You might call Dan Casey one of baseball’s original crafty lefties.
The pitcher, then just 21 years old, went 11-3 for the 1884 Quicksteps, including starting and winning the club’s first-ever Major League game, a 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals.
Casey came to Wilmington direct from his family’s farm in Binghamton, N.Y., accompanied by his brother Dennis Casey. Dennis, an outfielder for the Quicksteps, was five years older than Dan and had had several years of pro experience.
Casey was a big man for his era, listed at 6 feet tall and 180 pounds. While that make him seem slight compared with pitchers of today, he towered over many of his contemporaries in the 1880s, as shown in this photo from 1887. That’s Casey getting his valuable left arm rubbed down by a trainer for the Philadelphia Quakers (nee Phillies). Behind him is Charlie Bastian, the 5-foot-6 infielder who was Casey’s teammate both with the ’84 Quicksteps and the ’87 Quakers.
Casey’s stint with Wilmington ended as abruptly as it started. The very same day he beat Washington in the club’s big-league debut, Dan’s brother Dennis and their teammate and captain Oyster Burns jumped the club for a better offer with the Baltimore Orioles, depriving the Wilmington club of its two best hitters. While teammates grudgingly understood that Burns deserved the opportunity they were resentful of Dennis’s departure, making for an especially uncomfortable situation for Dan. And after Dan mailed in his next effort, surrendering 14 runs on 14 hits to the same Washington club, he was swiftly and unceremoniously released.
Casey worked his way back to the majors the next season, advancing from the independent Indianapolis Hoosiers to the Detroit Wolverines of the NL, then spent the next five years in Philly highlighted by a 28-13 campiagn in 1887, when he led the National League with a 2.86 ERA. Casey was said to specialize in throwing a screwball, which may have been taught to him by his 1884 Wilmington teammate, Edward “The Only” Nolan. His big-league career lasted through 1890 but records show he spent several more seasons in the minors, most with his hometown Binghamton Bingos.
Casey’s deceptive delivery however continued long after his baseball career was over. Working as a trolley conductor in Binghamton, Casey began telling friends that he was the inspiration for the tragic hero of Ernest L. Thayer’s famous baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat,” which was first published in 1887.
In the poem, the “Mudville Nine” trail 4-2 in the ninth with two outs before “Flynn” singles and “Blake” doubles to bring the tying runs to second and third before Casey disappoints them all by striking out.
Casey insisted the poem was based on a game between Philadelphia and the New York Giants in 1887 and in his version, Flynn is Charlie Bastian and Blake is teammate Joe Mulvey. Historians have little trouble shooting Casey’s story down. The details don’t exactly line up (the game ended in a tie, Bastian didn’t play that day and Casey didn’t actually strike out but drove in the game-tying off Tim Keefe of the Mets) and it’s very unlikely that Thayer, then living in San Francisco, would retain the details of that game. The poet himself said characters were a composite.
But in 1939, as baseball was celebrating another bogus legend — the 100th anniversary of its alleged founding by Abner Doubleday and the dedication of its Hall of Fame Museum where his invention supposedly had taken place, Cooperstown, N.Y. — Commissioner Ford Frick invited the 76-year-old Dan Casey along and had him recreate the event that inspired the famous poem with Rogers Hornsby pitching. Casey was then presented with a lifetime pass allowing him to attend any baseball game.
When Dan Casey died in 1943, at age 80, the myth persisted.
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.