for nearly five decades – between acts, at curtain calls, on the radio. He recited it on a phonograph record in 1906 and in a short film in 1923.

Thayer was annoyed by controversies surrounding the poem: who wrote it, what town was represented by Mudville and who was Casey.

During my brief connection with the Examiner, I put out large quantities of nonsense, both prose and verse, sounding the whole newspaper gamut from advertisements to editorials. In general quality ‘Casey’ (at least in my judgment) is neither better nor worse than much of the other stuff. Its persistent vogue is simply unaccountable, and it would be hard to say, all things considered, if it has given me more pleasure than annoyance.

Stockton, Calif., and Holliston, Mass., both claimed to have inspired Mudville. Mike ‘King’ Kelly, a colorful Irish star for the Boston Beaneaters, is considered by many the likely model for Casey.

You can read the poem here. This story was updated in 2021.

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