Hoodoo & Cake

Obviously undermedicated.

Dear Word Detective: In the poem “Casey at the Bat,” one line reads “But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake, And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake.” Why is Flynn a “hoodoo” and Blake a “cake”? — Robert L. O’Brien.

Hooray for baseball, the one sport, in my opinion, worth watching. Unfortunately, year after year, I keep forgetting to actually watch any games on TV. But I know I like baseball because if I happen to tune in halfway through a game, I’m perfectly happy to watch the rest of it. I don’t even care who’s playing.

Of course, if I were a real baseball fan, I’d probably be able to recite “Casey at the Bat” from memory. It’s not only the most famous sports poem ever written, but it’s been declared the most famous poem of any kind written by an American, and it’s certainly been the most widely performed and recorded. Written by Ernest L. Thayer and originally published in the San Francisco Examiner newspaper in 1888, “Casey” tells the story of the fictional Mudville team’s crunch moment in a game, losing by two runs with two outs in the ninth inning. All hope rests on “mighty Casey,” the local star, who comes to bat with runners on second and third.

Flynn and Blake are those runners, and the mere fact that they both get base hits is considered a small miracle, as reflected in the poem’s third stanza: “But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake, And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake; So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat, For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.”

You’ll notice that the word applied to Flynn is “lulu,” not “hoodoo.” Thayer’s original poem was modified several times after its original publication, and later versions changed “lulu” to “hoodoo,” though why the change was made is unclear. A “lulu” in baseball slang of the period was “an unskilled player,” probably a sarcastic use of “lulu” meaning “something very good.” A “hoodoo,” however, was a player whose very presence was a jinx, bad luck. I guess someone though that changing “lulu” to “hoodoo” (probably just a modification of “voodoo”) would heighten the tension of the poem.

“Cake” was also slang at the time for “a player of dubious skill,” which is nearly the opposite of the use of “cake” in current baseball slang to mean “something very easy” (a shortening of “piece of cake”). In The Annotated Casey at the Bat, Martin Gardner explains that “cake” when Thayer wrote his poem was “a slang word of the time for a dude, dandy, or male homosexual. Here it probably means no more than a handsome, vain ball player, much concerned about his personal appearance, but a weak player.” Later versions of the poem changed “cake” to “fake.”

But while Flynn and Blake may have been considered weak players, at least they got base hits. As for Casey, he gave the world the immortal final stanza of the poem: “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.”

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