IN SEARCH OF THE HISTORICAL CASEY
Professor of Leisure History and Comparative Phrenology,Mountebank University
"But," and I paused dramatically, "there is NO joy in Mudville -- Mighty Casey has STRUCK OUT!" I’d never recited "Casey at the Bat" with more fire. When I pantomimed "and now he let’s it go," an imaginary baseball rocketed from my hand toward the imaginary plate. When the air was "shattered by the force of Casey’s blow," the windows nearly rattled. I half expected applause. But, of course, a roomful of blase third-graders hadn’t yet learned the proper response to a brilliant dramatic recitation.
"Is that it?" asked Katherine (with a K), a chubby blonde behind buck teeth.
"Yes. Did you like it?" I asked.
"It was okay. Can I be excused?"
"In a few moments, Katherine. First, we should discuss the poem."
Mrs. Offenbach, the principal at Wilmerding Elementary, had warned me the class would try to take advantage of a substitute teacher. In many ways, she’d said, these moppets were far more diabolical than the college students to whom I normally lectured. "We’re happy that the university is on spring break and you are willing to stand in for Miss Slogg while she has her operation, but you must be careful or your whole class will be off to the rest room," Mrs. Offenbach had cautioned.
"Now, class," I said, "was there any part of the poem you didn’t understand?"
"Who’d Casey play for?" asked John, a pale redhead with a superior smirk.
"Mudville. The Mudville nine."
"There ain’t no Mudville in either league," John announced.
"‘There isn’t any Mudville.’"
"That’s right," John agreed. "I know all the teams in the majors. You want to hear them?"
"Not right now, John. Mudville is a --"
"Can I be excused?" Katherine interrupted.
"-- in a few minutes, Katherine. Mudville is clearly fictitious?" I explained. "‘Fictitious’ means --"
"It ain’t real." John finished.
"Well, not real in the sense of being --"
"If it’s not real," Kim, a lump of indeterminate sex in the third row, protested, "who cares?"
"We often suspend our disbelief to enjoy the vicarious --"
"Yeah, who cares?" John agreed. Several others in the class nodded.
"Wait," I said. "You watch stories on television, don’t you."
"I Witness Video" John said.
"And Rescue 911 and Top Cops and Unsolved Mysteries," Kim added.
"And 60 Minutes and 20/20," John continued. Those are all real."
"Except for Andy Rooney," Kim shouted.
"Can I be ex --"
"Just a minute, Kath --"
"Andy Rooney is so real," John insisted.
"Is not," countered Kim.
"Is too," testified John.
"No," Kim said. "Andy Rooney’s an actor. My father told me he used to be in a lot of movies in the olden days. I saw one called Boy’s Town on the Late Show. It was so old it was in black and white and Andy didn’t have any wrinkles!"
"Kim," I said, "Your father may have confused Andy Rooney with Mickey Roon --"
"Why’d they make movies in black and white in the olden days anyway?" Jennifer asked. She had been sitting shyly in the back. "Did people see like that then?"
"They just didn’t know any better," John said brightly. "Isn’t that right, Mr. Gregory?"
"That’s Doctor Gregory, John. Can we get back to ‘Casey at the Bat?’"
"But if there wasn’t any Mudville and there wasn’t any Casey," Jennifer asked. "What difference does it make?"
The class rumbled in agreement.
"Now wait a minute, people," I said desperately, "while the names Mudville and Casey may be fictitious, it’s altogether possible that Ernest K. Thayer based his poem on a real incident."
"Like an NBC movie?" Kim asked.
"Well, sort of," I agreed.
"And did they change the names to protect the innocent?" asked Jennifer.
"Well," John said, "why can’t you tell us the true story?"
"John, you have to understand --"
"It’s probably another government cover-up," Jennifer said.
"Casey-gate!" blurted Kim.
"Tell us the truth!" the whole class began to chant. "Tell us the truth! Tell us the Truth!"
"Uh -- Katherine, you may be excused."
"Never mind now," she sulked. "It’s too late."
"John, will you find the janitor and ask for a mop?"
I must admit that by the time I arrived home that evening, I was in a state. If I was to maintain any credibility with that class of terrors, I’d have to tell them the facts behind "Casey at the Bat." But what were the facts? In all my baseball research, even when I was preparing my book, A History of Balls of the Base Variety, I hadn’t looked into Casey.
The key, I felt, was in identifying Mudville. If I could decipher the real city in Thayer’s poem, I could go to team rosters, and then work through the season to find the right game. The poem, I knew, was first published in a San Francisco newspaper in 1888. Could San Francisco itself be Mudville? Was it there that Thayer saw Casey, whoever Casey was?
But, when I looked up Thayer, I found something odd. When the poem was published, he had already moved back East and was living in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Suddenly, inspiration struck. I visualized Thayer coming east on a train. He’s bored with the long trip and gets off at some city along the way to break up his trip. While visiting, he goes to a baseball game. It’s there that he sees the event that he will make famous. When he continues his train journey, he composes "Casey" to pass the time. And once he arrives in Worcester, he encloses the poem in a letter he sends to his friends back in San Francisco.
Often, in seeking the truth, one must create a reasonable hypotheses in order to know where to look for the rest of the story. This felt right! Mudville was a midwestern city -- and surely one with a major league team in 1888, for certainly Thayer couldn’t have reached such poetic heights by writing about minor leaguers.
But what city? I re-read Thayer’s opening line: "It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day." The word "rocky" seemed an odd choice. Could Thayer have meant it as a clue to Mudville? My hand trembled as I opened my atlas. There it was! ROCK Island, Illinois! But wait, Rock Island had only a minor league team in 1888. And suddenly I saw the logic. The Mudville team had played badly that day, just like the MINOR leaguers in Illinois -- Rock Island. And this was a shame because the Mudville nine was the MAJOR league team in the land of Lincoln -- Chicago!
I believed in my theory, but I needed some more proof. And, the next moment it was there before my eyes. I knew that Chicago in 1888 was already a meat-packing center -- hog butcher of the world, so to speak. Thousands of animals in open air pens! The smell must have been unbelievable to a stranger visiting for a few days on his way east. Thayer had put it into his poem by naming the city. Obviously "mud" was a literary pun on the French word merde which he dared not use in those Victorian times. Definitely Chicago.
I next pulled out my dog-eared copy of All-Time Rosters of Major League Baseball Clubs to find the names of Chicago’s 1888 players. In addition to Casey, Thayer named four other players in the poem: Cooney, Burrows, Flynn, and Blakey. Two names were only slightly disguised. Catcher Silver Flint was obviously "Flynn." Pitcher George Borchers just as obviously "Burrows." I wondered whether Thayer had intentionally disguised the names or simply mis-remembered them later on the train when he wrote the poem. Then, in a flash, I realized he would have had to adjust some names to fit the poem’s meter! "Cooney" and "Blakey" were no doubt used in place of longer names that would have produced non-scanning lines. Once I recognized that obvious fact, I was certain the two real players were outfielder George Van Haltren and shortstop Ned Williamson.
At that point, I was reasonably certain I knew who "Casey" was too. But first I had to find a game that fit the situation in the poem. I got to the library only an hour before it closed. Fortunately, our local paper is on microfilm all the way back to 1864. Even more fortunately, it carried box scores and brief accounts of all the league games during the season of 1888.
I expected Thayer to have changed the incident slightly for dramatic purposes. With that knowledge, it didn’t take me long to find the correct game.
It occurred on June 16. Chicago lost to New York 8-4. Thayer halved the score to make the game appear closer. There actually was no one on base in the last of the ninth, so Thayer simply invented two base-runners to make a "Mudville" victory possible. And "Casey" didn’t strike out; he much less dramatically popped to shortstop. Once I had my mind inside Thayers’, so to speak, the game, despite his clever obfuscations, was easily identified.
"Casey" himself was a cinch because Thayer had retained the middle "s" in the player’s name. The final two letters in "Casey" were changed from "on" to the beginning of the word "eye" because the real player was not merely "on" the team but the one who "oversaw" it’s actions. And the "Ca" in "Casey" represented the beginning of the real player’s famous nickname -- "Cap!" Yes, "Casey" was none other than Hall of Fame first baseman and Chicago manager Adrian Constantine "Cap" Anson!
In wonderment, I realized that Thayer had undoubtedly wanted readers to see through his camouflage, but it had taken over a hundred years for someone clever enough to come along. Not that I want to pat myself on the back, so to speak.
I couldn’t wait to go to school the next day to show those little bra -- brainy children what a dedicated researcher could accomplish. But shortly after I arose the next morning, I received a phone call from Mrs. Offenbach.
"Mrs. Slogg has decided to postpone her operation and will be returning today, Dr. Gregory, so we won’t need you at Wilmerding Elementary."
I was disappointed. I could have used the extra day’s pay. However, I told Mrs. Offenbach that I would still drop around to tell the students of a discovery I’d made.
"Dr. Gregory," she said, "I looked into the third grade after school yesterday. Half of our textbooks are wet. There is paste in the pencil sharpener. The drinking fountain now spurts across the room. Our large alphabet letters around the blackboard spell out dirty words. The blackboards themselves have been finger-painted yellow. Mrs. --"
"Perhaps I should have kept a tighter rein," I admitted.
"-- Slogg’s filing cabinet is smashed flat --"
"For show-and-tell, John brought a sledge hammer."
"-- and three desks are missing. If you ever set foot on these grounds again, I’ll have you shot!"
I didn’t care to argue with an obviously emotionally overwrought woman. Besides, she’d hung up. However, I still wanted to tell those kids -- particularly that smirky little John -- about Casey. I thought I could simply stand on the sidewalk and call to the third grade class when it came out for recess.
I certainly wasn’t loitering. I tried to tell that to the officer. When Sergeant What-Ever-His-Name-Is comes back to the interrogation room, I’ll explain it all to him calmly and rationally. Pervert indeed!
Or perhaps I should ask for a lawyer.