ERNEST THAYER '85 (1885)

Alpha / Harvard

Ernest Lawrence Thayer was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 14th, 1863. Thayer, the son of a wealthy mill owner, was expected to go into the family business, and attended Harvard where he majored in philosophy, minored in humor and joined Delta Kappa Epsilon.  He wrote one of the annual Hasty Pudding Club plays and edited the Harvard Lampoon, Harvard's long-running humor magazine. While he was at Harvard Thayer became interested in baseball, and one of his best friends was Samuel Winslow, captain of Harvard’s baseball team. He also became friends with fellow Deke William Randolph Hearst, who was the Lampoon’s business manager.

After graduation Hearst's father put him in charge of the San Francisco Examiner, an ailing West Coast newspaper, and Hearst asked Thayer to write a humor column for the paper. Presented with the choice of writing humor columns for his school chum in San Francisco or managing family woolen mills in Worcester, Massachusetts, Thayer, rather unsurprisingly, packed his bags and headed for the West Coast. Thayer began writing anonymously for the Examiner in 1886, and by 1887 he was contributing humorous poetry to the Sunday edition under the name Phin. In February, 1888 he returned to the East and the woolen mills, but sent several more pieces to Hearst, including the poem “Casey at the Bat,” which was published on Sunday, June 3rd, 1888. Like most works of enduring genius, Thayer’s ballad was greeted with little fanfare, and it might have been quickly forgotten had not a writer named Archibald Clavering Gunter thought enough of it to clip the poem out of the paper that day and stick it in his wallet…

Hopper_Bell.jpg (14919 bytes)

Digby Bell (left) and De Wolf Hopper

William De Wolf Hopper was a giant of a man, 6’2” with an athlete’s build and a deep, booming voice made for Shakespearian tragedy, but he chose to perform comedy instead, and was working for the McCaull Opera Company on Broadway in 1888.  Hopper and his friend and fellow thespian Digby Bell were both confirmed base ball cranks, and persuaded their boss, Colonel McCaull, that the opera company should take advantage of a game between the visiting Chicago White Stockings and the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds for a day out and a bit of fun, and that they should then invite the ballplayers to their evening show.

Hopper had wanted to include some special material for his guests, but wasn’t sure what to perform. Archibald Gunter, who was a friend of Hopper’s, suggested “Casey” and pulled the tattered column from his wallet. Hopper wasn't sure. His infant son was ill and he felt he could not concentrate enough to memorize such a long poem. But his son improved and Hopper, a seasoned professional, soon had the poem memorized.

casey-5.jpg (29274 bytes)

On August 14th, 1888, the Opera Company spent a festive day at the Polo Grounds watching “Cap” Anson’s White Stockings beat their Giants 4-2 (the same score the home team in "Casey" would lose by), and then everybody, including both ball teams, went back to the Opera House, where Prince Methusalem was the featured show. At the end Hopper walked out onto the stage and gave a stirring performance of “Casey at the Bat.

The audience literally went wild,” reported the New York World the next day- “Men got up on their seats and cheered… it was one of the wildest scenes ever seen in a theatre”. By odd coincidence, August 14th, 1888 also happened to be Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s 25th birthday.

The poem made De Wolf Hopper famous, and Hopper made the poem famous. By his own estimate he recited it 10,000 times over the next decade; it took him exactly 5 minutes and forty seconds each time. But almost nobody, including Hopper, had any idea who had written it. In the early 1890s Hopper was performing in Worcester, Massachusetts when he received an invitation to meet the author.  Thayer and his friends entertained Hopper at a private club, and Thayer was persuaded to get up and give what Hopper would later recall as one of the worst renditions of 'Casey' he had ever heard.  Hopper recalled- "In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper he implored Casey to murder the umpire, and gave the cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet".  

Hopper asked Thayer that evening who the inspiration for Casey was, and Thayer replied that it was his old Harvard chum, baseball captain Samuel Winslow. Thayer himself would later declare that there was no “real” Casey, and that the name and vague image of Casey were drawn from a bully who once threatened to beat him up in high school. Such mundane answers have, of course, never satisfied baseball fans, who have come up with any number of “real” Casey’s Thayer had in mind.

It took two decades for the poem to make Thayer famous, as he was hardly the boastful type and had signed the June 3 poem with the nickname "Phin". Two ongoing mysteries remained about the poem: who, if anyone, was the model for the title character and whether Thayer had a real-life "Mudville" in mind when he included Mudville as the poem's mythical town. On March 31, 2004, Katie Zezima of The New York Times penned an article called "In 'Casey' Rhubarb, 2 Cities Cry 'Foul!'" on the competing claims of two towns to such renown: Stockton, California, and Holliston, Massachusetts. 

As far as whether there was any model for the title character, Thayer already had dispelled the notion that any single living baseball player was an influence. However, late 1880s Boston star Mike "King" Kelly is odds-on the most likely model for Casey's baseball situations. Besides being a native of a town close to Boston, Thayer, as a San Francisco Examiner baseball reporter in the offseason of 1887-88, covered exhibition games featuring Kelly. In November, 1887, some of his reportage about a Kelly at-bat has the same ring as Casey's famous at-bat in the poem. A 2004 book by Howard W. Rosenberg, Cap Anson 2: The Theatrical and Kingly Mike Kelly: U.S. Team Sport's First Media Sensation and Baseball's Original Casey at the Bat, reprints a 1905 Thayer letter to a Baltimore scribe who was inquiring about the poem's roots. In the letter, Thayer singled out Kelly, who had died in 1894, as having shown "impudence" in claiming to have written it. Rosenberg argues that if Thayer still felt offended, Thayer may have steered later comments away from connecting Kelly to it. Kelly had also performed in vaudeville, and recited the poem dozens of times, possibly butchering it to Thayer's dismay. Incidentally, the first public performance of the poem was on August 14, 1888, by actor De Wolf Hopper, on Thayer's 25th birthday.

Thayer's recitation of it at a Harvard class reunion in 1895 may seem trivial except that it helps solve the mystery, which lingered into the 20th century, of who had written it. In the mid-1890s, Thayer contributed several other comic poems for Hearst's New York Journal and then turned to make his livelihood by overseeing his family's mills in Worcester.

He moved to Santa Barbara, California, in 1912, where he married Rosalind Buel Hammett and retired. Thayer died in 1940, at age 77.




Delta Pi of ΔKE ~ Illinois    ~    Delta Psi of ΔKE ~ Indiana   ~    Psi Phi of ΔKE ~ DePauw


Post Office Box 813     Greencastle,  Indiana  46135