The mighty Casey may have struck out, but Frank Deford said he doesn’t think that the hero of “Casey at the Bat” should have been portrayed as a buffoon.
“I never saw him that way,” said Deford, the veteran sportswriter who gave the keynote speech at the 25th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture on May 29 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “I saw him as a heroic figure. He just had one bad at bat. He was waiting for his pitch.”
Deford, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer and correspondent for National Public Radio and HBO’s Real Sports, led off the sold out three-day symposium with a well received lecture, “Baseball, Casey and Me” about the famous baseball poem written 125 years ago by Ernest Thayer and originally published in the San Francisco Examiner. About 160 participants attended the HOF event that included 24 lectures where more than 60 papers were presented.
Deford has written 18 books including his 2012 memoir, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter,” and the 1988 book about Casey called “Casey on the Loose: What Really Might Have Happened.” He said he came up with the idea for the latter book while trying to write a column for Sports Illustrated about the poem’s 100th anniversary.
“It took me very little research to decide that there wasn’t anything new to say about it,” he said. “We know more about Hamlet and Macbeth then we do about Casey. Thayer was like Conan Arthur Doyle, who tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes in the first book. Thayer got rather sick of Casey.”
Deford said that Thayer had never been to a baseball game when he wrote the poem. The poem was the last piece Thayer wrote for the Examiner, and may have been the only significant thing he ever wrote. It was only through a remarkable coincidence that actor DeWolf Hopper discovered the poem. Hopper was given the poem by a friend and recited it for the first time on Aug. 14, 1888; he would go on to recite it more than 10,000 times in his career.
Thayer never spoke much about the poem, and the details have been filled in over the years by other artists, poorly according to Deford.
“Casey has been destroyed over the years. They made him this portly fellow; like a modern day Prince Fielder,” he said. “Why did they do that to him? Thayer doesn’t describe him that way. The only word used to describe him is ‘mighty.’
“On the other hand, it offered me a tremendous opportunity to create the rest of Casey’s story.”
Deford’s book takes Casey away from Stockton, the California city that most scholars agree the fictional Mudville is based on, and makes him an Irishman from Boston named Timothy Casey. Deford gave Casey a love interest named Flossie and a daughter named Katie, which connects two famous baseball writings. The 1908 song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by Jack Norworth, was written about a girl named Katie Casey. In a later version of the song, her name is changed to Nelly Kelly.
“My only problem was the plot,” Deford said, “because as some of you know, it doesn’t end very well. I had to stay true to the story.”
Deford said that there have been several attempts to turn his book about Casey into a musical.
“We have come so close to getting it on Broadway, but so far we have not gotten past first base,” he said. “If we did, then Casey at last could be portrayed as something other than a fat loser. That’s my dream.”
Deford said he found it amusing that the most famous writings about baseball have sad endings.
“Isn’t it amazing, that the two most popular pieces of baseball literature are both tragic downers? It is ‘one, two, three strikes, you’re out, at the old ball game.’ Why didn’t it say it’s a hit at the old ball game?” he said.
“Even Tinkers to Evers to Chance is a double killing,” he continued. “Thank God for ‘Who’s on First.’ Why? I don’t know.”
Deford also laughed about the idea that Norworth, like Thayer, was not a baseball fan.
“He wrote that song in 1908 and he had never been to a baseball game. It was another 30 years before he went to a game. Don’t you think he would at least go to a game and see what it was like?
“There are so many great baseball writers,” he said, “and those two pieces, the two most famous things written about baseball, were written by people who knew very little about baseball. Those are the mysteries of life and of baseball.”