Today is the birthday of poet Ernest Thayer (books by this author), born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1863). He was a bright and witty boy, born to a wealthy family that owned several prosperous woolen mills, and he never had to work much to support himself. He went to Harvard, where he studied philosophy with William James. He also served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, where he made friends with future newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. After they graduated, Hearst convinced Thayer to come to San Francisco to work on Hearst’s first newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. Thayer had never really been keen to take over the family woolen business, so he took off for California with Hearst.
Thayer wrote a recurring humor column for the Examiner, and would occasionally crank out some light verse for his column. In 1888, he published “Casey at the Bat” under the pen name “Phin.” The poem was picked up by the New York Sun, but his name was left off. A few weeks later, the comedian William DeWolf Hopper was putting on a huge post-game performance for the Chicago White Stockings, the New York Giants, and all their fans. He wasn’t sure what to perform, until his friend Archibald Gunter remembered a baseball poem he had clipped out of the newspaper. Gunter suggested that Hopper read it to the audience, and it was a huge success.
Hopper performed the poem almost 40,000 times over the course of his five-decade career. He didn’t know who’d written it until Thayer happened to come to one of his shows. Thayer never received any royalties, nor did he ask for any. As he got older, he returned to the study of philosophy, and published some articles on the subject, but found to his dismay that he was only known for this comic baseball poem he’d dashed off when he was just 24 years old.
The last stanza of “Casey at the Bat”:
Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.