Poetry Friday: Casey at the Bat

It may seem that the middle of winter is a strange time to tackle a poem about the national pastime, since baseball’s season is still weeks away (pitchers and catchers have yet even to report to spring training), but if you’re someone like me—a guy who’s been a Seahawks fan so long he still has a little slip of paper tucked away in a keepsake box with Chuck Knox‘s signature on it—the thrilling and then gut-punch agonizing finish to this year’s Super Bowl instantly brought to mind Ernest Lawrence Thayer‘s classic poem about anticipation, arrogance, talent and disappointment.  You may be most familiar with it as the narration to a Disney cartoon, and indeed, there’s a side of the poem that is cartoonish.  But Martin Gardner, who wrote essays on American literature for the better part of a century, championed the poem for years as “America’s epic poem”, a verse that is titanic and powerful in what it says about who we are, and viewed especially through the lens of the emotions I went through last Sunday, I’m coming around to the notion that Gardner was right.  Without further ado, here’s the whole text of Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”:

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 the 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 hoodoo, 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.

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.

The sneer is gone 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 favoured 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.

Thayer presents us with a mesmerizing little poem: one that, yes, has gotten quirkier as the years pass and some of the slang becomes increasingly comical (I love the narrator’s calm assertion that Flynn and Blake, Mudville’s lesser lights, are, respectively, a “hoodoo” and a “cake”).  It can seem almost like a joke, presenting us with a setup, the gradual build of tension, and then the little shock of laughter as the outcome we expect—the triumph of “mighty Casey”—is pulled out from under us.  But we don’t really laugh at Casey, do we?  He’s not a clown; he’s a tragic hero.

Or at least that’s what I’d like you to try to bring to this poem.  Walk through it with me—it has its weaknesses (Thayer was no great poet, and even he came to look disapprovingly at this piece as he aged), but I think in spite of his inexperience and the poem’s frequently silly tone, you’ll see there’s a grandeur to the poem that explains why it endures.  Let’s start with the rhythm—seven metrical feet per line, iambs—which may feel familiar if you read it out loud and really listen to the rise and fall.  It’s the same rhythm Emily Dickinson uses in most of her famous pieces—“Some keep the Sabbath going to church”, etc.—although she breaks the lines in two (four feet and three).  She almost certainly borrows the rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, from the rhythms of the hymns sung in the New England churches she would have grown up attending (however she chose to keep the Sabbath once she was grown).  There’s a stateliness to the sound: it doesn’t quite sound funny to us, aloud.  It’s tapping into something about English and the way we’re accustomed to hearing it, I think: the meter says “these are thoughts to dwell on”.  Thayer chose it well.

Then the setup: I think it’s worth noting that Casey doesn’t lose Mudville a game it has in the bag.  Mudville’s played 8 of 9 innings and is in a real bind.  They haven’t been fast enough, strong enough, precise enough.  Any baseball fan will tell you that down two heading into the ninth inning is heartbreak territory, most of the time: close enough to believe in the possibility of a win, but almost guaranteed to end with a lazy pop-up or a rage-inducing called third strike.  And then, when Cooney and Barrows make quick work of themselves, well, most fans would be packing up their peanuts and crackerjack, if not physically heading for the exits.  But then something wonderful happens.

It’s too easy to see the end of the poem as all that counts, I think, but there are these little miracles in the middle of it, and plucky Flynn and doughty little Jimmy Blake are the two gems—they give Mudville all it could have asked.  Whatever failures lay behind them when they came to the plate—and there must have been some, to inspire the foul feelings in the stands as they are announced—each of them has a moment to shine, and they seize it.  They take what could have been an ignominious loss, 4-2 finishing with a routine ground ball to short, and turn it into a shout of delight, a thrill of expectation, a dawning realization that, no matter how it ends, this will be a game we go home remembering.  Sport has that instant memory-making quality, for those who love it: the chance to know just a moment in advance you’ll have this image clear in your mind all your life, and to revel in that knowledge (as much as it terrifies you).

I love those two fellows for their contributions, but of course, this is a poem about Casey and to him our eyes must go.  After Blake’s astonishing double puts the tying run in scoring position, Thayer gets a little Old Testament in his language—the echo of the spectators goes out and makes a clamor in the natural world like something out of Isaiah or Ezekiel.  Casey is almost apocalyptic as he steps forward, and rightly so, since in the lives of those five thousand standing there, it feels at least a tiny bit like the world might end if he can’t manage to knock in the runs.  This is hyperbole.  All sporting language is, and fans know it: we are watching fiction.  But it doesn’t diminish the way those real feelings well up, unasked for, in our minds.

What makes Casey tragic, and American, to me is his unconquerable confidence.  He is the perfect image of the superstar, a vision that haunts all our society’s best and worst moments.  We prefer our leaders like this, whether quarterbacks, captains of industry, or even presidents: we like them unruffled by doubt, untroubled by the very real and slim odds they may face in a given situation.  There’s something reassuring about that confidence, even if we could never find it in ourselves (maybe especially so).  Casey is easy, light-hearted—he tips his cap as though out for a stroll through the park.  He saves his sneers for the opposing pitcher, but even then, he really is very relaxed about the encounter, at least at first.  He’s too good to swing at a less than perfect pitch, and really we sense he’s saving himself for the perfect moment, as though his legend would be diminished by a first-pitch single into right field.  He wants the 0-2 count so desperately that he might as well have laid down and watched the first two pitches go by while doing a crossword puzzle.  He steps in to save the umpire, and when the crowd erupts in anger after the second strike, it’s to them he darts a look of scorn—even they, the gang in his corner, shouting his name, praying to Heaven for one swing of his bat, they are really beneath him in that moment.  He gradually seizes control of the whole event: you’ll notice, he signals to the pitcher for the second pitch, as though it was foreordained, as though Casey is writing the script and even the opposition must play along.

What, then, do we make of a script that ends in the way it does?  There’s sudden hate and violence inside Casey as he waits for the third pitch, but who is it for?  Even though, situationally, it seems obvious it should be the enemy pitcher, it can’t really be, can it?  He’s more or less sent engraved invitations to have the pitcher throw two by him.  And who could hate Flynn or Blake, or even his other teammates who’d let him down—baseball is certainly a team sport, and without the efforts of the others, Casey could never have gotten into this position.  Despite that scornful look, I’ll go ahead and even clear the audience of the charge.  Who’s left to hate, then?  Where does the violence go?

Casey reminds me in this moment of Captain Ahab, the one-legged monomaniac who seizes Moby-Dick out of the hands of its so-called narrator, Ishmael. At one point in that novel, we are told that Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” There’s something that elemental about Casey, in that moment, and this is why the poem for me is large and intimidatingly wonderful. Casey’s anger reaches beyond the game he is playing and the moment he is responding to. This is the anger that anyone with talent and opportunity has to stare down—the realization that to be good at anything means to dare failure, and that to be great demands putting ourselves in positions where the only possible failures will be catastrophic ones. He might be angry on some level that there is such a game as baseball and that he was born to be good at it—angry at the inescapability of error and loss, because even if he launches this pitch into the next county, a day will come when he swings and misses, and it will look like all the others. Casey’s monstrous third strike has the power to haunt us because it’s not a particular failure. It’s the failure that awaits us all at least a few times in our lives. But it’s the kind of failure that can only come to us when we’ve been good enough at something to be put in that position. Cooney and Barrows, the first two outs of the inning, will not see the spectre of those outs in their sleep all their lives. No one will write “Cooney at the Bat” about his unfortunate line out to the third baseman as the leadoff batter in the 9th.  This is the kind of loss that can only come to us in a Casey moment in our lives.

I called this a tragedy, an epic poem, and it really is both of those things, because it ends in darkness and sorrow, like Priam cradling his son’s body in his arms as he returns to the gates of Troy.  That may seem like I’m putting too much stock in something that’s a game—just a game.  But it doesn’t feel that way to anyone involved, and as I’ve been suggesting above, it’s because the game allows us to confront something larger and truer about our real lives, where the strikeouts and goal-line interceptions and missed free throws won’t be quite as easy to spot, but where the prospect of victory can be as sweet, and the impact of failure just as immediate.  Thayer strikes just the right note, I think.  No failure, not even one as huge as Casey’s, which looms over the poem’s final stanza, can douse the sun, end happiness or music, halt the progression of time as it draws us forward into new challenges and prepares us for new wins and losses.  But before we move on we have to mourn, even something as silly and inconsequential as a swinging third strike.  The Mudville nine will play again—Casey will probably bat hundreds, even thousands more times in a long and successful career ahead of him.  None of that will erase that perfect afternoon, the unexpected wonder of the two-out rally, the tension tight as a piano wire as Casey prepares all for his glorious apotheosis, and then the sudden end to all.

Maybe you don’t see any of this in what seems to you an outdated and really very silly baseball poem.  I’ll acknowledge there’s a case to be made on that side of the verse.  But I expect more than a few of you know what I’m talking about.  Seahawks fans (and before them Packers fans, and Ducks fans, and Royals fans, etc.) have been hearing the usual refrains—you have to be pretty great to finish that close to the top, you have to be pretty talented to be right there with a chance to win it all, etc.  We know how all those words really feel; we know how it felt in the Mudville stands that day, standing there wearing a replica Casey jersey and watching his face fall as the umpire called out the third strike and raised his fist.  Poetry, if it is to speak to the whole of the human condition, has to go there too—to take the silliness of our immersion in a sport and capture what is also grand and noble and terribly sad about the moments sport brings.  For me, Thayer goes there with Casey, and I’m glad he did.

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4 comments on “Poetry Friday: Casey at the Bat

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for your very interesting reading of Casey, which I have always regarded as a comic poem. His final failure was a comic turn, like sliding off stage on a banana peel. The rhythm contributes to this, a sing song effect which, after so many stanza of it, lingers in the brain until you wish it would go away.

    Surely not comparable to Priam and Hector. They suffered death and the destruction of a city. Baseball is a game.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I hear you, Nancy, and I know the interpretation is out there. But to me I don’t think Casey is a very funny poem—there’s a light-hearted air to it, especially at first, but the place the poem goes is to me more serious. And you’re right, it’s not remotely like the depths the Iliad plumbs—one of my favorite works of art, and a heart-breaking one, at the end—but to me it deserves to be put more in that category than it does being lined up with Edward Lear. Baseball is, undoubtedly, a game. But as I said above (perhaps unconvincingly), I think Casey resonates because it reminds us of the heights of confidence, even arrogance, to which talent takes us, and the sudden plunge that we will inevitably experience when circumstances are beyond our ability to succeed. But if to many (you included), it’s just a poem mocking a baseball player’s buffoonery as he screws up and loses the game, I’ll smile and shrug and accept that poems work in different ways for different people. 🙂

  2. Donna says:

    As a life-long Cubs fan, I’ve reflected on this poem way too often. And this is one poem I “get”. Thanks for taking something familiar and making it a little more “highbrow”.

    The Cubs will be a hitting machine
    In twenty-fifteen
    ala the recently-departed Ernie Banks

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I do my best, Donna. 🙂 Good luck to the Cubs (and their fans) this year—I hear it’s supposed to be a good one.

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