‘Papa’ Hemingway vs. ‘Fireman’ Casey

Ernest Hemingway would square off against anyone, be it Fidel Castro or Hugh Casey (via Bruce Tuten).

Ernest Hemingway would square off against anyone, be it Fidel Castro or Hugh Casey (via Bruce Tuten).

Hugh Casey stands out in baseball history for a couple of reasons.

First, he delivered the fateful pitch that Dodger catcher Mickey Owen missed, allowing batter Tommy Henrich to take first base, ultimately resulting in a Yankee victory and a commanding 3-1 lead in the 1941 World Series, and all but eradicating the Dodgers’ chances to win their first title. Allegedly, Casey threw a spitter, but he and Owen insisted it was a curve.

Second, Casey was a relief specialist when such a status didn’t mean what it does today. He came to the Dodgers in 1939 after pitching 291 innings for the Memphis Chicks the year before. For the most part, he was a starter, but that changed over the next couple of seasons. By 1942 he started only two games and the following year only one game. His major league career ended in 1949 but he never started another game after 1943.

Another noteworthy event in Casey’s life had nothing to do with baseball, but it was an athletic contest of sorts. It was an informal—very informal—boxing match in a suburb of Havana, Cuba.

The Dodgers were not the first team to set up training camp in Havana. For the record, the Giants had done so in 1937. Oddly, the first major league team to train there was the 1915 St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League. The last team was the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953.

Over the years, many major league teams had played exhibition games (and sometimes an entire series) in Havana during the spring. Since the Cuban Winter League finished up just before spring training started, the timing was ideal for American teams in training or just visiting.

The Dodgers, however, left the biggest imprint in Havana, setting up camp there in 1941, 1942, and 1947. Having trained in Clearwater, Florida from 1936 through 1940, the Dodgers likely enjoyed the change of scenery. And why not? Despite occasional political turmoil, Havana was a major tourist destination.

When the Dodgers were there in the early 40’s, Fulgencio Batista—yes, the same guy Castro sent packing in 1959—was in charge. At that time, however he was a relatively benign, duly-elected President; in his 1952 comeback, he was the leader of a coup who proclaimed himself dictator.

Of course, the Dodgers were not there to become involved in local politics. They were preparing for the regular season—and spending money—so they were welcome.

If one was into drinking, gambling, and wenching, Havana had it in abundance. And in 1941 the Dodgers had plenty of players who were interested in such roistering pursuits.

Fittingly, the Dodgers were managed by Leo Durocher, who had brought some of the old Gashouse Gang vibe from St. Louis when he was traded to the Dodgers in 1938. He may not have encouraged his players in the aforementioned leisure time pursuits, but he probably didn’t discourage them.

Though Durocher had a running battle with GM Larry MacPhail, he had done a good job with the Dodgers. After playing shortstop for the Dodgers during the 1938 season, he was named player-manager in 1939. The results speak for themselves. In 1938 the Dodgers finished in seventh place with a 69-80 record. Under Leo’s rookie season as a manager, they improved to 84-69, good for third place. The victory total climbed every year: 88 in 1940, 100 in 1941, and 104 in 1942. The 1941 total brought the Dodgers their first pennant in 21 years.

In Havana, the Dodgers stayed at the famed La Nacional Hotel (built in 1930 and still in business) and worked out at Gran Stadium Cerveceria Tropical, more popularly known as La Tropical (the stadium is now known as Pedro Marrero Stadium and is used only for soccer). A regular visitor to their workouts was Ernest Hemingway, who lived in San Francisco de Paula, about 15 miles from downtown Havana.

Hemingway was in his early 40’s during the early ’40s. After living in Key West for a decade, he moved to Cuba in 1939 and started work on For Whom the Bell Tolls. The book had been successful enough (and the movie rights from Paramount Pictures lucrative enough) that he was able to buy the home he had been renting. He had recently married his third wife, Martha Gellhorn.

For his age, Hemingway was a vigorous, virile sort, in keeping with his public image, but he was no longer in his prime physically—unlike the typical major league ballplayer. Recapturing his youth may be one reason he was a frequent visitor at Dodger workouts. Of course, he was also a sports fan, so the opportunity to see American ballplayers in action probably resonated within his expatriate heart.

Inevitably, Hemingway got to know some of the players. As a devotee of shooting sports and hunting, he found kindred spirits in Casey, Billy Herman, Larry French, Augie Galan, and Curt Davis, among others. The result was some friendly competition at a local gun club. He was also known to shoot dice with Casey and Kirby Higbe at the casino at La Nacional.

Eventually, Hemingway invited a group of Dodgers to Vinca Figia, his hilltop home with views of the city and the sea. Noting that he and Casey were roughly the same size, he suggested a sparring session. This might be an unusual party pursuit for most, but for Hemingway it had long been part of his social life, whether in Paris or Key West.

Hemingway, who fancied himself a pretty good amateur boxer, was not loath to don the gloves and climb in the ring with anyone. He did so once with Gene Tunney and implored Jack Dempsey to do same with no luck. By all accounts, Hemingway’s prowess in the ring was nowhere close to his prowess with a firearm or a fishing rod, not to mention a Smith-Corona portable.

In March 1942, Casey was only 28 and Hemingway was 42, so the pitcher had the advantage on that point. Casey was listed at 6’1″ and 207 pounds. Hemingway was listed as 6′ tall and in photos from that period he appears heavy-set. Billy Herman estimated him at 6’2″ and 235 pounds in those days. Some sources list him at an even 6′ and at a “mere” 220 pounds. Aside from that, we have no “tale of the tape” statistics. Even so, both men would qualify as heavyweights.

If you want a pretty good blow-by-blow description of the bout, check out Peter Golenbock’s Bums: an Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In that volume, Herman gives a pretty detailed account of the conflict, which was hardly a clinic for aspiring pugilists.

Interesting to note, however, that both men were known as affable gents—but with an asterisk. Hemingway was known to be gracious in public but with a mean streak in private—especially when drunk. Casey was a quiet, self-contained sort, but he was also known to have a mean streak—and not just when on the mound.

On this occasion, Casey tried to beg off battling his host, but eventually he had to respond to Hemingway’s goading. Once the battle was underway, Hemingway cast aside the Marquess of Queensbury’s rules. That only served to rile Casey even more.

Herman’s account makes it plain that Casey bested Hemingway. More than that, in modern parlance, Casey kicked Hemingway’s ass. Also, to employ another contemporary phrase, there was a lot of collateral damage to the living room. In other words, Hemingway got a thrashing while his living room got a trashing.

After the fight, Hemingway admitted defeat but invited Casey to stay the night so they could continue battling the next day. This time, however, there would be no fisticuffs. Hemingway suggested a duel with the weapon of Casey’s choice—knives, swords, guns, whatever.

Clearly, it was time for Casey and the rest of the Dodgers to take their leave. If they wanted to go back to the World Series in 1942, an injury to Hugh Casey would not help their cause. Imagine trying to explain to Leo Durocher that his best relief pitcher had been hurt in a duel with a man of letters!

Tropical Storm Casey/Ernest not only destroyed the Hemingway living room but also his relationship with the Dodgers. He showed up at the Dodger workout the next day to apologize for his boorish, bumptious behavior, but the Dodgers never visited him again.

The Dodgers left Havana and returned to Brooklyn for the 1942 season. Their 104-50 record was the best in franchise history (until 1953), yet it was only good for second place, two games behind the Cardinals. In 1943 their spring training experience was much more austere, as wartime travel restrictions forced them to stay closer to home, namely, Bear Mountain, New York.

Hugh Casey had a 6-3 record and a 2.25 ERA in 112 innings in 1942. His next three seasons were lost to military service. Initially stationed at Norfolk Naval Air Station as a physical fitness trainer, Casey pitched in the 1943 Navy World Series. In 1944 he was transferred to Hawaii, where he served out the remainder of his tour of duty.

In a sense, Hemingway was also involved in naval endeavors during the war. Too old for formal military service, he wasn’t about to sit out the war. Armed with hand grenades and a Tommy gun, he patrolled the Cuban coast in search of German U-boats. By 1944, he was a war correspondent covering the D-Day landing and its aftermath. Cuba, of course, continued to play a big part in his life, after the war.

After World War II, both men returned to their pre-war pursuits. Casey went 11-5 with a 1.99 ERA in just under 100 innings pitched for the Dodgers in 1946. The following season, he made a return trip to Havana, where the Dodgers trained in the brand new Gran Estadio de la Habana (still in use but now known as Estadio Latinoamericano). GM Branch Rickey, despite his aversion to all forms of vice, determined that Havana would provide a more copacetic atmosphere for Jackie Robinson’s first training camp.

Hemingway, battling an increasing number of health problems, married wife No. 4 (Mary Welsh) in 1946. He continued writing but published no books for the rest of the decade. The 1950’s, however, was another story; in Casey’s case figuratively, in Hemingway’s case literally.

In 1950 Hemingway published Across the River and Into the Trees. It was widely viewed as an inferior piece of work. Hemingway was apparently washed up. But two years later he brought out The Old Man and the Sea to universal kudos. This was the book that sealed the deal for his Nobel Prize in 1954. Unfortunately, the rest of the decade brought him more health problems (including an assortment of mood-altering drugs, supposedly to combat depression), culminating in his self-inflicted death by 12-gauge shotgun on July 2, 1961.

Unlike Hemingway, Casey had no serious health problems. He turned 36 after the conclusion of the 1949 season, his last in the major leagues. He spent the 1950 season in the Southern Association, pitching for his hometown team, the Atlanta Crackers, with whom he had begun his professional career in 1932. He went to Vero Beach with the Dodgers for spring training in 1951 but could not catch on with the team.

So in 1951, at age 37, Hugh Casey was at a crossroads. His professional baseball career was over (though he did log some innings for the semi-pro Brooklyn Bushwicks), but he was not well prepared for LAB (life after baseball). He owned a Brooklyn restaurant but it wasn’t doing particularly well. Known as a loner, a boozer, and a womanizer, Casey didn’t have a lot to look forward to in mid-1951. His prospects were depressing. And then it got worse.

A Brooklyn baseball groupie named Hilda Weissmann had named Casey as the father of her child born in late 1949. A three-judge Special Sessions Court upheld the charges. Insisting on his innocence to the last, Casey committed suicide in a hotel room with a 16-gauge shotgun while talking to his estranged wife Kathleen on the phone early in the morning of July 3, 1951.

One wonders what Hemingway thought when he heard the news about Casey. Possibly, he saw the makings of a short story. Surely, he would not have foreseen that he would go out the same way 10 years to the day, minus one. Yet his plight in 1961 was not unlike Casey’s in 1951.

After more than two decades in Cuba, Hemingway left for good in 1960. Hemingway once described himself as a “true Cuban” and took part in a photo op wherein he kissed the hem of the Cuban flag. So Cuba was more than a vacation home to him.

Initially, Hemingway and Castro seemed to hit it off, but following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, the Cuban government confiscated his home and all its contents, including thousands of books and some unfinished manuscripts. He knew that even if his health permitted, he would never be able to return to Cuba.

It was the end of an era in more ways than one. In March 1961 the Cuban government had declared an end to professional baseball. Aspiring beisbolistas in Cuba would have to play for the Cuban national team and be content with amateur status. Leaving the island for the USA would be just as difficult as leaving the USA for Cuba.

Today Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Viglia home is a museum. If the time ever comes when Americans are permitted travel to Cuba, the house would surely be a major attraction. More than a half-century after Hemingway’s death, his house in Key West is still the top tourist attraction in that burg. There is no reason to assume the home in Havana would be any less attractive to American visitors.

There are no major tourist destinations involving Hugh Casey, but he hasn’t been forgotten. In 1991, he was posthumously voted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. And in 2011, a writer named Barry Gifford authored a one-act play called “Spring Training at the Finca Vigia.” The only three characters in the play are Hugh Casey, Kirby Higbe, and Ernest Hemingway.

It’s tempting to say that the lives of Hemingway and Casey ended as badly as their Cuban slugfest. Granted, Casey won the fight, but what did he win? Can’t help but recall that Hemingway once published a book of short stories called Winner Take Nothing.

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  1. Paul Blocklyn said...

    Professional athletes were not the only individuals that Ernest Hemingway sought to engage in fisticuffs.  The writer Max Eastman once made the mistake of questioning why Hemingway had to go around trumpeting his masculinity all the time.  Some time afterward, the two men happened to meet in Charles Scribner’s offices in New York City, and Hemingway promptly challenged Eastman to a fight.  Accounts differ as to who won the battle (each claimed victory for himself). The reader is invited to read these accounts and decide for himself or herself.

  2. Michael Casey Kocijan said...

    I am the son; so mentioned you article. My mother Hilda passed away now. I am a double of the image found on the internet of Hugh and Pee Wee Reese in Navy basic training together. From that picture you could not tell us apart. I look that much like him.

    I was given the 1947 Nation Pennant ring by Mr. Peter O’Malley, of the LA Dodgers in 1981.

    I would not mind talking about it if interested.
    My e-mail is
    ; Cell 904-294-4184.

    I it nice that he is remembered.

    Regards.  Michael

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