By Larry Canale
Who doesn’t love a happy ending? In movies, stories, books, sports and real life, we all prefer to see things work out.
Then there’s “Casey at the Bat.” I would bet next month’s mortgage that you’ve read and/or heard “Casey at the Bat” multiple times in your life. And even though you know how it turns out, you’ll read it again and again. By now, “Casey at the Bat” – which turns 125 next year – is an iconic piece of pop culture.
The well-rhymed, well-metered poem came from Ernest Thayer (1863-1940), a writer born in Lawrence, Mass., and raised in Worcester. He came from a privileged family and received a private education that led him to Harvard University, where he would edit The Harvard Lampoon and ultimately graduate with highest honors in 1885.
One of Thayer’s Harvard friends and Lampoon colleagues was William Randolph Hearst, who after graduation invited him to work at the San Francisco Examiner, one of the Hearst family’s newspapers (and, at the time, a reeling one). So Thayer took a position with the Examiner in 1886, writing under the name “Phin” and sticking around for less than two years. He moved back east in the summer of 1888 but would still contribute to the Examiner.
One of the pieces Thayer wrote for the paper dealt with a favorite topic of his: Baseball. “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of The Republic Sung in the Year 1888” first appeared in the June 3, 1888, edition of the Examiner. It would inspire a groundswell of popularity, and perhaps the most important person to find it irresistible was comic actor De Wolf Hopper (1858-1935).
Hopper was appearing at Wallack’s Theatre in New York in 1888 when a friend gave him a clipping of “Casey at the Bat” after it had been picked up by the New York Sun. Hopper absorbed it and quickly committed it to memory.
One night at Wallack’s, as legend has it, Hopper was informed that the audience included players from the hometown New York Giants and visiting Chicago White Stockings, so he decided to do a reading of “Casey at the Bat” between acts. His performance was so well received that he made it a regular routine.
Hopper would go on to recite “Casey at the Bat” more than 10,000 times during his lifetime. As more than one publication has noted, “Casey” made Hopper famous – and Hopper made “Casey” famous.
It’s still a mystery, nearly 125 years later, as to who inspired Thayer to create his Casey character. Speculation has centered on late-1800s baseball star Mike “King” Kelly. 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.” At the time, the colorful Kelly was a star for the National League’s Boston Beaneaters.
More likely, though, the persona behind Thayer’s Casey was Samuel Winslow. The captain of Harvard’s baseball team in 1885, Winslow was a close friend of Thayer’s during their university days.
According to a 2008 Robert Edward Auctions catalog, DeWolf Hopper “met Thayer in the early 1890s while performing in Massachusetts and asked him who the inspiration for Casey was. Thayer replied that it was his old Harvard pal, Samuel Winslow.” The same listing described an 1885 cabinet card of Winslow wearing his Harvard uniform and “looking every bit the part of ‘Mighty Casey.’ ” (Because of the Casey connection and its condition – Near Mint – the cabinet photo sold for a healthy $705.)
Another “Casey at the Bat” mystery involves the inspiration behind the town of Mudville. Stockton, Calif., and Holliston, Mass., both have claimed to be the basis for the baseball-crazy town.
While those details prompt ongoing debate, there’s no argument that “Casey at the Bat” is a classic piece of baseball literature.
I asked Michael Smith, associate professor in the Writing, Rhetoric & Technical Communication department at James Madison University in Virginia and a longtime baseball fan, why “Casey at the Bat” endures.
“In many ways, our national pastime, baseball, is all about anticipation, the spaces in between,” says Smith, who has taught a sports writing class at JMU. “The actual action of the game is usually over very quickly, right? And sometimes the action itself is flat and boring. A fly ball, absent of the game’s context, is just not that interesting a thing to watch, while someone tackling someone, in any context, is always interesting.
“In baseball,” Smith continued, “the anticipation is everything; waiting and hoping are the very DNA of the game. When you think about Christmas and what you like most about it, it is not all the actual stuff you got, or what you felt after tearing off the wrapping paper and exposing everything. The best, most important part – the real gift – is the buildup, the anticipation, the worry and the wonder and even the anxiety before you go downstairs and confront what’s under the tree. Did I get it? Is it there? If you don’t like that feeling, if you don’t in some strange way actually prefer it to the opening of the presents themselves, well, you probably don’t like baseball very much.
“Thayer’s ‘Casey at the Bat’ is obviously all about anticipation,” Smith said. “It’s probably the best expression of the buildup, the rise that occurs in the spaces in between, and it’s that rise that happens between lines, between the stanzas of the poem itself. But the poem’s about something else, too: Failure and disappointment, which are integral to the game as well. It’s that feeling when the much-hoped-for bike isn’t parked behind the Christmas tree – and just how incredibly unfair that feels, how globally unjust, how it makes us want to cry ‘foul’ even though the universe doesn’t owe us a bike. Or a base hit.”
No question: The ending of “Casey at the Bat” is a deflating experience every time we revisit the poem, yet the tension and anticipation leading up to that two-strike pitch, as Smith said, is irresistible.
For that reason, baseball collectors among us surely have “Casey at the Bat” somewhere in our midst – at the very least we have an old book with a printing of the poem. Beyond that, I won’t try to tell you that “Casey” is a common collecting theme. I will, however, take a few moments to summarize the universe of related items you could chase if you were to make the Mudville Nine a bigger part of your collection.
Stage and screen posters
DeWolf Hopper (1858-1935) was the actor who helped make “Casey at the Bat” widely popular via his thousands of stage recitations between the 1880s and the 1930s.
Occasionally, an antique poster promoting one of his performances turns up in the marketplace. One such example sold at Leland’s in 2007 for $390. A 24-by-34-inch lithograph, it uses a large photo of DeWolf Hopper to trumpet a performance at the Court Square Theatre in Springfield, Mass. The poster is undated but likely came from 1891.
In 1927, “Casey at the Bat” was immortalized in a feature-length silent film starring Wallace Beery, Ford Sterling and ZaSu Pitts. The movie spawned one-sheet posters that hard-core collectors can still find today. Such rarities can be valuable.
One example – a one-sheet measuring 27½-by-41 inches and cataloged as a “Style B” – sold for $7,770 at Heritage Auctions in 2011. Morgan Lithograph, one of the premier poster companies, produced the poster, and this one remains in impressive condition. Baseball collectors would call it Near Mint; its grade in the film poster market is VF-, or Very Fine minus, hence its four-figure price.
An alternate poster promoting Beery’s “Casey at the Bat” as presented at the Rialto Theatre in East Rochester, N.Y., sold at Leland’s for $3,010 in 2008.
In 1946, a “Casey at the Bat” segment appeared in the Walt Disney animated feature Make Mine Music. The different posters produced for the movie might not interest baseball fans; the art features musical instruments and dancing characters, and the text plays up the performers, among them Benny Goodman and Dinah Shore.
More to the point would be a set of 10 Make Mine Music lobby cards measuring 11-by-14 inches. Each of the cards represents a different short feature within the film, and the one depicting “Casey” is the highlight (I’m biased, of course). It depicts a barrel-chested slugger standing next to home plate, bending a bat with a single finger. A whole set of Make Mine Music lobby cards can sell for $300-$500. Occasionally, a “Casey” lobby card turns up and can sell for $100-$200 by itself.
Eight years later, in 1954, Disney reissued its “Casey at the Bat” animation as a solo short. Accompanying the release: A one-sheet poster featuring a cartoon illustration of Casey at the poem’s critical moment – the swing and miss. Today, it sells in the $400-$700 range, depending on condition. An example in lesser condition – bearing moderate wear and several tears along with repair jobs – sold for a little less than that range, $350, in 2009 at Hake’s Americana.
Books and brochures
“Casey at the Bat” first appeared in book form as part of the Harvard University Class of 1885 Secretary’s Report, a retrospective issued in 1900. The following year, the poem appeared again, this time by itself as an illustrated booklet – without an author credit – issued by New Amsterdam Book Co. And in 1902, Frederic L. Knowles’ A Treasury of Humorous Poetry included “Casey at the Bat,” although first printings attributed the poem to Joseph Quinlan Murphy. A later edition of the book, also issued in 1902, corrected the mistake.
Ten more years and a few appearances (in other volumes) later, “Casey at the Bat” finally appeared as the sole subject of a book. Published by A. C. McClurg & Co. (Chicago, 1912) and illustrated by Dan Sayre Groesbeck, this antique tome features a green cover with gold lettering and an illustration of a baseball bat with a black bow around it. The author credit reads “Phineas Thayer.” An original printing can sell for several hundred dollars today if in top condition. One such specimen (in Near Mint condition) surfaced in 2011 at Leland’s and sold for $775.
In the century that has passed since then, dozens of books presenting “Casey at the Bat” have been published. If you’re interested in seeing the way different artists envisioned the poem (more on that in “One-of-a-Kind Art,” below), you can find any number of examples for prices between $5-$50.
Among the most popular “Casey at the Bat” books is a 2002 release illustrated by artist LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012), known for his distinctive and colorful impressionistic renditions of sports events and athletes. Copies autographed by Neiman sell for $100-$150 today, having risen recently after Neiman’s passing in June.
Sculptures and figures
The holy grail in this category is the original life-size bronze statue of “Mighty Casey” by sculptor Mark Lundeen. For more than two decades, the original work – all 7 feet, 600 pounds of it, as created in the mid-1980s – stood on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame museum, per a loan agreement. Millions of baseball fans got a look at the impressive work before its owner decided to consign it to Robert Edward Auctions in 2010. It entered the sale with a $20,000 reserve price but sold for nearly double: $35,520.
Lundeen also produced his “Mighty Casey” sculpture in other sizes. There’s a very limited number of “monumental”-size statues that stand 14 feet high, for example. You’ll find these giant works at softball and baseball field complexes in both Williamsport, Pa., and Denver, Colo. And on a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed discovering a 14-foot Lundeen Casey in Melbourne, Fla., in 2004 at the former training camp of the old Montreal Expos. The statue itself is a remarkable work at such an imposing size, but it was even more exciting for me because I was at the Expos’ camp with photographer Ozzie Sweet, whose classic “leaning bat” portrait of Mickey Mantle from the early 1960s was clearly an inspiration for Lundeen.
Obviously, most of us won’t be collecting 14-foot-tall statues. Fortunately, Lundeen also produced 22-inch bronze “Mighty Casey” figures in an edition of 200 (they sell for $3,000-$4,000 at auction) and 10-inch bronze versions in an edition of 1,000 ($900- $1,500).
Odds ’n ends
If you enjoy the process of scouring the sports memorabilia marketplace for unusual items, “Casey at the Bat” can give you that opportunity.
For starters, you can find examples of sheet music. One of them, from 1920, appeared as part of a collection published by G. Schirmer called Six Cheerful Songs to Poems of American Humor. Ruval published another piece of Casey sheet music in 1947; like the Schirmer, it can be had for $20-$50, depending on condition.
You also might scour the bins in used record shops. DeWolf Hopper’s recording of “Casey at the Bat” from 1906 is a rare find on a Victor First Prize 78 rpm record. A Billboard chart hit upon its release, it’s estimated at $150-$200 today – if in top condition with original envelope – by Philip Weiss Auctions of Oceanside, N.Y. You’ll find lesser-condition examples here and there for less than $50, although you likely wouldn’t be interested if you don’t own an old Victrola!
On the other hand, you can listen to Hopper’s “over-the-top” performance of “Casey at the Bat” by searching his name at YouTube. Warning: It can be a little jarring if you’re not accustomed to melodrama.
In the early 1950s, composer and noted baseball fan William Schuman based an opera, The Mighty Casey, on “Casey at the Bat.” You can find a performance of the work on a CD set issued by Delos Records in 1994 for around $25.
Speaking of CDs, “Casey at the Bat” has emerged in a number of rock’n’roll songs. Joe Walsh of the Eagles and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival each referenced Casey in solo hits, for example.
Walsh’s 1973 song “Rocky Mountain Way” includes these lines: “Bases are loaded and Casey’s at bat/Playin’ it play-by-play/Time to change the batter/And we don’t need the ladies crying ’cause the story’s sad.”
And Fogerty, in his 1985 hit “Centerfield,” wrote: “I spent some time in the Mudville Nine, watchin’ it from the bench/You know I took some lumps when the Mighty Case struck out.”
Singer/songwriter Josh Ritter got a little more philosophical in the 2007 song “To the Dogs or Whoever:” “Was it Casey Jones or Casey at the Bat who died out of pride and got famous for that?/Killed by a swerve, laid low by the curve, do you ever think they ever thought they got what they deserved?”
If you’re into stamps, the U.S. Postal Service featured Casey as part of a release in 1996 focusing on American folk heroes. Others featured in the set were Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Pecos Bill. And going back a half-century, a 1950s-era “Casey at the Bat” Bakelite pencil sharpener produced by Catalin can bring $50-$100 at auction today.
In the 1950s, a set of eight “Casey at the Bat” 5-inch-tall drinking glasses bearing the art of cartoonist Willard Mullin appeared on the market. The glasses – which have the stanzas of the poem etched onto them in different colors – can occasionally be found with an accompanying booklet featuring the poem and artwork for less than $100. A version of the glasses bearing the words “Welcome Home Baltimore Orioles 1954” is valued at $300-$500, according to Hunt Auctions.
Every once in a while, you encounter one-of-a-kind items that are difficult to value. Such was the case at an Antiques Roadshow event in July 2012. I met an artist named Jim Hull who happened to have created the illustrations for a "Casey at the Bat" book published by Dover Publications in 1977 (it was reprinted in May 2012, with a new cover).
In the mid-1970s, Hull was an aspiring artist looking for a project “to dig into.” He said he awoke one night with the thought of doing a book that illustrates every line of “Casey at the Bat.”
A longtime baseball fan and one-time college player, Hull set out to accomplish his goal, conceiving of a creative angle to illustrate all 52 lines of the poem. He produced pen-and-ink sketches on 12-by-12-inch sheets he recycled from the trash back and then started querying publishers. After a few rejections, he got a thumbs-up from Dover.
So in June 1977, Hull’s own “Casey at the Bat” book released to critical acclaim from such outlets as The New York Times, which wrote, “. . . The new illustrations are entertainingly busy pen-and-inks that stress wild distortions of perspective.”
A full 35 years later, Jim brought his entire set of “Casey at the Bat” illustrations to Antiques Roadshow. His drawings show a great sense of humor, while also playing up the drama of the poem. He discovered that his own work has value in the memorabilia market. Boston-based appraiser Ken Gloss said the set is worth $2,000–$3,000.
So there you have it. You most certainly will encounter more “Casey at the Bat” collectibles as we draw closer to its 125th anniversary.
No doubt you’ll also read the poem again – at least a few times. And you’ll still hope against all hope that Casey connects at the end.
Larry Canale is a columnist for SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.