Harvard, Hearst, and Mudville

Next month, Casey at the Bat celebrates its 125th anniversary.  Penned by Ernest Thayer, the story might never have happened but for an Ivy League friendship with William Randolph Hearst.

Thayer and Hearst knew each other from their days at Harvard.  Thayer was a contributor to the Harvard Lampoon, a humor magazine.  Hearst, its business manager.

When Hearst received the San Francisco Examiner as a gift from his wealthy father, he hired Thayer as a writer.  Thayer’s tenure lasted eighteen months.

The work was steady, but not exciting.  John Evangelista Walsh describes Thayer’s travails in The Night Casey Was Born:  The True Story Behind the Great American Ballad “Casey at the Bat” (The Overlook Press, 2007).

“He’d even begun to question his literary abilities.  During the heady days on the Lampoon, he’d rated himself pretty high, at least in potential.  Now he’d begun to realize that his talent might not rise much above the ordinary.  He could turn out copy for the paper as it was needed, straight reporting, fact-pieces, think-pieces, editorials, light nonsense verse and humorous essays, even obituaries.  But as he now began to understand, that only put him in a class with hundreds, even thousands of other writers on other papers across the country.”

Thayer became an immortal literary name when he wrote Casey at the Bat for the Examiner.  For 125 years, baseball and literary fans alike have lamented the dashed hopes of the Mudville Nine when mighty Casey strikes out.

But who was the model for Casey?  Walsh says that Thayer never attributed the character to any specific inspiration, so Casey could be a composite of all those sluggers whose mouths, on occasion, are faster than their bats.  But Walsh surmises that Thayer’s inspiration stemmed from more than imagination and resulted, in part, from Roger Connor and King Kelly.

“It can be no accident that Thayer had for the first time seen both men in action, up close in California, only months before beginning his poem, both performing in front of ecstatic crowds of adoring fans.”

Casey at the Bat debuted in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1988.  Its popularity grew with DeWolf Hopper’s recitation before live audiences.  Hopper’s first recitation occurred at Wallack’s Theatre on August 14, 1888.  It became Hopper’s trademark performance.

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