Baseball’s Poet

Thayer about the time he wrote his poem

One of the first things I do in the morning is click on Wikipedia’s homepage and read their “This Day in History” column. Having taught history back when there was a lot less of it, I’m always interested in seeing what shows up on a given day. Today is red-letter day for baseball. On this day in 1888 Ernest Thayer published, in the San Francisco Examiner, “Casey at the Bat”, baseball’s great poem. So I decided to look up Thayer and tell you something about him.

Ernest Thayer was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1863 (Which makes him as Civil War baby boomer, right?). His father ran one of the wool mills in town, made a lot of money, and sent his son to the best college arround, Harvard. Thayer edited the campus newspaper and dabbled in verse while at Harvard. Upon graduation magna cum laude in 1885 he caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst, who brought him to the Examiner as a humor columnist. While with the paper Thayer published a series of humorous pieces on whatever struck him. Some were prose, most were poetry, and on this date in 1888 (age 24) he published “Casey”.

It did well, but was not an instant hit. Over the next few years it made the rounds being recited by people in bars, at ball games, for fun. In 1888, the actor DeWolf Hopper found it and recited it in a Vaudeville act. It was an instant hit and made Hopper a star. He continued reciting it in his act until his death in 1935. Today his most famous claim to fame may be that between 1913 and 1922 his fifth wife (of six) was the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (they had one child, William, who played the detective on the old Raymond Burr “Perry Mason” series).

De Wolf Hopper

Thayer moved to the Hearst paper in New York in  (the Journal) in the 1890s, continued his poems and humor column into the 20th Century. He retired to run the family mill enterprise, becoming even more wealthy than previous. In 1912 he retired at age 49 (I should be so lucky) to Santa Barbara, California, married, and settled down to a life of leisure. He died in 1940, having no children.

Thayer in retirement

Much of the controversy about “Casey” revolves around the question of an identity for “Casey” and for “Mudville.” Thayer steadfastly insisted the poem was entirely imaginary and no one served as a model for “Casey.” Others have tried to link the character to Mike “King” Kelly, but Thayer would not concur.

So give yourself a treat today. Go read a copy of “Casey at the Bat” and remind yourself why it is you love the game. There are copies all over the internet and You Tube has a copy of Hopper reciting the poem. Enjoy, team.

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One Response to “Baseball’s Poet”

  1. Bill Miller Says:

    Funny, I just read this poem / story to my kids a couple of nights ago. Not a happy ending, but they still enjoyed it.
    So you were a history teacher. So was I, once upon a time.
    My favorite subject, other than baseball.
    Thanks for sharing this anniversary with us today.

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