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‘Casey at the Bat’ Leaves a Lot of Unanswered Questions

Was there a Casey? Where did he strike out? Does it really matter?

Casey stands at bat in a 1912 illustrated version of the poem. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.” So begins Ernest Thayer’s epic baseball poem “Casey at the Bat.” As opening lines go, pretty solid. Sadly for Casey, he ultimately strikes out. But the poem that bears his name was a winner.

Today is the anniversary of Thayer’s birthday in 1863. Thayer, a Massachusetts one-hit wonder, made a name for himself with a poem that has been called “the nation’s best-known piece of comic verse.” Thayer himself “did not share in [the] fame of [his] ballad,” as The New York Times wrote in his obituary. Because the poem was written under a pseudonym, it took some time to be traced back to the journalist. Given Casey’s popularity more than a hundred years after being written, many are eager to get in on his legacy. These contesting claims have fired rivalries as strong as that between Mudville and the opposing team–and revealed that, for all the poem’s apparent completeness, it has left successive generations of readers grappling with a few key questions.

Who was Casey?

Though Casey is a fictional character, several baseball players have been named as potential inspiration. “Speculation has centered on late-1800s baseball star Mike ‘King’ Kelly,” writes Larry Canale for Sports Collector’s Digest. “Thayer, during baseball’s 1887-88 offseason, covered some baseball exhibition games featuring Kelly, so he saw him play not long before he wrote ‘Casey at the Bat.’”

However, many believe that the inspiration behind Casey was Samuel Winslow, who was the captain of Harvard’s baseball team in 1885, when Thayer was still attending. The pair were close friends, Canale writes.

Where is Mudville?

Another question that has stumped ‘Casey’ fans is the location that inspired the fictional Mudville where Casey strikes out. There are a few cities who lay claim to the Mudville name–even though both baseball historians and the author himself held that the poem had “no basis in fact,” according to Katie Zezima for The New York Times.

There’s Holliston, a town near Boston which does have an area known as Mudville. It has a ceremonial mayor, writes Edgar B. Herwick III for WGBH News. Thayer’s family had a local connection, so it’s probable that the baseball enthusiast came down to see games there.

But there’s also Stockton, California, near where Thayer worked for San Francisco’s The Daily Examiner. One of the subjects he covered: baseball. It makes sense “that he would be writing about the local scene, seeing as he was writing for a local audience in a local paper,” Stocktonian Bill Maxwell told Herwick.

Does it matter?

“Casey at the Bat” was first published in the June 3, 1888 edition of the Examiner. A look at the page reveals that the poem is nestled in the fourth column of the page. “Clearly the editors had no inkling that ‘Casey’ would become the most popular baseball poem ever written,” writes Peter Armenti for The Library of Congress. In fact, it didn’t take off until it was republished in New York, writes Cait Miller, also for The Library of Congress. There, it was picked up by performer DeWolf Hopper. “Hopper’s performance popularized the poem and he went on to recite Thayer’s words at least 10,000 times over the course of his life,” Miller writes.

“There are one or more Caseys in every league, bush or big, and there is no day in the playing season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes for the moment, does not befall on some field,” Hopper said of the poem. Having recited it so many times, he'd be the one to know.

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