On the Road: 'Casey at the Bat' in Stockton?

Ports' Banner Island home speculated as site of Thayer's famous poem

Stockton's baseball history goes back to the 1880s and may include "Casey at the Bat." (Courtesy of the Haggin Museum)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | September 13, 2016 10:00 AM

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day; the score stood four to two, with but one inning left to play.

Thus begins Ernest Thayer's comic ballad "Casey at the Bat," the most well-known poem to have ever been written about the sport of baseball. Stockton, California, was commonly known as "Mudville" at the time of the poem's 1888 publication; that same year the city's baseball team won the championship while competing in what was an early incarnation of the California League. Furthermore, Thayer was living in San Francisco. In those days, there was regular steamboat traffic between these two bustling cities, and it's certainly in the realm of possibility that Thayer attended games at the Stockton ballpark known as "The Baseball Grounds at Banner Island" (or some permutation thereof).

Today's California League was established in 1941. Stockton was a charter member and has fielded a team during every season in which the league has been in operation (the team's current stadium, built in 2005, is situated within the same Banner Island location where the 19th-century club played). Throughout the vast majority of the team's current incarnation, they have been known as the Ports. In 2000 and 2001, however, they went by the name of the "Mudville Nine." Thayer, presumably, would have been proud.

But was Stockton really where the action took place in Thayer's poem? Where Casey, an enduring symbol of hubristic folly, stranded Flynn and Blake in scoring position via the most well-known strikeout in baseball history? Holliston, Massachusetts, begs to differ. That city had also acquired the "Mudville" nickname during the latter half of the 19th century, and Thayer grew up in neighboring Worcester.

Seeking answers to these important questions, Ports GM Bryan Meadows and I visited Stockton's Haggin Museum prior to a ballgame last month. Tod Ruhstaller, the museum's CEO and curator of history, was prepared with a variety of archival materials related to Stockton's baseball history and its possible inspiration of "Casey at the Bat." But Ruhstaller was not willing to take sides in the ongoing debate, prioritizing the objective search for knowledge over hometown cheerleading.

"There's all kinds of great circumstantial evidence [for Stockton], but I think it was a composite," said Ruhstaller, a Stockton native. "Maybe Thayer was basing this on some of what he remembered back home [in Massachusetts]."

Banner Island Ballpark, current home of the Ports, is located in an area with a long baseball history.

There's no doubt, however, that Stockton's "Mudville" moniker was well-earned.

"Like so many cities, the streets weren't paved until relatively late," he said. "We also have unique properties. The mud in this area, it's an adobe mud so it's particularly sticky. And there were years when the streets were underwater [due to flooding from the San Joaquin River], and you had to get around with a boat. When it started to dry out you couldn't go to a lot of places in downtown Stockton because these streets were quagmires. I've read where dogs would get caught in the street, and have to be rescued."

"Casey at the Bat," which gained its popularity due to the countless recitations given by New York City-based actor DeWolf Hopper, has long fascinated baseball historians. Thayer, late in life, admitted that "Casey" was named for an old high school classmate, Daniel Casey, who "threatened to beat me up once because I made fun of him in the school newspaper." But Ruhstaller noted that Stockton did have a pitcher named Jack Flynn, who may have been the inspiration for the "lulu" who "let drive a single" to lead off the ultimately disappointing Mudville ninth.

"[Thayer's] writing for a paper that's 70 miles away, so he knows about Stockton," said Ruhstaller. "At the time Stockton's a big deal, a huge industrial town, very strong. And he was probably watching baseball games where the Stockton team is playing in San Francisco, though at the time it was easy to get to Stockton because of the steamboat traffic."

Since the evidence is and will remain circumstantial, the "rivalry" between Stockton and Holliston is likely to continue.

Ruhstaller, for his part, eschews regional prejudice in favor of embracing the ambiguity.

"I think in a contest between Holliston and Stockton, we would have more claim, but I think it's dubious," he said. "Only because I don't think Thayer was thinking of Stockton when he put it together. I think a lot of this just happened. He took his personal experiences and came up with names so that they would fit in with the meter of his doggerel."

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.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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