Back in 1939, the Brooklyn Dodgers thought that young Hugh Casey might become one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. He had all the attributes, including some that don’t show up in the scorebook: a powerful fastball, a competitive spirit and a mean streak a mile wide.
An Atlanta native, Casey first pitched for the Atlanta Crackers in 1932, before coming to the attention of the Cubs. He pitched for the Cubs in 1935, but his control was lousy so he went back to the minors, where he pitched for the Memphis Chicks. In 1939 he ended up with the Dodgers, and this time he threw well enough to stick — and as a starter.
Casey was 15-10 for the Dodgers in 1939, then 11-8 the next year and 14-11 in 1941. He was not only good, he was real good. But in 1941 Hugh Casey was not simply good, he was famous. In Game 4 of that series, the great Mickey Owen was behind the plate in the top of the 9th with the Dodgers leading and two outs. Yankee Tommy Henrich was at the plate with a 3-2 count. On the next pitch he swung and missed — for what should have been the final out, and a Dodger win.
But the ball got by Owen, perhaps the surest handed catcher in the game’s history, and Henrich ended up on first. The Yankees rallied to win that game, and then the Series, and Owen was the goat. Owen’s “dropped third strike” put him into baseball history and no one, but no one, ever forgot it.
But the guy on the mound was Hugh Casey, a fact that not many people would remember. The dropped third strike bothered the hell out of Owen, but it didn’t seem to effect Casey, who signed on with the Navy for three years during the war before returning to Brooklyn in 1946. And in the 1947 World Series he was spectacular.
While the Dodgers lost to the Yankees in ’47 in one of the best World Series ever played, Casey was a hero: he appeared in six of the seven contests, pitching 10.1 innings in relief. He was masterful. He notched two wins against no losses in the series, while accumulating a 0.87 ERA. And so for a time, and despite the Yankees triumph, Casey was the toast of Brooklyn.
It didn’t last long. Casey was getting old and so was his arm. Then too, the life he led was catching up with him. Casey was always a carouser, a player who knew how to have a good time. But the alcohol and fights took their toll. Two years after the ’47 Series he was pitching for Pittsburgh, and one year later he was out of baseball.
The story should end there, with Casey in retirement, but it it doesn’t — for Casey had a whole handful of stories that followed him through the years. And it’s one of those that now defines him. It involves baseball, alcohol and a boxing match with Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s greatest writers.
It was the 1940s, Casey was a Dodger — and baseball had discovered Cuba. The Dodgers had had Spring Training in Cuba since 1941, and Dodger players loved it. The weather was warm, like New York in August, and a dollar could go a long ways. One of their fans was Hemingway, who would come to watch them play and chat with “the bums” whenever he got a chance.
“Hemingway was a baseball fan,” Billy Herman, who played with the Dodgers during the war, later remembered. “He used to come out to the park every day to watch us train. We got friendly and he invited us out to a gun club to shoot with him. They had live pigeons and clay pigeons. It was one of the few places where they had traps under ground.”
As it turned out, Hugh Casey was a terrific shot — one of the reasons, it was rumored, that the owner of the Atlanta Crackers (who loved to shoot), had signed him on in the first place. Casey and Hemingway shot together and became shooting buddies, at least for a time.
As Hemingway himself later told one of his biographers, A.E. Hotchner: “You can’t ask for better shoots than when the Dodgers are training and we have match-ups with Hugh Casey, Billy Herman, Augie Galan, Curt Davis and some of the others who are all crack shots.”
One day Hemingway invited a bunch of Dodgers, including Casey, out to Finca La Vigia, his home in the hills above Havana. Writer Stan Isaacs tells us the rest of the story, quoting Herman. “He [Hemingway] was a good guy, but he became a tough guy — real mean — when he was drunk. He wanted to fight, so he challenged Casey to a fight. Casey wasn’t anxious to fight but Hemingway insisted.”
While other writers at different times would put this story in 1942, the best evidence we have says it took place in 1948. “So they put on the gloves. He went right after Hughey. He tried to hit him below the belt, anywhere . . . He was a dirty fighter.” Hemingway bobbed in, spraying rights and lefts, and Hugh Casey took his time. Finally, seeing his opening, he lashed out with a right. Hemingway reeled into the bookcase, “before going horizontal.”
“It was like an explosion,” Herman remembers. “It woke up his wife and she came downstairs. He told her, ‘Oh, we are just playing. Go to bed, honey.’” As Herman would later remember it, Hemingway “was the nicest guy in the world, sober, but when he was drunk he was like an animal.”
This story does not end well, as many stories like this don’t. The Dodgers stopped going to Hemingway’s house after Hugh Casey knocked him down: maybe they knew it had all gotten out of control. But years later, after the event, Hemingway met Herman again in Cuba, and slapped him on the back. Hemingway had changed, he’d gained weight and had a beard. To his followers, he was becoming known as “Papa Hemingway.”
Hugh Casey changed too. He had a hard time getting along without baseball, and he had trouble with his wife. He tried a comeback, and pitched for the Crackers for a season, then came to Spring Training with the Dodgers in 1951. He didn’t make the team and suddenly knew he was done with the game. When he returned home he resumed his drinking.
In early 1949, Casey had been cited in a paternity suit brought by a Brooklyn woman. The suit was upheld by a three judge panel. He continued to plead his innocence and was doing so with his ex-wife, on July 3, 1951, when he took his own life with a .16 gauge shotgun.
How odd it seems now, though simply coincidental. For the same arc of fate that followed Casey followed the man who Casey had decked back in Havana: Exactly ten years, and one day after Casey ended his life — on July 2, 1961 — Ernest Hemingway ended his. And in the same way.
Hugh Casey won’t be remembered as a great relief pitcher, though for a time he surely was. And he won’t be remembered as the guy on the mound when Mickey dropped that third strike in the ’41 Series. That’s all on Mickey.
But for Hemingway fans and followers he’ll never be forgotten. He was “the guy who decked Papa” in Havana. Way. Back. When.