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Thayer, Ernest Lawrencefree

(14 August 1863–21 August 1940)
  • Ann T. Keene

Thayer, Ernest Lawrence (14 August 1863–21 August 1940), writer, was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Edward Thayer, owner of several woolen mills, and Ellen Darling Thayer. Growing up in a privileged family, Ernest was educated privately in his early years. In 1881 he followed in the footsteps of generations of male Thayers by enrolling at Harvard University; there he studied philosophy with William James, who became a lifelong friend. The personable Thayer was both a brilliant student and a talented wit, and he put the latter to use as an editor of Harvard's satirical magazine, the Lampoon; he was named president of the Lampoon in his senior year. One of his fellow editors was the future philosopher George Santayana, who encouraged Thayer's interest in poetry and became a close friend. Thayer formed another valuable friendship with the Lampoon's business manager, fellow student William Randolph Hearst, later a newspaper tycoon.

Elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named class orator, Thayer graduated from Harvard with highest honors in 1885. He then took a leisurely tour of Europe that lasted for nearly a year while he pondered his future. Hearst meanwhile was running the San Francisco Examiner, and at Hearst's invitation Thayer moved to San Francisco and joined the paper's editorial staff. For a year and a half, while writing for the editorial page, Thayer contributed occasional humorous columns to the paper under the pen name "Phin"--derived from a college nickname, "Phineas"--and also wrote light verse for publication in the paper's Sunday supplements, inspired by the then-popular Bab Ballads of the British writer and librettist W. S. Gilbert. One of Thayer's poems written for the Examiner was "Casey at the Bat," which told the story of how "mighty Casey," lead hitter of the fictional Mudville baseball team, strikes out and loses the team's most important game. Written in May 1888, it appeared in the Examiner on 3 June 1888 but apparently made no great impression on local readers.

By this time poor health had forced Thayer to return to the East Coast. Living with his family at their home in Worcester, Massachusetts, Thayer worked sporadically at one of the family companies, American Woolen Mills, while continuing to write light verse for publication in the Examiner. Meanwhile "Casey at the Bat," along with other verses by Thayer, had been syndicated by Hearst in other newspapers around the country, and in August 1888 it came to the attention of the comic actor DeWolf Hopper. Hopper was then appearing at Wallack's Theatre in New York City, and shortly before he went onstage one evening, he received a telegram from his wife notifying him that their infant son was seriously ill. Earlier a friend of Hopper's, the popular novelist Archibald Clavering Gunter, had given Hopper a clipping of "Casey" from the New York Sun, suggesting that he read it between the acts. The poem seemed especially appropriate for the occasion because that evening was Wallack's weekly "baseball night," a performance frequented by ballplayers.

At first Hopper was too distraught by his son's condition to consider memorizing the piece, but after a second telegram arrived with the news that the child was recovering, he was reportedly so overjoyed that he quickly committed the poem to memory. Hopper's dramatic recitation of the poem that evening was a huge success and launched his career as a monologist. Over nearly five decades Hopper recited "Casey at the Bat" as many as fifteen thousand times in theaters and at other public and private gatherings throughout the country, and he played Casey himself in a brief silent film of the poem made in 1914.

Hopper's popularization of Thayer's verse made it a favorite of Americans of all ages, and in an era before radio and television, when ordinary citizens relied on simple, self-produced entertainments, it became a much-requested recitation piece among schoolchildren and adults alike. For many years, however, its author remained anonymous, identified in reprints if at all only as "Phin" or with the initials E. L. T. As the poem's popularity grew, many stepped forward, falsely claiming authorship. Hopper spent years searching for the author before finally meeting Thayer following a recitation in Worcester in the late 1890s. Thayer made numerous efforts to set the record straight--including a notable recitation of the poem at his decennial Harvard reunion--but his efforts were often ignored, even after published versions of "Casey at the Bat" carrying Thayer's full name began appearing as early as 1901.

Aside from a brief period working for the New York Journal in 1896-1897, the independently wealthy Thayer did little writing for the remainder of his life. His health remained poor, and he was also handicapped by partial deafness, though he was known among numerous friends as an erudite and gracious companion who, when asked, would happily recite his famous poem from memory. After several years of travel in Europe, Thayer moved to southern California in the early twentieth century, seeking a more auspicious climate, and ultimately settled in Santa Barbara. In 1913 he married Rosalind Hammett, who had a son by a previous marriage, but the couple had no children together.

Thayer's frailties kept him from combat service when the United States entered World War I in 1917, but he was active in stateside war relief efforts. Toward the end of his life he renewed his interest in philosophy and published several scholarly articles. Following Thayer's death from a cerebral hemorrhage in Santa Barbara, obituaries in leading newspapers around the country paid tribute to the long-obscure author of an American classic.

Bibliography

"Casey at the Bat," now in the public domain, is available in numerous editions. Ernest L. Thayer, "Casey at the Bat": The Authentic, Famous Baseball Saga (1986), is a facsimile 1904 printing of the poem with a recorded recitation made in 1909 by DeWolf Hopper reissued by the Library of Congress. For biographical information on Thayer, see "Ernest Lawrence Thayer" in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol. 33 (1947). DeWolf Hopper with Wesley Winans Stout, Once a Clown, Always a Clown: Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper (1927), includes Hopper's memories of reciting "Casey at the Bat" and an account of his meeting with Thayer. For early discussions of the origin and popularity of the poem, see John Glenister, "Who Wrote 'Casey at the Bat'?" Baseball, June 1908; and Homer Croy, "Casey at the Bat," Baseball, Oct. 1908. See also Jim Moore and Natalie Vermilyea, Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" (1994); and Eugene C. Murdock, Mighty Casey, All American (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times, 22 Aug. 1940.