Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 6, 2013

An Appreciation Of Casey, At 125

It was June 3, 1888, a century and a quarter ago this week, when the San Francisco Examiner published a poem by Ernest Thayer. Coming at the conclusion of his three year stint as the paper’s humor columnist, it was the 24-year old Thayer’s last published piece for the Examiner. The poem received little notice at the time, and Thayer would eventually abandon journalism, returning to his native Massachusetts where he took up management of his family’s textile mills. But all these years later his little poem, written about a sport that by the end of the 19th century had become the national pastime, lives on.

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that–
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

Thayer had majored in philosophy and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, where he was the editor of the Harvard Lampoon and a member of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. While his comic verse is written in the common vernacular of the day and contains jargon that would have been familiar to the five thousand on hand at his imaginary ballpark, it seems Thayer couldn’t resist displaying his education. In the second stanza he alludes to Alexander Pope’s 1734 “Essay on Man,” which largely popularized optimistic philosophy in England. The most enduring line from Pope’s work is “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Hope is integral to the first half of the poem, as it is essential to any fan’s enjoyment of the Great Game. From the moment our heroes take the field, on through the slow unwinding of nine innings, we carry hope for our team’s success in our hearts and give voice to that emotion with each full-throated roar. Even if our lads fall behind and the remaining outs dwindle, we true fans are not among the straggling few, for we know that in this sport unlikely stars, like Flynn and Blake, can rise to the occasion at any moment.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped–
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

As fans we are sometimes guilty of instilling in our heroes near superhuman qualities; and our heroes are sometimes guilty of believing that the simple act of our adulation makes those qualities real. At one time or another every team in the big leagues has had a Casey on its roster. Yet while hubris may be the worst of the cardinal sins, few ballplayers fall victim to it without some basis. Our very own Casey may be arrogant, but there was that grand slam he hit just last week. Or was it last year? And while much about baseball has changed in the decades since Thayer’s poem was published, some aspects of the Great Game are immutable. Among them is that if things are going badly, we can always blame the umpire.

The sneer has fled from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go.
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

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 little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville–mighty Casey has struck out.

While the denouement is tragic, it is also familiar; and ultimately it is what gives both the poem and the game their lasting appeal. Every team in every city has spent some seasons as the Mudville Nine, and every fan who has cheered them on in those hapless times has known too many moments when the shining hope that accompanied the cry of “play ball” turned to the bitter despair of the final, flailing out. Far more than any other sport, ours is one that is measured not by success as much as by the ability to manage and minimize failure. In that way our American game mirrors the struggles that are an inevitable part of each of our lives. It is that quality that has allowed baseball to thrive from the middle of the 19th century, through dead balls and Black Sox, despite greenies and juice, right up until today.

Stage and vaudeville actor DeWolf Hopper made a career out of reciting “Casey at the Bat.” More recently figures as diverse as actor James Earl Jones, magicians Penn & Teller, and humorist Garrison Keillor have recorded the poem. It’s been the subject of two Disney animations and referenced in countless movies, television shows, and songs. And there have been sequels, always with happier outcomes, most notably Grantland Rice’s 1907 “Casey’s Revenge.” Yes, some days we live in Mudville, and there is no joy. But in the game with the longest season, and hopefully in life as well, day in and day out we know that there will be another game tomorrow. With it will come another reason to hope. As long as the Great Game endures, mighty Casey will always have another chance at the bat.

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Responses

  1. Mike,

    One of your best. Chuck


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