by Walter Simmons
Nearly one hundred years after its first appearance, Casey at the Bat, the story of a baseball hero who fails at the crucial moment, remains a classic of humorous verse. Martin Gardner, who has researched and studied the subject of Casey extensively, has written, “The story of Casey has become an American myth because Casey is the incomparable, towering symbol of the great and glorious poop-out.” Yet the circumstances surrounding the creation of the poem are little known.
Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1863-1940) was the son of a wealthy New England businessman. He spent several auspicious years at Harvard, where he studied philosophy and edited the Harvard Lampoon (the venerable humor magazine), graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in 1885. After leaving Harvard, Thayer drifted aimlessly around Europe, until his college friend William Randolph Hearst invited him to write a weekly column of humor for the San Francisco Examiner, a newspaper Hearst had recently been given by his father.
Thayer accepted this offer, continuing the column for several years. Casey at the Bat was his contribution to the edition of June 3, 1888. It might easily have sunk into the oblivion of his other writings were it not for the fact that several months later someone who had seen the column in the newspaper showed it to his friend William DeWolf Hopper (1858-1935), a comedian and singer. Hopper memorized the poem and recited it at one of his performances. The reception proved so enthusiastic that Casey became part of Hopper’s permanent repertoire, and as a result began to appear in print throughout the country. (Hopper later estimated that he had recited the poem more than ten thousand times.)
As Casey at the Bat became more popular, discrepancies began to appear among different printed editions; even the actual authorship became obscured, as others attempted to claim credit for the poem. Thayer himself remained aloof from the controversy. After his brief period as a writer, he had halfheartedly assumed responsibility for his father’s business, retiring at an early age to Santa Barbara, California, where he remained for the rest of his life. Thayer’s own retrospective comment on the poem:
In general quality Casey … is neither better nor worse than much of the other stuff [I wrote for the newspaper]. Its persistent vogue is simply unaccountable, and it would be hard to say, all things considered, if it has given me more pleasure than annoyance.
But what is the explanation for Casey’s “persistent vogue”? One English professor at Yale asserts of the poem that “the psychology of the hero and the psychology of the crowd leave nothing to be desired.”
This thought was further elaborated by DeWolf Hopper himself, in his memoirs:
The crowds do not flock into the American League parks.., solely in anticipation of seeing Babe Ruth whale the ball over the center field fence…. There always is a chance that the Babe will strike out, a sight even more healing to sore eyes, for the Sultan of Swat can miss the third strike just as furiously as he can meet it, and the contrast between the terrible threat of his swing and the futility of the result is a banquet for the malicious, which includes us all….[Casey] is as perfect an epitome of our national game today as it was when every player drank his coffee from a mustache cup. There are one or more Caseys in every league, bush or big, and there is no day in the playing season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes for the moment, does not befall on some field.
Perhaps the notion of a great hero failing at the moment of truth, in the presence of his peers, touches a particularly sensitive nerve in the American collective unconscious.
Two silent film versions of the Casey story were made during the early years of this century, In the 1940s, Walt Disney created an animated cartoon version. But according to Martin Gardner, “the most important continuation and elaboration of the Casey story” is the musical adaptation by William Schuman.
Schuman is one of the handful of serious American composers whose music has found a secure place in the concert repertoire. Works such as New England Triptych, American Festival Overture, and Symphony No. 3 are among the few pieces of contemporary American music to appear with regularity on symphonic programs, and smaller works for band and chorus are favorites with student ensembles across the country.
Aaron Copland has said of Schuman’s music:
I think of it as being the work of a man who has an enormous zest for life … and that zest informs all his music…. His music represents big emotions! In Schuman’s pieces you have the feeling that only an American could have written them…. You hear it in his orchestration, which is full of snap and brilliance. You hear it in the kind of American optimism which is at the basis of his music.
Unlike other “American sounding” composers such as Ives, Copland, and Gould, Schuman does not achieve this identification through the use or imitation of American folk melodies or their syntax. Rather, the underlying spirit and temperament of his music reflects a brash assertiveness, a positive self-confidence, and an avoidance of sentimentality that suggest the American personality as it was traditionally perceived during this nation’s period of growth and development. These qualities can be found in Schuman’s earlier works, along with the influence of his distinguished teacher Roy Harris, as well as in his more recent compositions, despite their greater complexity and introspective ambiguity. As the years have passed, many specifically musical features have remained evident in Schuman’s works: bracing polytonal harmony (created by the superimposition of distinctly different triads); melodies doubled at an interval other than the octave; clear separation of instrumental choirs; dominant roles for brass instruments and an active use of percussion; syncopated rhythms; and a fondness for sizzling, triumphant conclusions.
Those acquainted with Schuman as one of America’s leading serious composers, as well as a prominent educator and administrator, may be surprised to learn that he is also an avid baseball fan. In fact, in his youth he was an active participant, and even considered seriously a career as a professional ballplayer. It was therefore natural for Schuman, a great admirer of Thayer’s immortal poem, to consider a musical adaptation of Casey.
In the early 1950s Schuman and librettist Jeremy Gury built an entire opera, called The Mighty Casey, around the poem, adding characters, a romantic dimension, and many entertaining embellishments, not to mention a wealth of appropriately lively music. In 1975 Schuman designed an alternate version for concert performance, entitled Casey at the Bat. This version requires fewer characters and less elaborate staging.
Listeners familiar with Schuman’s serious symphonic works may be struck by the apparent simplicity and unabashed tunefulness of the Casey music. But a closer look reveals a solid, brilliantly crafted musical structure, interwoven with subtle thematic relationships. Moreover, many of the features of Schuman’s more familiar style are present in Casey, albeit in somewhat simple form: note especially the jagged, kinetic rhythms and nontonal parallelisms; the concluding section, in particular, is a brooding lament that would be quite appropriate in a major Schuman composition.
Both the opera and cantata versions of Schuman’s Casey last nearly an hour and a half. For the purposes of this recording we have, with the composer’s approval, made an abridgment designed both to keep the story intact and to present as much as possible of the main musical material. The complete work includes a spoken reading of Thayer’s poem. We are pleased to present the poem, in its entirety on this recording, read by William Schuman himself.