By P. G. Wodehouse.
Vanity Fair (UK), August 25, 1904
NEXT to divorce, baseball is New York’s favourite pastime. What Americans, as a nation, think of cricket I do not know. One gentleman from way back informed me that in his opinion the only merit of the game was the constant opportunity it provided of taking in a long drink. In the same way the English mind has never been able to get that strange hold on the beauties of baseball which is so noticeable on the other side. What is there in the game to send a crowd of forty thousands frantic with excitement? To the uninitiated, it is simply “rounders,” played, to judge by appearances, by picked teams from the local lunatic asylums. Indeed, the eccentricity is not confined to the players. The crowd has its share. Also the reporter in next morning’s paper. In the early days of the season New York beat Boston. That is the theme. Here is the theme with variations as recorded by the ball expert of the New York Journal. We will start with a few headlines, if you please:—
Yankees Bat To Victory In Boston.
Griffith’s Men Swat Dineen For Five Tallies
In One Inning.
Then the reporter gets off from the mark in his breezy, “git-thar” style:—
“Wow! Whoop! Fine! Oh, fine! Any number of cheers. Here, quick, dear friend, take this highball of happiness—just a-brimmin’ over, just a-brimmin’ over.” (He spells it with one “m”; but what of spelling when it covers a warm heart?) “Listen to James, will you? Nice man to have, James, who isn’t supposed ever to show his feelings on any occasion, and Nowke’s running around like a Comanche, yelling: ‘ ’Ip! ’Ip! ’Ooooorye!’ Say, maybe you heard it, maybe you didn’t that whooping joy cry uttered in Boston at about half-past three this afternoon. Well it was we. It was we. Whee!”
This is the right stuff. It stirs. It invigorates. It would thrill a pew-opener. You feel that you want to read on and find out what it is all about.
“Why did we cheer, dear friend?” proceeds the scribe.
“Only too happy to explain, only too happy. Half-mast for the two pennants that fly at the Beanville American Grounds yesterday, thank you.” (Beanville is Boston, where the baked beans come from.) “Half-mast for pennant of American League Championship—half-mast for the one that declares they are champions of the world, no less. Champeens, hey? Champeens? Huh! Bet when we got through with them they felt like running home and sobbing out the sad story at mother’s knee. Champeens, hey? Chanpeens? It seems very hard to believe it to-night, dear friend. Why, sized beside a Yankee, a champeen didn’t look any bigger than a freckle on a frog’s leg yesterday, and there’s an affidavit to go with that statement, if necessary.”
“Nobody, Champeens or Griffith’s gay boys, had trod the rosy pathway to the score-board for the first two innings. Up steps McGuire. (This is New York batting now.) He stepped down again in a hurry. A little bulb that scuttled to third found first base long before McGuire.”
Now, the facts in the case of McGuire, translated into English, are thus: He opened the batting in New York’s third inning. He was armed with a weapon which was a blend of policeman’s truncheon and Indian club. Behind him stood the catcher, wearing on one hand a huge padded glove. Behind the catcher stood the umpire. Facing McGuire was the “pitcher.” The rules of the game enact that the batsman shall be at liberty to refuse to play any of the pitcher’s deliveries that may not be to his taste, and to wait until he happens on a congenial one before smiting. But to prevent this happening too often, the ingenious persons who look after the game have arranged that the batsman shall stand on a tin plate of moderate size. If the pitcher pitches a ball that passes over this plate at a height that is not above the batsman’s shoulder or below his waist, and the batsman fails to hit it the umpire calls “Strike one.” The batsman is allowed three balls of this kind, that are officially considered playable, and if he misses all three he is out, and retires to the bench till the next inning.
We left Mister McGuire grasping his club and facing the pitcher. The pitcher, who, like the batsman, is restricted as to the space in which he may move, began to prance down the field in a menacing manner. At last, being then some fifteen yards from the batsman, he twisted his body in a sort of spasm, brought his left knee sharply across until it nearly touched his face, then suddenly uncoiled and delivered the ball like a shot from a rifle. Whether it was the first ball or the second or third we do not know, but Mr. McGuire smote out at one of the three and sent the ball flying in the direction of third field. Then he flew himself for first base. But the ball arrived first, and he was out. At the first base a fieldsman had been posted. When third field got to the ball, he flung it to the man at the first base, and the latter, standing on the plate which marks the base, touched it with the ball before Mr. McGuire could get there. It is to avoid being out in this way that causes the player, to hurl themselves along the ground at a base instead of running—a process which adds to the game that suggestion of insanity before-mentioned. As the Girton Girl wrote after seeing a match:
I feel that I could watch baseball
With interest and even passion,
If but the players wouldn’t fall
In that extraordinary fashion.
So Mr. McGuire is out. But there are others.
“Next Fultz. Flashed out to little Parent at third. Parent gathered it all right, but then he tried to bring Keeler’s young hairs in sorrow to the grave at the home plate. Where the deuce was that ball he threw going? Well, dear friend, it wasn’t going anywhere near the catcher at the home plate.” So Keeler got home, or, as the writer puts it, “copped off his little rim,” and Fultz meanwhile “flipflapped to second under the circumstances.” Boston never recovered the lost ground. The report concludes with the words:—“Score—Griffith’s grand little men 6; pennant possessions 3.”
The reader may be wondering who this Griffith is. He is evidently somebody of importance. Who is it has his name mentioned in the papers as if the game had been played under his patronage, and nobody else’s? Griffith. When there are hot batteries of goo-goo eyes being handed about by pink-cheeked Boston girls, who is it that gets them? The man Griffith. Then who is he, and what has he done? We do not read of him as beating the home rubber. We hear nothing of his flipflapping to second. All he does is to strut back from the coaching-box. Who is this man? Griffith is the manager of the team, and if I were asked to select what they call, in New York, a real lead-pipe cinch—in other words, a walk in life of the pleasantest and most lucrative kind—I should choose the managership of a crack baseball team.
The duties are strenuous, but interesting. And the pay is quite good. £2000 a year is what the average manager gets. So does the pitcher. A first-class pitcher can command his own terms. He generally commands ten thousand dollars per annum. Taking into consideration the fact that the ball season only lasts six months of the year, this pay may be called adequate. But a pitcher’s post is not a sinecure. A pitcher must not be merely good, he must be very, very good. He must be able to throw the ball at lightning speed, and yet control it so wonderfully that he can make it swerve from left to right, from right to left, upwards or downwards at will. There are many men earning £2000 a year at banking, acting, company-promoting, and in other spheres of action, who could not make it swerve an inch in any direction. So let us not grudge the pitcher his pittance.
Baseball not only flavours the literature of the country—or that section which is represented by the newspapers—but it is beginning to have a literature of its own, just as cricket has in England. The baseball novel has—providentially—yet to be written; but baseball stories appear from time to time in the magazines. Perhaps the gem of ball-game literature is “Casey at the Bat.” It is old, twenty years old, and its authorship is lost in antiquity. But it is kept green by nightly recitation in a piece called “Wang.”
If it would not bore you? Very well, then:
CASEY AT THE BAT.
By an Unknown Genius.
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.
And when, responding to the cheers,
He lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt
’Twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him
As he rubbed his hands with dirt—
Five thousand tongues applauded
When he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher
Ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye,
A smile curled Casey’s lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere
Came hustling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it
In haughty grandeur there;
Close by the sturdy batsman
The ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey.
“Strike one,” the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people,
There went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves
On a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! kill the umpire!”
Shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him,
Had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity
Great Casey’s vision shone;
He stilled the rising tumult,
He bade the game go on;
He signalled to the pitcher,
And once more the spheroid flew,
But Casey still ignored it,
And the umpire said, “Strike Two.”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands,
And Echo answered Fraud!
But one scornful look from Casey,
And the multitude was awed;
They saw his face grow stern and cold.
They saw his muscle strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t
Let the ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip,
His teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence
His bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball,
And now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered
By the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favoured 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 Boston—
Mighty Casey has struck out.
These are the tragedies of baseball. I think the above must have been a topical song twenty years ago, and Casey the thinly-disguised name of some eminent Boston batsman. New York is always having a dig at the city of beans and culture.
We know that Wodehouse attended his first professional baseball game at the Polo Grounds (he sat in the bleachers) the third week in April 1904 (see “New York Crowds,” Vanity Fair, November 24, 1904). But a week prior to that, he spotted a newspaper report on a game between the Boston Americans and the New York Highlanders, one of a three-game series played April 14, 15, and 16 at Hilltop Park, overlooking the Hudson River. In this long article he takes the opportunity to give Vanity Fair readers back home his first report on American baseball, written only as a British journalist raised on cricket – but befuddled by baseball – could. In turn, with an ample supply of period color, he quotes a sports column from the New York Journal and accurately touches on a few basic aspects of the game. In his first use of the American vernacular that so tickled his ears, he gives us three paragraphs of slang and idiomatic dialog (including his apparently original ‘not any bigger than a freckle on a frog’s leg’). Wodehouse had yet to capture the nuances of Brooklynese – his dialog here is an odd admixture of a burbling Brit and a slangy New Yorker. He describes two outs of third-inning action, noting the play of Highlanders Deacon McGuire, Dave Fultz, and future Hall-of-Famer “Wee Willie” Keeler; also getting a mention is Clark Griffith, New York manager (who later went on to own the Washington Senators until his death in 1955.) It also appears Wodehouse attended a performance of the musical Wang which had opened April 18 at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway.
— John Dawson
The poem “Casey at the Bat” was written in 1888 by Ernest Thayer and first published (under the pseudonym ‘Phin’) on June 3 of that year in the San Francisco Examiner. Wodehouse’s version is remarkably accurate, except that he starts with the sixth stanza instead of the first (“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day”); there are just two minor changes (‘hustling’ for ‘hurtling’ and ‘the’ for ‘that’) as well as the substitution of Boston for Mudville in the final stanza. The version published on July 28, 1888 in the New York Sporting Times also removed the first five stanzas, set the scene in Boston, and substituted Boston’s star player Mike “King” Kelly for Casey, so no doubt the version Wodehouse quoted was derived in part from that.
The title role of Wang was originated by DeWolf Hopper in 1891 and recreated by him for the 1904 revival. Hopper first recited the poem on stage in the comic opera Prinz Methusalem in 1888, and seems to have interpolated it into nearly every show he was in; he claimed to have delivered the poem more than ten thousand times during his stage career.
— Neil Midkiff