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DEWOLF AND THE KID

Fellow thespians and baseball fanatics, Digby Bell and DeWolf Hopper.

Every professional baseball game, from the first-ever played to the one played yesterday, has included a crowd of spectators, once known as cranks in the nineteenth century, and who eventually earned the title of “Fan.” No game has excluded them, as far as historians can tell, and no game would be complete without them. From the earliest games until today, those who came to watch over the progress of nine innings or more designated their loyalty to one side or the other, made wagers over the progress and final score, and ballpark cuisine began its evolution from coffee, hot oyster stew, beer, and cookies—the menu at the concession stand at a Worcester, Massachusetts, ballgame in 1860—to hot dogs, still more beers, and Cracker Jack.

Some turn-of-the-century cranks gained notoriety for their passion for the game and their home teams. New York City was the ultimate place to find a grandstand full of notable characters. DeWolf Hopper and Digby Bell, both prominent celebrities in their own right on the comic opera stage, were part of “The High and Mighty Order of Baseball Cranks of Gotham” and occupied seats at the Polo Grounds in a section of the grandstand cordoned off for them with a chain and padlock.

Hopper achieved the greatest fame of all his fellow Gotham baseball brethren. Born in New York City on March 30, 1858, his parents insisted he become a lawyer, but he found refuge on the stage. With his booming bass voice, Hopper earned fame and fortune at the age of 20, starring in dramatic roles that accommodated his 6’ 5”, 230-pound physique. A star of New York comic opera and a frequent vaudeville performer, he is remembered for having recited “Casey at the Bat” over ten thousand times. At New York City’s Wallach Theatre on August 14, 1888, Hopper first recited the baseball poem, which was a last-minute addition to his repertoire. No one recalls the song he sang that brought down the house that evening, but “Casey at the Bat” left an indelible impression on the New York Giants and Chicago Baseball Club players in the audience, as well as the New York Evening World reporter who wrote: “The piece was entitled ‘Casey at the Bat,’ and if Hopper ever did credit to anything in his life he did to those verses.” Indeed. The poem rewarded him with a small fortune, and eclipsed his career and reputation as an actor and singer on the comic opera stage and in early movies, a career that ran from 1878 to 1933.

DeWolf Hopper first performed Ernest Thayer’s poem Casey at the Bat on August 14, 1888, the day his friend New York Giants pitcher Tim Keefe’s streak of 19 consecutive victories came to an end.

Reciting a famous baseball poem was not the only evidence of his devotion to the National Game. As he confessed, “It was born in me, and has grown like a prairie fire after a shower of kerosene.” Not even a long Saturday matinee performance would prevent him from traveling the six miles to the Polo Grounds to catch the final two innings of a game and, he always hoped, a garrison finish by the New York Giants. The last two innings were the best part of a game, as he saw it.

Neither would he let a simple thing like a performance interfere with his insatiable thirst for news of a baseball score. While performing in far-distant Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, during the World Series of 1912, Hopper relied on a balky telegraph system and a corps of messenger boys to relay news of the game while he was performing. His heart was not in the performance of The Mikado but on the game some 3,000 miles away. It just so happened that another performer, Eugene Cowles, a Boston baseball bug of the 33rd degree, shared the stage with him and, of course, had proposed a substantial wager upon the outcome of that crucial series. The performance dragged on. Reports by the messengers were scant until the beginning of the second act, when word finally arrived that the Giants were ahead by one run! DeWolf Hopper entered the stage at the head of the procession, and he parodied the great Mikado song:

My object all sublime

I have achieved in time.

I’ve seen the Giants win the flag,

The Giants win the flag!

The audience roared with delight, if also a little confused. Just then, another messenger arrived with an update. Cowles, appearing in the role of Ko Ko, seized the opportunity to reply with the news of Olaf Hendricksen’s mighty swat:

We knew him well

 He cannot tell

Untrue or groundless lies.

He tells a lie,

The Red Sox tie

The score up in the eighth.

Hopper was now hopping mad. The audience may have been lost on what was going on between the two actors and oblivious to the news from Boston, but the actors didn’t give up. Another messenger from backstage communicated the news that New York had scored in the tenth inning, and Hopper sang:

See how the fates their gifts allot,

The Giants are happy, the Red Sox NOT!!

Cowles jumped, so strong was Hopper’s emphasis. Undaunted and ready when, after finishing the “Flowers That Bloom in the Spring” duet, he heard the news that the Red Sox had pulled off a win in extra innings. Baseball had interfered so much with the performance that there was room for only one encore, but Cowles made it count. He sang:

The Giants that bloom in the spring, tra la

Have nothing at all on the Sox,

They won and they played out the string, tra la

A most unaccountable thing, tra la.

Although the audience was by then generally confounded by the extra innings of The Mikado, Hopper had the last refrain:

I’ll recite it for you;

Alone, and yet alive, O Sepulchre,

Snodgrass muffed a fly.

********

Digby Valentine Bell was born in Milwaukee on November 8, 1849. His health became precarious at the age of four, so his parents moved to New York City with hopes that their son would improve. There, little Digby succumbed to the baseball disease at an early age and shared Hopper’s passion for the New York Giants. He enjoyed many honorary titles, such as “King of the Kranks,” “The Father of the Fierce Fiends,” “Chief of the Quivering Fans,” but Hopper always called him “The Kid.” Whether as constant companions at the Polo Grounds rooting for the Giants or jumping on a train to follow the team to Chicago, The Kid and DeWolf never stopped thinking about baseball. Digby, an actor as well, was the quieter man at a game. Usually. He sat with a beer clasped tightly in his hand, watched the game intently, and between innings cast aspersions upon the players or on the entire game. His reputation as a baseball crank was confirmed in 1889 when he was honored with the privilege at the famous Delmonico banquet for Spalding’s World Tour to deliver his masterpiece “Twenty Miles Away,” a parody on “Sherman’s Ride,” a poem that allegedly became an instant baseball classic. What became of Digby Bell’s masterpiece? Was it ever recited again? Baseball historians are still searching for the solution to the mystery.

Fervent baseball fans Hopper and Bell frequented the Polo Grounds to root for their favorite team, the New York Giants.

The Kid was described as having the most expressive countenance a comic actor could possess. When the Giants were losing, his face was intense, filled with unspeakable pain and disgust. But when winning was assured, he beamed brighter than the full moon. Digby Bell also willingly let baseball intrude onto the stage with him. While appearing as Muley Hassan in the play The Tar and the Tartar, he heard that the 1892 turbulence in baseball politics had finally been resolved. He wept onstage while he cracked his best jokes. He had seriously considered abandoning baseball in 1892 as a matter of principle and took up horse racing instead. He lost $900 in three weeks and one day had to walk home from the racetrack. He vowed to give up the sporting life, stop smoking, and start reading Shakespeare. Baseball soon welcomed him back with open arms.

Digby Bell was in good company with many others who were smitten by the romance and drama of the game. Arthur Dixwell—a lucky Boston man who was born with a silver spoon and a comfortable trust fund—devoted his time, energy, and often his money to the Boston baseball clubs, from the National League to the Players League to the fledgling American League. He ranked in the highest echelon of baseball cranks in the nineteenth century, but he was a loner when attending games and was in no frame of mind to join Nuf Ced McGreevy and that motley assembly known as the Royal Rooters.

Boston also had several stars of the stage and screen who were baseball fans just as unrepentant as the New York crowd. Henry Dixey, born in Boston on January 6, 1859, rooted for the Boston baseball teams despite spending much of his time on the New York stage starring in burlesque musicals and eventually breaking into early films in the 1920s. He attended more games and knew more about baseball than DeWolf Hopper and The Kid. One day while Dixey was performing in Boston, he took in a game, Boston vs. Chicago at the South End Grounds. He brought along a gorgeously attired entourage in his purple-painted barouche and parked just beyond the center-field fence. He also brought with him his beloved fox terrier, whom he loved like a child and never traveled without. In the ninth inning, Bill Dahlen, playing shortstop for Chicago, hit a terrific drive that headed directly at Dixey’s carriage. The ball struck Henry’s beloved terrier squarely on the head, causing the dog’s untimely demise. Pop Anson, Chicago’s captain, after musing deeply about the incident, commented, “It is the only case of a dog-gone run that has ever come under my observation.”

William “Bad Bill” Dahlen, star shortstop for both the Chicago Colts and the New York Giants, was named as the culprit in two baseball tales involving a fatal liner and a dog. 

Like many baseball legends, there’s another version of the dead dog story. Hugh Fullerton, Hall of Fame sportswriter of the early twentieth century and one of the founders of the Baseball Writers Association of America, wrote in 1915, long after the tragedy had faded away from recent memory, that Digby Bell arrived at the Polo Grounds in New York and parked his carriage just beyond the center-field fence. On the seat beside him was his bulldog, surely as beloved as Dixey’s fox terrier. Bill Dahlen, again identified as the culprit, drove the ball straight to center. Digby ducked; his dog did not. Was the unfortunate dog-gone crank Henry Dixey or Digby Bell? Did the dog meet his end at the Polo Grounds or the South End Grounds? Was it a fox terrier or a bulldog? Baseball historians are still searching for the answer.

Popularized by DeWolf Hopper in 1888, Casey at the Bat has become the most famous baseball poem ever written and one of the best-known poems in American literature.

 

 

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