By Pete Peterson
Though not much more than doggerel, Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” first published in 1888, was successfully performed on Broadway by vaudevillian DeWolf Hopper, who, by his estimate, went on to recite the poem around the country more than ten thousand times.
By the early 20th century, the poem had became so popular that Albert G. Spalding’s America’s National Game, generally regarded as one of the first attempts at an official history of baseball, cited “Casey at the Bat” as the best baseball poem ever written. Spalding declared, “Love has its sonnets galore; war its epics in heroic verse; Tragedy its sombre story in measured lines; and baseball has ‘Casey at the Bat.’”
Over the generations, the tributes to Thayer’s mighty Casey have ranged from a statue in the Baseball Hall of Fame to a Walt Disney cartoon. Former American Poet Laureate Donald Hall, in an essay on baseball’s best poetry, claimed “Casey at the Bat” as the best known of all baseball poems: “Everybody knows ‘Casey at the Bat.’”
In 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson crossed baseball’s color line, William Schuman became the first composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music. A passionate baseball fan, Shuman went on to compose “The Mighty Casey,” an adaptation of “Casey at the Bat,” The opera was first performed in 1953 and eventually made its way to Cooperstown for a production by the Glimmerglass Opera.
In his review of the 1986 Glimmerglass performance, Tom Page, writing for the New York Times, praised Schuman’s opera for recasting Thayer’s Casey: “It is no longer the story of a strutting boor whose arrogance loses the day for town and teammates.... It is about the fall of a village small-town hero.... and his redemption through love.”
While Schuman brought a sense of humanity to the blustering Casey with his opera, Daniel Sonenberg, resident composer at the University of Southern Maine, saw opera, with its emotional power, as the medium for a story about a real-life Casey, a player who was larger-than-life on the field, but, off-the field, was haunted by forces that denied his greatness and eventually destroyed him. He found his story in the tragic life of Negro League great, Josh Gibson, and called it “The Summer King.”
Gibson was such a powerful hitter that he became known as the Black Babe Ruth. When with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, he was a teammate of the legendary Satchel Paige, Later, when Paige was pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs and Gibson was catching for the Homestead Grays, their dramatic confrontations drew thousands of fans, white and black, to ballparks.
Gibson and Paige believed they had earned the right to be the first Negro League players to integrate major league baseball and were bitter when they learned that Branch Rickey had passed over them and signed Jackie Robinson.
While Paige eventually pitched in the majors, Gibson, struggling with alcohol and drugs during his career, suffered a brain hemorrhage at the age of 35, and died on January 20, 1947, just three months before Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers. The Pittsburgh Courier’s Wendell Smith, the first African-American to be selected for the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, wrote in an obituary that had Gibson been given the chance to play major league baseball “he might be living today.”
Daniel Sonenberg decided to call his opera “The Summer King” because Josh Gibson “was the king of summer, but did not get to enjoy autumn.” Rather than the Black Babe Ruth, Sonenberg saw Gibson as baseball’s Moses, who led African-American ballplayers to “the promised land” but never had the opportunity to play there.
On May 8, 2014, “The Summer King,” with the support of the National Endowment of the Arts, made its debut as a concert performance in Portland, Maine, but, because of the city’s major role in Negro League history, that the first staged performances of the opera took place in Pittsburgh on April 29 and May 2, 5, and 7, 2017. My wife Anita and I had the good fortune of being in attendance when the Pittsburgh Opera presented the world premiere of “The Summer King.” It was a powerful performance, worthy of one of the most tragic players in baseball history.
Richard “Pete” Peterson is the author, with his son Stephen, of “The Slide: Leyland, Bonds and the Star-Crossed Pittsburgh Pirates,” recently published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.