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The Bat Lady, the Ball Boy, and the Appraiser from Boston

Chapter Text

Ashland, OR • Southern Oregon University campus

“I’m sending you a lady with a bat,” said the voice of the Roadshow triage-desk appraiser, over the headset in Leila Dunbar’s ear.  “You might want to be a little careful with her.”

The sports-memorabilia specialist pursed her lips.  “Are we talking might-whack-someone or might-turn-into-Dracula?” she inquired softly.   There was a brief lull at her appraisal station, but she’d been put two chairs away from Wes Cowan’s table, and Wes always had a line.

“Neither, I hope,” came the reply.  “It’s just – her story’s really fascinating, but it’s more than a little odd.  It has to do with ‘Casey at the Bat’….and she says it’s a family heirloom.”

Leila sat straight up in her chair.  “She’s a descendant of Ernest Thayer, then?”  That sounded like a television segment for certain, no matter what the story was.

The screener cleared his throat nervously.  “No, that’s just it.  She says she’s Casey’s great-granddaughter.  And that the bat she’s got—”

“Is the one from the poem?  O-kay, then,” Leila said, nodding.  “I’ll try to be gentle.  Thanks, Ryan.”

“De nada.  Just – hear her out, will you?”

“Promise,” said Leila, as she looked up to see a slim, fragile-looking woman making her way across the event floor toward her station.

#

“I’m Rosalind Markov,” said Leila’s visitor.  She set a scrapbook on the table, turned it so that it was properly oriented toward Leila, and then settled into a folding chair.  “You might want to glance at these first.”

“For context?  Certainly.”  Leila opened the volume, and found herself staring at a vintage photo of a tall, burly man with a thick shock of hair – pale and not quite silver in the sepia-toned picture, but probably blond in real life.  He stood next to a rustic cabin flanked by tall timber, and was glaring out from the page as if annoyed that the photographer had dared to take the snapshot.

She turned the page to find the photo followed by several pages of handwritten baseball game schedules, all featuring the Mudville Nine.  “I don’t recognize any of these teams,” she observed.  “I’m guessing they were all amateur clubs?”

“Scattered around southern Oregon and northern California, yes.  A few players eventually worked their way onto genuine farm teams, but that was unusual.  What with the distance between towns in those days, it was a wonder there were as many games as there were.”

“And I understand your – great-grandfather, was it – played for the Mudville Nine?”

Ms. Markov nodded.  “Second base, mostly.  And cleanup hitter…until the game that ended it.”

“And your great-grandfather was….?”

“Cedric August Casey, yes.  Everyone called him Casey, though, right from the first.  Just Casey, though.  He was never ‘mighty Casey’ till that rascal Thayer wrote his poem – and after the poem was printed, he quit baseball entirely.”

“He did?”

“He did,” said Ms. Markov.  “The Nine were a decent team, and from what I understand, they were more serious about the game than most of the rest of the teams on those lists.  But after the poem was published – and it circulated pretty widely up here – things got difficult.  The network of teams was never formally constituted as a league, but for all practical purposes, Mudville got kicked out of it, and Casey’s teammates pretty much blamed him.”

Leila flipped another few pages in the scrapbook, finding neatly kept records of batting averages, box scores, and other statistics.  “He seems to have been pretty conscientious about his own play.  And most of the time, a decent hitter at that.  Two-eighty-one in the ’88 season, if I’m reading this right.”

“I’m not much of a statistician,” Ms. Markov said, “but probably so.”

Leila eyed the numbers she was seeing.  There was a puzzle here; the numbers were credible, though just barely.  The paper and ink on the pages she’d seen looked right for the 1880s, although she suspected the photo of being more recent.

She looked up at Ms. Markov.  “I’m told you have a bat for me.  Let’s have a look at it.”

“Of course.”

The older woman stood, drawing a narrow bundle from where it had been half-hidden by the folds of her wide skirt.  From the bundle, she extracted a weathered, neatly tapered baseball bat about thirty inches in length and set it on the table next to the scrapbook.

Leila blinked.  “Wait a moment,” she said.  “The picture in the front of that scrapbook – that’s Cedric August Casey?”

“It is.”

“And this is the bat he’s supposed to have used in the game Ernest Thayer described in his poem?”

Ms. Markov nodded.  “Oh, yes.”

“But that isn’t possible!  A man his size would’ve used at least a 36” bat….”  Leila trailed off, a mental light bulb going off in her head.

“Oh.  My.  God,” she said.  “So that’s why no one’s ever worked out where the ‘real’ Mudville is, or what major league player Thayer had in mind.”

“Exactly so,” Ms. Markov said, a half-smile making a brief appearance on her face.  “As I understand it, Casey was ten when that particular game was played, and Thayer was passing through Medford on a business trip; evidently a friend of his was living here at the time.”

Leila suspected her own face probably had a severely dazed look.  “I can see just how it spun out of control back in the day,” she said.  “Thayer himself thought he was just writing a humorous piece, or maybe a satire on how seriously we major-league fans take things – and of course it was first printed under a pseudonym.  Then the poem went viral, and by the time Thayer admitted to having written it, he pretty much couldn’t explain its real origins without a lot of embarrassment.”

“And meanwhile,” Ms. Markov put in, “the young people – and their families – up here knew exactly who and what the poem was about, and felt pretty badly stung by the way they’d been described.”  She reached out and flipped over several pages in the scrapbook, to a picture of a dozen children in cobbled-together baseball garb.  “This was taken about a week after copies of the poem first started circulating in ‘Mudville’.  I believe it’s one of the last photos of the Nine before they were forced to disband.”

Leila took a measured breath, forcing herself back into professional mode.  “Let me just have a look at this bat,” she said, donning a pair of disposable gloves.  It’s definitely old – the right shape for an 1880s bat – handmade locally, not by a commercial maker – no marks; no, wait, there’s a really small CAC scratched on the end here.  If the papers in the scrapbook are kosher – and they look good for it – then this isn’t just a Roadshow segment, it’s a rewrite-the-history-books find.  Either that, or Ms. Markov here is putting on one hell of a setup.

Aloud, Leila kept her tone as even as she could.  “I’d like,” she said, “to make a couple of phone calls and consult with a colleague or two here, to see if we can connect some more dots on Ernest Thayer’s side of things.  But if you’re willing, I want to bring in our production team and start getting you ready for one of our filmed appraisals.  Do you have anyone with you that we should locate?”

Rosalind Markov blinked.  “No, it’s just me – on television, really?  I suppose so.”

“Very well, then.”  Leila tapped a control on her headset and spoke.  “Ryan? Leila. I need Adam and a crew over here, stat.”

“Already on their way,” came the reply.  “And you will not believe what I’m sending you right behind them.”

Leila shook her head.  “It’ll have to be pretty amazing to top your bat lady.”

“Just you wait,” Ryan said, chuckling, and cut the connection.

#

It took just under ten minutes for the film crew to shepherd Ms. Markov and her finds into the Roadshow green room.  But no sooner was Leila’s table space clear than a chubby teenage boy appeared in front of it, a compact square box in hand.

“I’m Joshi,” he said, “from Yreka, just over the border.”

Leila eyed the box.  “A baseball?” she asked.  “Or is it cards?”

“Baseball,” said Joshi.  “Really old.”

“And how old is really old?”

Joshi shrugged.  “It belonged to my twice-great granddad.”

Leila eyed the youth curiously, Ryan’s chuckle abruptly echoing in her head.  You will not believe….

“Twice-great granddad,” she repeated.  “Would your twice-great granddad have played for—” what were the names in that scrapbook? “—the Shasta Raccoons, or maybe the Siskiyou Miners?”

Joshi’s eyes went wide.  “The Raccoons, yeah.  But how’d you know?  I didn’t tell the guy up front about that.”

Leila grinned at him.  “I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told you.  Just two more questions for now: is there anybody’s signature on that baseball – and have you got any other material at all to document when and where it was last pitched?”

“Mmm, yeah.  That is, twice-great granddad did sign the ball, just not right after that game happened.”  Joshi lifted an arm and waved, and a girl a head shorter and half as wide skipped up to join him, a blue paper folder in hand.

“I told you they’d want evidence,” said the new arrival.  “The signature’s gonna be hard, of course – pretty much anybody could put ‘Bob McMorris’ on a baseball and claim it was him.  But this I think you’ll like.”  She flipped open the folder and pulled out a vintage photo sheathed in archival plastic.  “That’s Yreka’s main street.  And that man standing next to the wooden Indian? Is Ernest Lawrence Thayer.”

It was a good ten seconds before Leila could so much as breathe again.

She said not one word as she examined the photo she’d been handed and rapidly glanced through the remaining contents of the girl’s blue folder: three more photos, a handwritten box-score sheet for a ball game played on July 16, 1887, and a receipt for dry goods signed by E. L. Thayer.

“Thank you,” she said at last, handing the folder back.  “And just for the record, you are...?”

“Jasmine Davies.  Joshi’s my brother; he found the ball in a dresser drawer in our attic, but I got the story and the backup from my mom – her mom’s family were the McMorrises.  So yes, that is the baseball you think it is.  Only Casey was like, maybe ten years old and Twice-Great Bob was twelve.”  The words came out in one rapid-fire stream, until Jasmine finally ran out of breath.  “Only how’d you know to ask about the Raccoons?”

Leila couldn’t resist another grin.  “I promise I’ll answer that – once we get you two prepped for prime time.  Ryan?” she added, tapping her headset control.

“Awaiting orders, ma’am.”

“Ha,” said Leila.  “One: get me Adam again, double stat.  Two: get me the adults that go with my current teen wonders, also double stat.  Three: get me a research body, triple stat.  Four: I’m gong to need a consult with someone from Books and/or Americana once we’ve got the rest of this organized.” She paused to take a breath, much as Jasmine had.  “Five? Cross your fingers that nothing turns up to screw the current pooch.  Or pooches.”

#

an hour or so later

“…now there have been,” said Leila, glancing to her left and right in turn, “a great many sequels and parodies and follow-ups to ‘Casey at the Bat’ over the years.  There’s also been plenty of speculation about where ‘Mudville’ was supposed to be, and what major league player Ernest Thayer might have had in mind when he created Casey.  But with the artifacts and provenance we’ve seen here today – about 130 years after the fact – we can state just about conclusively that Mighty Casey’s bat and Bob McMorris’s baseball have been reunited here at the Roadshow – temporarily, at least – and that we finally know the true story behind the original poem.

“You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything at all about value to this point.  As you might imagine, in this case that’s an extremely difficult call.  Intrinsically, a handmade bat from the 1880s might bring $2500 to $5000 at auction.  Vintage baseballs from the same period in this condition are scarcer but less collectible, largely because much of the collecting value in baseballs lies in the signatures they bear; an ordinary specimen might bring $300 to $500.  But neither of these items are ordinary specimens, and both have important supporting materials that contribute to whatever value they have.

“The real answer is that frankly, it’s more or less impossible to estimate an auction value for either the Casey bat or the McMorris ball – there simply are no comparables, and with the immense folklore behind the poem in play, it’s impossible to predict just how high the bidding might go if one or the other were offered.  I will say only that I would be astonished if either individual group brought less than $25,000 to $50,000, and not at all surprised if either brought $75,000 to $100,000 or better.  I wouldn’t insure either collection for less than $100,000, and $200,000 would not be unreasonable.”

“And what,” asked Jasmine Davies, her tone a great deal softer and less brisk than it had been off-camera, “if the collections were united, and valued together?”

Leila gave the girl a considering look.  “At auction?  $250,000 at the least, half a million wouldn’t surprise me, and with the right two bidders in the room, I wouldn’t dare guess how much higher someone might go.  As for insurance value, not less than $1 million for the combined collection.”

Rosalind Markov had been very quiet throughout the filmed appraisal, though before the cameras rolled she’d clearly been both shocked and delighted to meet Joshi and Jasmine.  Abruptly, though, she took a step toward center stage, and began to speak.

“I thought I’d cause a bit of a stir today with my great-grandfather’s bat,” she said, “but I didn’t expect to be partly responsible for so thoroughly rewriting a legend.  My family, obviously, has a complicated relationship with ‘Casey at the Bat’ – but as an English teacher and a baseball fan, I have to admit that it’s an amazing poem.  So I hope that the ghost of Ernest Lawrence Thayer won’t mind too much if I add a verse at the end:

“And now across this favored land, let baseball fans rejoice
As truth asserts its freedom, alongside legend’s voice;
One game at last is ended, its players justly blessed;
For Casey and McMorris both at last may find their rest.”

As she finished, the entire event floor went silent for the space of half a dozen long, steady breaths.

It was Leila who eventually spoke first.  “I do believe,” she said, “that’s a wrap.”

Chapter Text

a year later, on the Antiques Roadshow Web site

UPDATE:
After the Ashland, OR segment on the artifacts that helped inspire Ernest Lawrence Thayer to write ‘Casey at the Bat’, both the Markov and Davies families approached Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar regarding the disposition of the baseball, bat, and accompanying documentation. 

The families agreed that the materials would be combined into a single archive, and further arranged for the consolidated collection to be placed on exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY.  When the Hall of Fame expressed interest in permanently acquiring the collection, the families again consulted Leila Dunbar.  The result was an auction, conditional on the buyer’s donation of the collection to the Hall of Fame, in which the winning bid came to $1.2 million – that sum itself subsequently being donated by the Markov and Davies families to establish the Mudville Nine Youth Athletic Project in Medford, Oregon.

"It may have taken 130-odd years worth of extra innings," Jasmine Davies observed, at the opening of a new youth baseball field sponsored by the Project, "but I think Casey's finally scored that homer.  And I don't expect Twice-Great Bob will mind too much."

# # #