ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Casey at the Bat” is a baseball ballad that has sustained its fame since shortly after appearing as filler in the San Francisco Examiner in June 1888.
Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem’s concluding stanza laments “But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.”
The ballad portrays a fictional heroic Casey making the final out. His team, the Mudville Nine, loses the game it was favored to win. In his lively, imaginative historical novel “At the Bat: The Strikeout That Shamed America” Del Leonard Jones, a former Albuquerque resident, has Casey as one of a slew of fleshed out characters; most aren’t in the ballad.
Casey’s strikeout is the springboard for Jones to brilliantly flesh out characters fictional and fictionalized, and to plot their joined stories beyond the ballad’s baseball-game focus. In the ballad, Mudville is a made-up name of a made-up town that is nowhere in particular. In the novel, Mudville is a town in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
In the ballad, the umpire is anonymous. In the novel, the umpire is named Walter Brewster, a gentlemanly, shy presence who is also the novel’s narrator.
At the game he’s curious about – and enamored with – famed investigator reporter Nellie Bly (an historical figure). She is in the stands. He avoids eye contact with her as much as she tries to see his face.
Long after the game, Brewster is avoiding attention as the infamous ump who called Casey out on strikes. Examiner reporter Wood Dryden tracks him down in a boarding house.
Brewster flees, using the alias of Claude Ponsonby and working as a newspaper typesetting wizard in Salt Lake City and then in New York City.
Ponsonby and Nellie get to know each other when he begins typesetting at the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, where Nellie works.
Nellie tells Pulitzer she wants to write articles for the paper about circling the globe in less than 80 days. She gets the OK. But over Nellie’s feminist protestations, Pulitzer assigns Ponsonby to escort her on the journey. He goes but keeps his distance.
Two historical baseball players Jones fictionalizes are Bobby “Mouse” Mathews and Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker. Walker was a Black catcher who played major league ball in 1884, decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947.
Jones has Walker as the opposing team’s catcher in the Mudville game, pretending to be a Mexican named Grasshopper Nova. To support his presumed Hispanic heritage, Walker/Nova spouts isolated Spanish words like vámonos and también to Brewster.
Mathews was a right-hand pitcher who may have hurt his arm tossing snowballs. Against Mudville he throws left-handed. Jones claims the real Mathews had 297 career wins, the most by a pitcher not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The book drops in baseball-related lingo of the period. Managers are coachers. Bleachers are bleached boards. Fans are fanatics.
One might think the “shame” in the subtitle refers to Casey’s strikeout. Maybe. But late in the book Jones exposes Casey for shameful off-the-diamond behavior. No, not gambling. The book will appeal to anyone interested in baseball and history, and should spark a rereading of “Casey at the Bat.”
Jones, who lives in Vienna, Virginia, graduated from Eldorado High School in 1973. At the University of New Mexico he was sports editor of the Daily Lobo his sophomore year. Then he worked for the UNM Sports Information Department and was a correspondent for the Albuquerque Journal covering high school sports.
After graduating with a degree in journalism, Jones worked as a reporter on various newspapers, including USA Today where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting. Jones retired from journalism in 2010. Since then he has been writing books and officiating high school and college sports.