Ernest Thayer wrote one good poem in his lifetime: Casey at the Bat. And then a Broadway actor made it famous by reciting it more than 10,000 times.
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 belonged to 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 he moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he wrote scholarly articles about philosophy.
Casey at the Bat on Broadway
DeWolf Hopper, a stage actor and comedian, made the poem famous.
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 watched him from the audience.
(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. He estimated he recited it more than 10,000 times. Hopper always took the same length: five minutes, 40 seconds before reaching the last line.
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.
Hopper, by the way, married six times. He had a son with his fifth wife, Hedda Hopper (yes, that one), William DeWolf Hopper. William Hopper had an acting career of his own, playing Perry Mason’s sidekick Paul Drake for nine years.
Casey at the Bat was also adapted for film, orchestra, books, comics and magazine parodies. In 1927, Wallace Beery and Zasu Pitts starred in a film by the same name.
Thayer was annoyed by controversies in 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 2022.