The 1888 birth and subsequent celebrity of the rollicking baseball ballad by Ernest L. Thayer.
This latest from prolific pop biographer/historian Walsh (Moonlight, 2000, etc.) explores the two contrasting worlds that combined to create the phenomenon of “Casey at the Bat”: Broadway light opera and professional baseball, which was still in its childhood but rapidly gaining popularity in the late-19th century. Never known for understatement, the author early on makes the preposterous claim that “Casey” is the equal of Robert Frost’s “Birches” or “Mending Wall.” Fortunately, he does much better when he turns from literary criticism to social history. Illustrated with numerous period photographs and quotations from contemporary newspapers, the text brings the period to life. Thayer was a journalist in San Francisco who periodically contributed topical ballads; “Casey” appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888. Arch Gunter, a successful New York writer visiting his parents in California, clipped the poem and brought it home. When he learned that Wallack’s Theater was hosting a “Baseball Night” to take advantage of local enthusiasm for the first-place New York Giants, Gunter presented the clipping to Wallack’s manager, who promptly passed it on to his star, DeWolf Hopper. “Casey” was a smash from the first time this popular actor delivered it on August 14, 1888; Hopper performed the poem thousands of times during his career. He and Thayer eventually met, had lunch, made nice. Walsh ably describes this early intersection between entertainment and professional sport. He’s less effective in imagining the conversation between Thayer and Hopper, and yet less effective when he composes some clumsy lyrics of the sort that might have been included in one of Hopper’s shows. Readers may also wonder why the author neglects to consider any of Casey’s many reinterpretations in our own day, as did Frank Deford in Casey on the Loose (1989).
Walsh manages only a broken-bat blooper in this disappointing plate appearance.