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Mar 31, 2004

Was There a Real Place Named Mudville?

Katie Zezima, in the NYT (March 31, 2004), in a report datelined Holliston, MA:

Just past the center of town, beyond the whitewashed church and town green, a handpainted sign on a telephone pole points west toward Mudville.

It is home, some residents say, to the field where, with two out and two on in the ninth inning of a 4-2 game, a native son plunged a hamlet into sorrow with one unsuccessful swing. Along with the mention of Mudville, the village here incorporated on St. Patrick's Day in 1858, residents are fond of citing many other connections to"Casey at the Bat."

Holliston, a town of 14,000 residents 23 miles southwest of Boston, embraces the Casey legend. A bar by the railroad tracks is named Casey's, and the deli at the Superette does brisk sales of the Mudville sandwich: corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. The 289 residents of Mudville have T-shirts that feature a gruff ballplayer and boast,"Home of Casey at the Bat."

But Holliston has competition. Residents of Stockton, Calif., 70 miles east of San Francisco, have long believed that their city was the inspiration for Mudville. It is said that Ernest L. Thayer, the author of the poem, covered baseball there at various times for The San Francisco Daily Examiner, which published"Casey at the Bat" on June 3, 1888.

Despite assurances from baseball historians and Thayer, who insisted that the poem had"no basis in fact," some residents of both Holliston and Stockton refuse to believe Mudville was fictitious.

Joanne Hulbert, the Holliston town historian, said Thayer's family, textile merchants from Worcester, owned the Darling Woolen Mill, less than a mile from Mudville and its busy baseball diamond. The neighborhood fielded several teams with players with Irish surnames like those of Casey's teammates, Barrows, Blake, Cooney and Flynn. One team, Ms. Hulbert said, played in Milford, not far from the Thayers' summer home in Mendon. No one knows if Thayer attended any games, but Ms. Hulbert suggested that the Irish boys from Mudville could have stimulated his imagination.

What is true is that Thayer, who was born on Aug. 14, 1863, in Lawrence, graduated from Harvard in 1885. A classmate, William Randolph Hearst, later asked Thayer to join him in San Francisco and contribute to the family newspaper, The Examiner. Thayer went but soon returned to Worcester and wrote"Casey at the Bat" there in 1888. It was published in The Examiner under an alias, Phin, short for Phinney, Thayer's college nickname. The poem's sole purpose was to fill space.

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