This annotated week in baseball history: August 8-August 14, 1940

On August 12, 1940 Ernest Lawrence Thayer, the author of Casey at the Bat died in California. Richard looks back at the history of the man himself and the work that made him famous.

I don’t really remember when I first heard Casey at the Bat, although I must have been pretty young. The poem is ubiquitous in American culture, arguably the country’s best-known work of poetry. The poem has been thrice turned into a movie, adapted as an opera, and an orchestral piece, with narration performed by Johnny Bench. It has inspired numerous “sequels” and been parodied by figures ranging from Garrison Keillor to Mad Magazine.

Despite this fame, the poem’s author—Ernest Lawrence Thayer—remains a obscure figure. While “Casey at the Bat” produces nearly 350,000 responses in Google, Thayer does not even cross the 50,000 threshold. This week I’ll spend a bit of time on Casey itself, and more on revealing the life of Ernest Thayer, hoping to do my part to bring him out of obscurity.

Born in Massachusetts in 1863, Thayer was the son of a wealthy mill owner. He attended Harvard, studying philosophy under William James (who would remain a friend) and graduating with a degree in the subject in 1885. Perhaps even more relevant to his future fame, during his senior year Thayer was editor of the Harvard Lampoon—other notable Lampoon alums include Conan O’Brien, John Updike, and Robert Benchley—where he worked with William Randolph Hearst.

Thayer, whose family’s wealth allowed him free will to work only when he desired, was traveling through Europe in 1886 when Hearst got in touch with an offer to be the humor columnist for his San Francisco Examiner.

Thayer would keep the job, writing only sporadically, for the next three years and likely would have been completely forgotten except for his final piece, a poem he signed “Phin” (his Lampoon nickname) titled simply Casey.

More on the work itself momentarily, but suffice to say it was not an instant hit. Thayer returned to the East Coast (some sources cite poor health, others imply the financially independent Thayer simply tired of living away from his familiar surroundings) and began to work for his family business while writing on the side.

(Sean) Casey at the Bat (Icon/SMI)

As Casey began to grow in fame, questions about the identity of “Phin” began to arise. Some editions with Thayer’s name appeared as early as 1901, but questions about authorship would remain even after Thayer gave a rendition of the poem at a Harvard reunion.

In addition to more ordinary glory thieves, ballplayer King Kelly performed the poem repeatedly on vaudeville tours and did nothing to quiet rumors it was both based upon, and perhaps even written by, him. For his part, though Thayer may have based Casey on Kelly, he apparently did not like the ballplayer’s attempts at stealing credit, and would deny any direct inspiration for the fictional slugger in the future.

It seems likely the authorship question was settled by 1908 when Thayer, incredibly, released an edited version of the work that appeared in many newspapers. This one appears to be the version Thayer liked best even though its most notable switch—changing the final line to “the great Casey has struck out”—is a truly dreadful move.

Though sources disagree to some extent, it appears likely Thayer himself had mixed feelings. While most biographies agree that Thayer was a likeable man, albeit one cursed with a perpetually sickly disposition and deafness, they differ on whether he would “happily recite his famous poem from memory,” as at least one biography claims.

Others say that Thayer was unhappy being associated with Casey and Casey alone, even more so in later life when he began to concentrate primarily on a return to his philosophical studies. (The thought of hearing a lecture on Plato’s Republic by the guy who wrote Casey at the Bat is almost too surreal to consider.)

Thayer married and later moved to California permanently, hoping it would improve his health. If it did, it was insufficient to make him well enough to serve in the First World War, and he never wrote another work of even minor note. Nonetheless, the fame of his one great poem was enough to merit an obituary in the Times when he died in 1940.

As for Casey itself, the poem might have fallen into obscurity but for the now-largely-forgotten novelist Archibald Clavering Gunter. Gunter was impressed with the poem in San Francisco and brought it back to New York with him. He suggested his friend the actor and monologist DeWolf Hopper perform it during a show attended by both the Giants and Cubs. Hopper was initially reluctant: his son was ill and he lacked the concentration to memorize such a long work.

In a bit of luck, Hopper received word that his son was recovering and his instincts as both a performer and a baseball “crank”—as the term was for obsessive fans of the day—took over. He memorized the poem quickly (this impresses me to no end, as I tried to do the same for a class in the seventh grade and could barely manage it) and performed it between acts that night.

To say that Hopper’s performance was an instant hit barely covers it. The World reported the next day that the audience “literally went wild” as “men got up on their seats to cheer.”

Mental Health and the CBA
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This may seem too hard to believe when listening to Hopper’s version, which is widely available on YouTube. To modern ears—to my ears, anyway—it is actually kind of bizarre. He performs it in a sort-of singspiel, and it is astonishingly melodramatic.

Of course, Hopper had his own low opinion of the worst-recited version of Casey. According to Hopper, “Thayer’s [recitation] was the worst of all… [he] gave this cry of mass animal rage, all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet.” They really knew how to put a man down back then. And that was quoted in Thayer’s obituary! Tough critic.

One source I read commented that “Casey at the Bat might not be great poetry, but it is a great poem.” And while Ernest Lawrence Thayer may not have been a great poet, he deserves credit for writing easily the most memorable piece of baseball verse. We should all be so lucky to produce one great thing.

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Kenn Frye
Kenn Frye

It is odd that you would expect a 53-year old man with no previous military experience to be eligible for WWI regardless of his health.

Thayer died August 21, 1940, not August 12, 1940. From his obituary in the New York Times: “E.L. THAYER DEAD; AUTHOR OF ‘CASEY’; The Poem. Classic of Baseball Written in 1888, Was Made Famous by DeWolf Hopper RECITED IT FOR 40 YEARS Composer Did Not Share in Fame of Ballad, Which He Wrote for Newspaper Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. August 22, 1940, Thursday Section: Obituaries, Page 19, 601 words SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Aug. 21—Ernest Lawrence Thayer, who as a young newspaperman in San Francisco in 1888 wrote the poem ‘Casey at the Bat,’ died at his home here… Read more »
Richard Barbieri
Richard Barbieri

D’oh! Well, how about that. In my (very limited) defense, I took that info from Baseball-Reference.

Can’t believe I missed it when I was quoting the Obit, however.