"The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day…." So begins "Casey at the Bat," the most famous poem in baseball history. It's the bottom of the ninth as the story begins, with two outs and two runners on base. Then "mighty Casey" steps up to the plate. Will he pull it off? Will the Mudville nine overcome the two-run lead of their opponents?
Anyone who has read the poem knows the answer. But a burning question for the better part of a century has asked where Casey and his team were playing that day.
"Casey at the Bat" was written in 1888 by Ernest Lawrence Thayer under the pen name "Phin." A native of Lawrence, Massachusetts, Thayer had recently graduated from Harvard University. Among other accomplishments, he had edited the Harvard Lampoon and struck up a friendship with William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. In 1886, Hearst had hired him as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
Thayer supposedly attended a number of baseball games in Stockton while working for Hearst. To many Stocktonians, his presence at the very least hints that the game took place here in San Joaquin County. Adding to the evidence are three players on the local team who shared names with counterparts in the poem and the unlikely coincidence that a game played in Stockton during the 1887 season featured someone similar to Casey and ended with the same score.
Besides, it's argued, Stockton in its early days was known as "Mudville."
Not everyone finds these arguments compelling. Across the Continent, in Holliston, Massachusetts, people see things differently, claiming their own town as the original Mudville. For evidence, they point to one of their neighborhoods known by that name since the 1850s, and they cite Irish names common to their baseball teams as well as the poem. In addition, they explain that Thayer's family not only kept a summer home just down the road in Mendon, but also owned a woolen mill about a mile away from Mudville.
So who's right? It's hard to tell. Thayer himself didn't really help matters with an assertion shortly before his death that "Casey at the Bat" had no basis in reality.
A couple weeks ago, a student in Massachusetts (yes, that Massachusetts!) sent me an e-mail. She wanted the final word: Was it Stockton or Holliston? Was she taunting me? In any case, what could I say? Call me a traitor if you will, but I ended up sharing both sides of the story. Then I admitted that I didn't know the answer.
I still don't know. But, really, how important is the location? Actually, I think it matters a lot, but not simply as a matter of local pride. To me, the argument over Mudville represents part of an important yearly ritual, one that awakens Americans each spring from a dreary winter and leads them to diamonds throughout the land in search of friendly rivalry and treasured memories.
In the end, perhaps "Casey at the Bat" tells us more about ourselves—wherever we live—than we've bothered to admit.
The author wishes to thank William Maxwell, archives manager at the Bank of Stockton, for his insights into local baseball and the poem "Casey at the Bat."