Once a Clown, Always a Clown/Chapter 3

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
2469110Once a Clown, Always a Clown — Casey at the BatDeWolf Hopper



Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.

On May 13, 1888, I recited a poem at Wallack's Theater, Thirtieth Street and Broadway, New York City. No bronze memorial tablet marks the site, yet the day may come. Lesser events have been so commemorated. The poem was "Casey at the Bat."

I thought at the time that I was merely repeating a poem, a fatherless waif clipped from a San Francisco newspaper. As it turned out I was launching a career, a career of declaiming those verses up and down this favored land the balance of my life. When my name is called upon the resurrection morn I shall, very probably, unless some friend is there to pull the sleeve of my ascension robe, arise, clear my throat and begin:

"The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day."

For thirty-seven years I have been doing it. The actual number of times is a problem for one of those laid-end-to-end statisticians. Where or what I may be playing, I must, before the evening is out, come before the curtain and pitch to Casey. If there is a benefit my contribution, it is understood, is Casey; a banquet, no other eloquence than Casey is expected of me. Long ago the repetition became so mechanical that I found it difficult to keep my mind on the task. In the midst of it I would find myself still declaiming, but my mind far from the theater or studying some face in the house. I have discovered that I can force my attention from straying only by recalling the hundred variations of emphasis with which I have experimented from time to time. Casey has so dogged my steps, indeed, that it has been suggested that I change the final stanza to:

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 whatever else is happening, Hopper'll be striking Casey out.

There doubtless are greater poems in American literature, but I wonder which will have a longer life than Casey. I venture to predict that it will find its way before long into the school readers, that surest path to immortality.

In fact, since these articles were printed in the Saturday Evening Post, I have had a letter from a gentleman in North Dakota who tells me that Casey already is included in a reader in use in the local schools. And by constant repetition I have made it my very own, while the modest and all but unknown author even has had his rightful claim to his child disputed by some ten thousand impostors.

Returning one Sunday evening in May, 1926, from an excursion of The Lambs to West Point, where the Cadets had called for Casey, and I had struck him out on the Military Academy's new stadium athletic field, I found a letter from Manila in my letter box at The Lambs. The envelope contained only a clipping from the Manila Times. The clipping read:

The exercises at the Sulu provincial high school took place on Tuesday evening, March 23, and the following program was rendered by the students:

Orchestra selection.
Declamation, by Joseflna San Augustin, salutatorian:
"The Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight."
Trio, High School Girls.
Dance of the Roses, by Fifth Grade Girls.
Declamation, by Ricardo Bautista, valedictorian:
"Casey at the Bat."
Address, by the Rev. F. D. Sholin.
Vocal solo by Norah Maulana.
Selection by the High School Boys' Bamboo orchestra.
"Good Night, Ladies", sung by High School Boys.
Address and presentation of certificates, by Mr. G. G. Bradford.

This is the same sultry Mohammedan island across from Borneo, where the wild man came from, that was so remote from our world in 1902 that George Ade made it the locale of the first and best of his musical comedies, "The Sultan of Sulu." George Moulan was the Sultan who had encountered the cocktail for the first time and was impelled to greet the succeeding dawn, not with "Allah il Allah", but with the minor chord dirge:


The water wagon
Is the place for me.

Shall we give up the Philippines? Never! Their Americanization now is complete.

Pop Anson's Chicago White Sox were playing the New York Giants, James Mutrie, manager, at the old Polo Grounds, Fifth Avenue and One Hundred and Tenth Street, the middle of May of 1888. Digby Bell had converted me to baseball several years earlier. We were at the Polo Grounds every free afternoon, and both of us for two years had given an annual Sunday-night benefit for the Giants, who had no world-series money to look forward to in that day. In appreciation, the team had presented each of us with gold-headed canes inscribed "From the boys to our best boy friend." That and the friendship of Buck Ewing, Tim Keefe and John M. Ward were my proudest chattels.

Bell and I suggested to Colonel McCaull, for whom both of us were working, that a baseball night, with the White Sox in one row of boxes and the Giants in an opposite row, would be a happy idea for all hands, and he embraced the suggestion.

Archibald Clavering Gunter, author of "Mr. Barnes of New York", "Mr. Potter of Texas", and other great successes of the eighties, saw the announcement and looked up McCaull at once.

"I've got just the thing for your baseball night," Gunter told him. "It's a baseball poem I cut out of a Frisco paper when I was on the Coast last winter. I've been carrying it around ever since. It's a lulu, and young Hopper could do it to a turn."

Gunter had the clipping with him and passed it over. McCaull read it, slapped his knee and agreed. That was a Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday night McCaull gave me the clipping and explained the object. Being quick study I stuck it in my pocket and forgot it. The series between the Sox and the Giants opened on Thursday and I, need it be said, was at the game. Thursday night a telegram from Onset Bay brought me word that my twenty-months-old boy had diphtheritic sore throat and that the crisis would be reached that night.

I was frantic. I slept little that night and early Friday morning found me camping on the steps of Wallack's, directly across from the Western Union office next door to Daly's Theater. There had been a violent storm in lower New England during the night, the wires were down in the morning and no word came from Onset Bay.

I was sitting there when McCaull appeared about 9: 30. I told him the circumstances, "I can't commit this piece," I declared. "I can't call my name until I hear how the boy is."

"Surely, surely," he sympathized. "Forget all about it, my boy."

Near eleven o'clock two clerks dashed out the Broadway door of the telegraph office, shouting my name. The wire had come through and they had not waited to write it down. The crisis was safely passed. That twenty-months-old son is vice president of the United States Mortgage and Trust Company of New York to-day.

I burst into McCaull's office with the good word. When I had quieted down I recalled the clipping.

"I'll study it now," I told him. "Just give me the office to myself for a while." He did, and in less than an hour I had memorized a poem that requires five minutes and forty seconds to recite, as I have had many an opportunity to test.

McCaull didn't credit the feat, particularly in my excited state, but not wishing to question my word, he pretended to be so interested that he wished to hear it then and there. And then and there I gave it without an error.

This quick study is a matter of gratitude rather than of pride with me. It has saved me much work. When I first was cast for the Lord Chancellor in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe", I was warned by fellow actors of "The Nightmare Song." This song is just what its title implies. It contains six hundred and twenty-nine words, none suggesting the word that follows, and is, I think, the most difficult memory test in all the library of the theater. I set aside a Sunday night for its study, made myself comfortable in robe and slippers in my hotel room, propped my feet on another chair, turned out all the lights but one and began on it at 9:20 P.M. I became so absorbed in the song that I forgot to light my pipe. At length I shut the book, closed my eyes and ran the words over in my mind.

"I've got you!" I shouted, tossed the book across the room and changed my position for the first time since I had sat down. As my feet came away from the chair that had supported them, my knees popped, my back cracked and my feet stung with the returning circulation. I knew all the sensations of Rip Van Winkle's waking. Surely it must be one o'clock. I looked at my watch. It said 10:45 P.M., and it was running, but it was a temperamental timepiece with a chronic habit of stopping and starting again with no apparent cause. So I phoned down to the hotel office.

"Twenty minutes of eleven," was the operator's answer.

I had committed "The Nightmare Song" in an hour and twenty minutes. I dressed and went to the Lambs Club to boast about it. My fellow Lambs were so skeptical that they bet me the drinks that I did not know it. In the barroom of the club I sang the song letter-perfect and won.

I have strayed afar from Wallack's Theater and the night of May 13, 1888. The bill was "Prince Methusalem" and I interpolated Casey in a scene in the second act. It was, I presume, the first time the poem was recited in public.

On his début Casey lifted this audience, composed largely of baseball players and fans, out of their seats. When I dropped my voice to B flat, below low C, at "the multitude was awed", I remember seeing Buck Ewing's gallant mustachios give a single nervous twitch. And as the house, after a moment of startled silence, grasped the anticlimactic denouement, it shouted its glee.

They had expected, as any one does on hearing Casey for the first time, that the mighty batsman would slam the ball out of the lot, and a lesser bard would have had him do so, and thereby written merely a good sporting-page filler. The crowds do not flock into the American League parks around the circuit when the Yankees play, solely in anticipation of seeing Babe Ruth whale the ball over the centerfield fence. That is a spectacle to be enjoyed even at the expense of the home team, but there always is a chance that the Babe will strike out, a sight even more healing to sore eyes, for the Sultan of Swat can miss the third strike just as furiously as he can meet it, and the contrast between the terrible threat of his swing and the ludicrous futility of the result is a banquet for the malicious, which includes us all. There is no more completely satisfactory drama in literature than the fall of Humpty Dumpty.

If a passing automobile splashes a street cleaner with mud you do not smile; but let that car splatter a pompous stroller in morning clothes, a gardenia in his buttonhole and a silk hat on his head, and you shout with glee. It isn't the flivver being towed into the garage that brings the grin to your face, but the straight-eight that passed you so insolently on the hill ten miles back.

The actors and the newspapermen of New York once played a game of baseball at the old Polo Grounds as a benefit for Carl Rankin. I was at first for the actors. Leander Richardson, the critic, was at third for the journalists. There were few more striking figures on Broadway in his time than Leander, and he was not unaware of it. His magnificent red beard was enough to set him off in any crowd, and he dressed the part.

This afternoon he was charming, as the society reporters would say, in his red silken beard, a white silk shirt, a flowing tie of robin's-egg blue, a broad sash of the same hue and white flannel trousers. All afternoon he stood magnificently at third and waved his sultry beard and never a ball came his way.

Late in the game some one on our side hit a high foul, one of the highest fouls I ever saw. It lingered in the hands of the angels for a time,

Once a Clown, Always a Clown-p111.png

From the photo by Jos. Hall. Collection of Albert Davis, Brooklyn, N. Y.

The Actors' Team that Played the New York Press Club in 1889

Mr. Hopper stands at rear, Francis Wilson, seated, below him, and below the latter is Wilton Lackaye at left, James T. Powers at right

then slowly began its descent to the third-base line. There was no wind, no sun. There was time enough for the farthest outfielders to have trotted in and snared it, but Leander waved all aside. It was his ball and he advanced superbly to the rendezvous, raising his hands to greet it, his red beard, blue tie and sash and white shirt and trousers a pretty patriotic symphony.

Nearer came the ball. Leander braced his shoulders for the embrace. There was an inhalation of breath from the grand stand, and the ball hit the earth with a heavy plop a good five feet behind those upstretched hands. Now Mr. Richardson did not set himself up as any great shakes at baseball, but the contrast between the sublime figure he had cut at third for eight innings and the ridiculous fruition was the stuff of Casey. Few among the spectators had not sometime winced under the flick of Leander's forked critical tongue. His bitter bread returned to him that afternoon manyfold.

Mr. Jawn McGraw's athletes do not and never have played polo, and the name has puzzled many thousands of baseball fans. James Gordon Bennett, skipper of the New York Herald, introduced polo into the United States about 1876, and the game first was played at Dickel's Riding Academy which stood at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street. When the importation from India began to catch on with Bennett's crowd, they built a playing field at Jerome Park. But the park was too far out in that day and a new field was constructed at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street. The polo crowd used it only occasionally and when the Giants were organized the team was able to rent the grounds for baseball. Within seven years the new elevated railway had so expanded the city that the polo ground was cut up into building lots and a third field built under Coogan's Bluff at Eighth Avenue and 155th Street, then the terminus of the "L." The Giants moved with the polo players and in a few more years the growth of organized baseball drove polo off its own field into the suburban reaches of Long Island, Westchester and Jersey.

Casey's reception on his debut made me appreciate that I had a parlor trick of sorts in him, but I never thought of using the poem regularly in the theater until the second season of "Wang", that of 1892–1893. We were playing over the same territory as the first season and I thought the show needed an added fillip. I tried Casey on an audience, found it what vaudeville players now call a "wow", and began interpolating it nightly.

Still I had no idea of the author's identity. The initials, E. L. T., had been appended to the clipping, now long lost or destroyed. We played Worcester, Massachusetts, for one night sometime in the middle nineties, and there I met a Mr. Hammond who had sung bass in the quartet at O. B. Frothingham's church, where my mother was organist, and who now was teaching voice in the Massachusetts city. Hammond wrote me a note asking me to come to the Worcester Club after the performance. If I would do so he would introduce me to the author of Casey.

Casey's long-lost parent proved to be Ernest L. Thayer, known to all Worcester as Phinney Thayer, the son of a wealthy textile-mill owner. Thayer had been a contemporary of William Randolph Hearst at Harvard. When Senator Hearst gave the San Francisco Examiner to his son, the younger Hearst took Thayer to California with him, and there he used to contribute occasional verses, of which Casey was one, to the Examiner. In his modesty Thayer waited so long before advancing his rightful claim to the poem that it has been challenged by innumerable others. I have met or corresponded with most of these pretenders in my time, and none has yet offered me the slightest proof or corroborative evidence to authorship, while Mr. Thayer has shown me three other manuscripts worthy of Casey's creator, and overwhelming supporting evidence. He lives to-day in Santa Barbara, California.

Thayer indubitably wrote Casey, but he could not recite it. He was the most charming of men, but slight of build and inclined to deafness and, like most persons so afflicted, very soft spoken. He had, too, at that time a decided Harvard accent.

At the importunity of his fellow club members that night he recited some of his comic verse, but begged off on Casey, pleading that this was my particular stunt. The crowd, which had been long at the bar, would not take no, however, and backed him into a corner.

I have heard many another give Casey. Fond mammas have brought their young sons to me to hear their childish voices lisp the poem, but Thayer's was the worst of all. In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper he implored Casey to murder the umpire, and gave this cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet. He was rotten! One of my theater friends, who had only the haziest of ideas where he had been the night before, said to me the next day: "Will, I think it goes better that way."

I have had other jolts to my pride in my version of Casey. There are four poems that every parlor amateur, every village life of the party, includes in his repertoire. They are "Casey", Service's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", and Kipling's "Boots" and "Gunga Din." They have written me letters about it and waylaid me at the stage door for years.

In the lobby of a Peoria, Illinois, hotel I once was accosted by a confident young man.

"Excuse me, Mr. Hopper, but I am going to see you to-night," he said, "and I just wondered if you are going to recite Casey."

I told him that it would be an evening to be remembered if I did not.

"Good," he exclaimed. "I would just like my young lady friend to hear how some one else recites it."

Every newspaper that has an Answers column or a poetry corner reprints Casey at as regular intervals as they serve up that other perennial, the United States Government's official recipe for whitewash. The poem is to be found, too, in Burton Stevenson's "Home Book of Verse." But the supply apparently never overtakes the demand, and I take it that many a scrapbook still contains a yawning void. To forestall a petition to Congress, I give it here again:

Casey at the Bat

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score was four to two with but one inning more to play.
And so when Cooney died at first and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We'd put up even money now with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a pudding and the latter was a fake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball,
And when the dust had lifted, and they saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second, and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats or more went up a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley; it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain top and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

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 sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling 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 in 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 visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on.
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew,
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire cried, "Strike two!"

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and the 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 muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lips, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with hideous 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 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.

Casey is a classic, I repeat. Certainly it is the only great American comic poem. The best of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Eugene Field, Wallace Irwin and Carolyn Wells; Bret Harte's "Truthful James", John T. Trowbridge's "Darius Green and His Flying Machine", William Allen Butler's "Nothing to Wear", Gelett Burgess' "The Purple Cow", all fall short of Thayer's poem. All are masterpieces of a kind, but Casey is a comic epic, the saga of baseball. It is as perfect an epitome of our national game to-day as it was when every player drank his coffee from a mustache cup. There are one or more Caseys in every league, bush or big, and there is no day in the playing season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes for the moment, does not befall on some field. It is unique in all verse in that it is not only funny and ironic, but excitingly dramatic, with the suspense built up to a perfect climax. There is no lame line among the fifty-two. And so, although it might be thought I should have had my fill of Casey, I hope to go to bat with him for as many more seasons before we both strike out. I am not yet being pushed on to the stage in a wheel chair, but when an actor has been before the public as long as I some of his audience come to expect it. I observe and frown upon a tendency to quote Lewis Carroll's lines at me:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head——
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

A man being as young as he feels, I am a flaming youth. My voice and limbs still perform easily all that I ever have asked of them, and quite unconsciously, I say "Sir" to men younger in years. In Philadelphia, last spring, I had my tonsils removed on a Sunday morning and played as usual on Monday night without missing a performance. I was interested to read a few weeks later that Mr. Gene Tunney, a lad not yet thirty, who fights for a living, also had parted with his tonsils. In a bedside bulletin Mr. Tunney's manager assured an anxious public that the patient would be out again within a week.

Temperamentally oblivious of the passage of time, I am periodically startled at being confronted with some tangible evidence of the fact that much water has flowed under the bridge. I was flabbergasted when my son told me at twenty-three that he was about to marry. For a week I had rheumatic pains, and that was twelve years ago.

Two years ago I played a five weeks' engagement in Newark, New Jersey. Every Monday night the mayor and party occupied a box, and always he came behind the scenes for a word with the company. On one visit he brought a guest, the head of the health commission. That gentleman expressed his very warm pleasure at meeting me and told me that he and his fellow board members would be delighted to have my assistance in promoting a local health week.

"We are having a mass meeting at the auditorium next week," he explained. "We would regard it as a great favor if you would address the audience."

"What would you have me say?" I asked, having no pet health rules whatever of my own, beyond a normal moderation in all things.

"Oh, anything along the lines of what habits to cultivate, what to eschew to promote a long life," he said. "It is not alone what you might say, but the example of your presence."

And in his enthusiasm he added, "You know, Mr. Hopper, that you have reached the age when most men are thinking of death."

I am not, despite the New Jersey gentleman's impression, a contemporary of either Junius Brutus Booth or Jenny Lind. These reminiscences may suggest that I am in my anecdotage, but I am not yet in my dotage. Yet for a moment one hot August night when I was fifteen years or so younger than I am now, I feared it might be so. "The Fortune Hunter" was in the midst of its long run at the Gaiety Theater, the same house that later saw the even longer runs of "Turn to the Right" and "Lightnin'." Jack Barrymore made one of his earliest successes in this play. I knew him and every one else in the cast with one exception. That was Charles Fisher, then a man of more than seventy, who played the banker whose convulsive twitching of the eye was so misinterpreted by Barrymore.

It was a sweltering night. There was not a breath of air in the theater unless it was the distingué air of the patrons, and that was hot air. During an intermission I went backstage to visit and found the cast all sitting in the alley, fanning and mopping. Some one introduced me to Mr. Fisher and I made a point of emphasizing my enjoyment of his work, really feeling very sorry for the old gentleman, who, on such a night, looked more nearly ninety than seventy.

"This is a very great pleasure, Mr. Hopper," the veteran told me. "I have wanted to know you for many, many years. My old father often has spoken to me of you and his friendship with you."

I maintained a commendable composure at the moment, I trust, but I never have been quite the same since.

It was true. The father of that venerable actor had known me. Fisher's father, I recalled, had been the aged doorkeeper at Mrs. Drew's Arch Street Theater, Philadelphia, when I played there in 1880 in "One Hundred Wives" in my third season on the stage.