Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The NRR Project #19: 'Casey at the Bat' (1906)

‘Casey at the Bat’
DeWolf Hopper
Recorded 1906

What can you say about “Casey at the Bat”? That’s fresh, I mean. It’s engraved on our collective consciousness. Everyone knows it; it’s part of American mythology. We’ve all recited it, or heard it recited. It’s been performed, recorded, adapted, parodied thousands upon thousands of times. It’s on short list of “America’s best-loved poems,” along with “The Night before Christmas,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and homiletic narratives such as those of Edgar A. Guest (“It takes a heap o’ living/To make a house a home”), et al. In other words, it’s annoying.

The facts are these – Ernest Lawrence Thayer, a 24-year-old humor columnist for the San Francisco Examiner (a Harvard classmate of millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst’s, who gave him the job), cranked out this mock epic as his last piece for that paper, on June 3, 1888. It was buried, like the piece of comic doggerel Thayer and everyone else took it for, at the bottom of the fourth column on Page 4 that day. It bore no byline. (Thayer received proper attribution years later, but never made an extra dime off his best-known creation.)

As a poem, it certainly works. It’s memorable, it tells an interesting story in an interesting way. Its pace is bouncy and fee, fun, and seemingly crafted to speak aloud, actually. It’s almost a parody, but not quite – “A straggling few got up to go in deep despair” is exactly how many baseball fans have felt when the home team was down late in the game. Ultimately, it’s a bit of a homily about tragic pride as well.

But then. Back in those days, casual pieces that were “evergreen,” or capable of being inserted at any time of year, migrated into other papers of the same chain, and rival publications as well. The sheer volume needed to fill the daily “news hole” meant that all kinds of material found its way into the pages, good, bad or indifferent. The New York Sun ran it a few weeks later. Writer Archibald Gunter read it, clipped it out and stuck it in his wallet. He had a friend who was huge ham who he thought might like it.

DeWolf Hooper reciting "Casey at the Bat" for an early synchronized-sound film, 1922.
DeWolf Hopper was one of the funniest men of Broadway. At 6’5” and 230 pounds, he was an adept comic actor who got his start with the proto-musical comedy team of Harrigan and Hart. Hopper wound up starring in more than 30 productions during the period. (He was quite a ladies’ man as well, with as many wives as Henry VIII, and the nickname ‘The Husband of His Country.’)

And he was a big baseball fan, or “crank,” as an adherent of the sport was termed then. He had already started interpolating freestanding comic baseball sketches and “bits” into his performances as early as 1885.

When Hopper glimmed this poem, something clicked. On August 14, 1888, Hopper recited the poem at a special performance of the comic opera Prinz Methusalem that was attended by the both the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox. It was a huge hit. Hooper was uniquely suited to deliver this bombastic narrative of battle, stretching it out, embellishing it with rococo diction and gesture, and wringing every laugh possible out of it. (This usually took him five minutes and 40 seconds; he speeds up to fit it all in on one side of this Victor disc.)

Hopper claimed to have performed the piece 10,000 times, which would mean that he got up and performed it every day for seven months out of the year over the course of the 47 remaining years of his career. I’m glad that age could not wither nor custom stale his enjoyment of performing it, but I wonder if it got a little tiresome for others.

Oh, and I don’t know if any literary scholar has covered this last point but: Casey is a big fat jerk.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ’They Didn’t Believe Me.’

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