Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.
Who was Casey, this mighty batsman who brought no joy to Mudville? Ernest L. Thayer, who composed the poem in 1888, said that Casey was not based on an actual figure, but was a composite of several. De Wolf Hopper, whose dramatic performance made “Casey at the Bat” the most famous poem ever written about baseball or any other American sport, had no clue. Yet the public clamored to know who the “real” Casey was. In Boston, fans, or cranks as they were known at the time, thought that Casey certainly must have been modeled on King Kelly, the most celebrated player of the day.
There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place,
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
The Boston cranks said that surely describes Kelly, who was already the hero of “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” Other towns nominated their own favorites, but the identity of the mighty Casey remained a mystery for more than 50 years until Major League Baseball bestowed the honor on the hitherto unheralded Dan Casey.
Daniel Maurice Casey was born on November 20, 1862, the fifth of the six children of Hannah and William Casey, immigrants from Ireland. Dan grew up on his parents’ farm in Maine Township, Broome County, New York, a few miles northwest of Binghamton. Although he worked on the family farm, Dan found time to learn baseball, probably playing at Maine High School or with amateur clubs in the Binghamton area. He played well enough to gain the attention of professional clubs and signed as a pitcher with the Wilmington Quicksteps of the Eastern League in 1884 at the age of 21. Six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, the young man was larger than the average ballplayer of his era. In a departure from the norm, he threw left-handed but batted from the right side of the plate. Dan’s older brother Dennis was also a member of the Quicksteps and the two brothers were among the stars of the club. A center fielder, Dennis led the team in hitting with a .370 average, well ahead of the .337 posted by Oyster Burns, a future major-league star. Dan’s ten wins against only two losses was second on the team to the 19 victories racked up by The Only Nolan.
In August the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association folded due to lack of attendance. The owners of the Quicksteps then moved the Wilmington franchise to the UA, which was considered a major league during the 1884 season. Dan Casey made his major-league debut on August 18 in a 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals in the Quicksteps’ first game in their new league. It was his only UA win of the season, but it was one-half of the team’s wins, as the Quicksteps posted a 2-16 record. After their second game in the UA, both Dennis Casey and Oyster Burns jumped to the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association. Dennis had played in the first game, the one that Dan won, so the two brothers played together in one major-league game. The UA collapsed at the end of the season. The nation’s economy was not robust enough to support three major leagues at the time.
Casey started the 1885 season with the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western Association. On June 15 his contract was purchased by the Detroit Wolverines of the National League and he was back in the majors. During the offseason he was obtained by the Philadelphia Quakers and remained in the big leagues for four more years, twice winning more than 20 games for the Quakers. In his best season, 1887, he led the National League in both earned-run average and shutouts, and finished third in won-lost percentage and fourth in wins. He slumped in 1889 and was released at the end of the season. He was picked up by the Syracuse Stars of the American Association, winning 19 games while losing 22 in his final major-league season. His last big-league game was a win over the Philadelphia Athletics on October 4, 1890. Casey returned to the minors, playing out the string for Jamestown, Albany, and Binghamton from 1891 through 1899.
In 1889 Casey married a young woman named Mary, whose parents were also Irish immigrants. They had one daughter, Mable, born in November 1891. After he retired from baseball Casey worked for many years as a trolley-car conductor in Binghamton. For 50 years he told people in Binghamton that he was the original Casey of the famous poem, but few people believed him. After retiring from his job with the trolleys he moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. In 1935 he walked into a newspaper office in Washington and repeated his claim.
Time magazine reported that the septuagenarian had said: “I was a left-handed pitcher for the Phillies. I guess you’d call me the Hubbell of my time. We were playing the Giants in the old Philadelphia ballpark on August 21, 1887. Tim Keefe was pitching against me and he had a lot of stuff, but I was no slowpoke myself. It was the last of the ninth and New York was leading 4 to 3. Two men were out, and there were runners on second and third. A week before, I had busted up a game with a lucky homer and folks thought I could repeat.” But, alas, Casey struck out, the Phillies lost, and there was no joy in the City of Brotherly Love that evening.
How accurate was Casey’s account? Very accurate. A check of newspaper archives showed that Casey and Keefe indeed hooked up in a pitcher’s battle on that August date in 1887. Casey had indeed hit a home run in 1887, the only four-bagger of his major-league career. Calling him the Hubbell of his day might seem a bit far-fetched self-aggrandizement, but Casey’s numbers in 1887 compare favorably with those of King Carl at his best. Winning 28 games, while leading the league with a 2.86 earned-run average and four shutouts, makes the comparison no idle boast. Of course, Hubbell kept up his superb performance year after year, whereas Casey had only two excellent seasons.
The main problem with Casey’s story is that in 1887 Ernest L. Thayer, writer of the poem, was living in far-off California working for the San Francisco Examiner. The poem first appeared in the June 3, 1888, issue of the newspaper. It seems unlikely that Thayer would have known and remembered details of the game in Philadelphia.
Nevertheless, baseball embraced the story. According to the since debunked Abner Doubleday myth, baseball’s centennial was coming up in 1939. Ford Frick, president of the National League, spearheaded the drive to establish a National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the lovely little village in upstate New York where Doubleday allegedly laid out his field. The Hall of Fame would be the centerpiece of the centennial celebration. In order to add pizzazz to the festivities, baseball officials wished to honor as many forgotten heroes of the game as they could find. They decided Dan Casey was one of those to be feted. He was presented with a lifetime pass to all ballparks and featured on a nationally broadcast radio program. Time published a feature on the “Mudville Man.” Before a night game between the International League’s Baltimore Orioles and Jersey City Giants, a Casey-at-the Bat re-enactment was staged. The 76-year-old Casey, wearing a business suit and an Orioles cap, stepped to the plate. A Baltimore coach, the former great second baseman Rogers Hornsby, who was soon to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, strode to the mound. Casey took the scripted two strikes, then went down swinging as the legend required.
After his brief moment in the limelight, Casey again faded from the nation’s consciousness. After a long illness, Daniel Maurice Casey died on February 8, 1943, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 80. He was buried in Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland.
December 20, 2011
Charles F. Faber, Major League Careers Cut Short (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011)
Time, May 30, 1938.