If someone asked you to think of a poem about baseball, chances are that the first one—maybe the only one—to spring to mind would be "Casey At The Bat." The send-up about a hulking slugger for the "Mudville Nine" who fails to rally his team in the bottom of the ninth inning first appeared in a California newspaper this week back in 1888. But the story behind the poem is undeniably a Massachusetts one. And more than a century later, one local town is still fighting for recognition as "the real Mudville."
"It has that incredible Vaudevillian character to it," said Edward O’Donnell, a history professor at Holy Cross. "And it’s got such great overwrought wording, too, you know, the leather-bound sphere. It has that melodrama. For what it is, a humorous 52-line poem, it is as close to perfect as you can possibly get."
That poem, Casey at the Bat, about a great hulking slugger for the “Mudville Nine”—who strikes out in the bottom of the ninth inning with the game on the line—was first published this week, way back in 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner. The poem’s story might have ended there, but it found its way into the hands of DeWolf Hopper, a performer on the Vaudeville circuit. It was a match made in heaven.
"And so he performs it, Hopper does, by some estimates, 10,000 times over the next several decades before he dies in the mid-20th century," O'Donnell said.
Bolstered by Hopper’s performances, the poem’s popularity soared. Within a few years, nearly every person in American had read or heard "Casey at the Bat." But nobody knew who actually wrote it.
"Once it reached a certain level of national notoriety, all kinds of people looking to make a buck came forward and said, 'I wrote it, I wrote it,' O'Donnell said.
In the Examiner, the poem was attributed simply to “Phin”—an obvious pseudonym. Phin, it turns out, was the college nickname of one Earnest Thayer. Thayer was born in Lawrence and raised in Worcester, the son of mill owners. Reticent to enter the family business after graduating from Harvard, he took a job offer from his college pal William Randolph Hearst—to write for Hearst’s paper, the San Francisco Examiner.
With the question of authorship put to rest, speculation turned to the subject of the poem. Just who was the inspiration for the Mighty Casey? Plenty would claim the mantle, including nearly every ball player of the era with an Irish last name.
"One of them, actually, after his baseball career, went on the Vaudeville circuit as 'the real Casey' even though it was made up," O'Donnell said.
Eventually, nearly 50 years after the poem was written, Thayer came clean on that front, saying in an interview:
"Actually, none of the people who claim to be Casey or the model for Casey are the right ones," he said. "It was actually a guy named Daniel Casey who I went to high school with who threatened to beat me up once because I made fun of him in the school newspaper."
'The final score was 10-4 in favor of Stockton . . . But guess what? Our team, Mudville, lost, just as it's supposed to be. Bingo.'
But the most enduring mystery of Casey at the Bat is that of Mudville, the setting for the poem. Over the years, plenty of places have claimed to be the “real Mudville.” But two towns, Stockton, Calif., and Holliston, Mass., continue to wrestle over it—even today. Each has a pretty compelling case.
Both towns were hotbeds for baseball in the 1880s. Both had professional teams. And both were already known as Mudville.
"Stockton flooded almost every winter," said archivist Bill Maxwell, a life-long Stocktonian. "And so that was apparently where the nickname of Mudville came from because almost every winter it was just this Quagmire."
Bob Blair, the ceremonial "Mayor of Mudville"—a section of Holliston that, back in the late 19th century, was home to mainly Irish immigrants, makes a different case.
"Stockton wasn’t incorporated out there until 1850," Blair said. "Here we were being called Mudville in 1856, I’m sure earlier. They’re Johnny-come-latelys."
Maxwell points out that Stockton is just a few miles from San Francisco, and there’s evidence Thayer was covering baseball there for the Examiner.
"It all just kind of seems to make sense If Thayer was writing about baseball at the time, that he would be writing about the local scene, seeing as he was writing for a local audience in a local paper," he said.
But Blair counters. One of Thayer’s family’s woolen mills was just down the road.
"You could spit from the woolen mill to Mudville," he said. "So obviously, he would come out to the mill and obviously there was baseball games going on here in town."
Thayer himself said that Mudville wasn’t based on any particular place, but that hasn’t dissuaded either community. Today In Stockton, there’s both a Market and a Hot Dog stand called Casey’s. And in Holliston are two statues of Casey: one at Casey’s Pub in the center of town, the other in Blair’s front yard.
In 2012, the towns decided to battle it out once and for all. Holliston sent a team out to Stockton to play an old-style rules baseball game for the title of the real Mudville. It settled nothing.
"The final score was 10-4 in favor of Stockton," Blair said. " … But guess what? Our team, Mudville, lost, just as it’s supposed to be. Bingo."
The debate is likely to continue for as long as the poem remains a vital part of American culture. And Blair suspects that will be a long time. He says that buried underneath the poem’s playful exterior, is a hard—and universal—truth.
"We’re all gonna fail," he said. "Fail in life at certain things, you know, you learn through your mistakes. So I think I’ll keep making more mistakes so I can learn."
Casey at the Bat: First published by Massachusetts’ own Ernest Thayer, 129 years ago this week.