Baseball's Greatest Poem Is About a Loser
Ernest Thayer’s ‘Casey at the Bat’ may be, as he said, doggerel, but it’s doggerel of a high order and has endured for 130 years with no signs of fading.
For all of the carping these days about the slow pace of baseball, there was a time when our grand, clockless sport fired millions of imaginations.
Said firing was helped along by a 24-year-old Easterner named Ernest Thayer, who had gone west to San Francisco to make his journalistic name. If you knew a Thayer who was a writer, you were probably a classical music aficionado, and had tracked down a copy of Alexander Thayer’s first-ever biography of Beethoven. But our Mr. Thayer was interested in another mighty B, you might say, that being baseball in all of its attendant, grand-sweeping powers, as borne out in poesy.
It was 130 years ago that Thayer published “Casey at the Bat,” a 13-verse poem that he regarded as doggerel. But this was high-level doggerel, if the term ever fit. You may have never sat down to read those 13 verses, you may have nary a clue who Ernest Thayer is, you may not like baseball, you may detest all things “sports ball,” but there is no way you have not come in contact with some aspect of the finest poem about athletics ever penned in this country.
It’s our tendency to view sports as a 20th century phenomenon. Anything pre-1900 we generally associate with the Olympics, with Greeks, Romans—in short, with people of yore. Discuses were hurled, races were won, wrestling matches were had. But team sports? Nah. Except, around the time of the Civil War, baseball started to become massive in this country, and by 1888, when Thayer wrote his poem, it was part of the mighty triumvirate of entertainment of its day. You had the theater, you had reading, you had baseball. People dug music, but it could be harder to come by depending upon where you lived. But there were always people putting on plays—even in their backyards—and books were the television and internet of their time, and baseball, well, that was top-level fun, and it could teach you a thing or two about life, too. Enter, then, this sports poem of poems.
We have to remember that you didn’t just look down at your phone at the time to check the scores on MLB.com. Baseball was a national concern, but if you weren’t in a major city, your baseball focus would be on your local amateur team. It was with them you’d live and die on a Sunday afternoon, attending a game behind the barn on someone’s farm. The greengrocer was the ace hurler; your blacksmith played a nifty shortstop; the squat bank manager had surprising prowess as a defensive catcher but couldn’t hit a lick. An ex-pro, newly come to town to start another phase of life, was a veritable ringer, playing a center field so nimbly he could have run down buckshot falling out of the sky.
We don’t know who Thayer based his Casey character on, nor do we know what town, exactly, serves as the inspiration for the Mudville Nine, but a reasonable guess for the former would be Mike “King” Kelly,” who starred for the Boston Beaneaters and was like the Reggie Jackson of his day; megawatt star power, in a sport that didn’t have to battle other sports for popularity. As for the latter, we might look to Holliston, Massachusetts, a town near Worcester, which is where Thayer grew up, with a Mudville section. The term Mudville is the genius stroke—or the divine RBI knock, if you want to put it in baseball parlance. A touch of the Dickensian by way of Mark Twain.
The set-up is simple, and one to relish. Our side—and it is almost impossible not to feel that you are rooting for the Mudville squad—is down to their last half inning, trailing by two. It’s the bottom of the ninth, because this is the home team, as evidenced by the passionate, partisan crowd. Their first two hitters—solid hitters—are retired swiftly. Due up next are those guys that occupy the bottom of most baseball line-ups then and now, players who you just know are going to make outs, unless the score is 8-1 and it’s time for them to collect their weekly hit in a low-leverage situation.
But wait! What have we here?
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all
and Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
and when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
there was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Let’s look at what has happened here in this ostensible piece of doggerel that bears certain felicitous touches that Keats would be proud of. Previously, Thayer—or, our narrator, if you prefer—has termed Flynn a lulu—a most damning word back then—and Blake a cake. Meaning, Blake was soft, like a cake. This is pretty funny business, but with our above-quoted verse, a dramatic turn is happening, but with the piss-taking attitude of the fan still intact.
There is “wonderment” that Flynn hit a liner, but it’s wonderment that rides shotgun with gratitude. “Thanks for giving us hope, dude. Even though you usually suck.” As for Blake: He’s not actually much-despised. He’s despised on the ballfield. Thayer is nailing that compartmentalization that we always need, and often fail to have, with sports. Note, too, that “a-hugging.” He could have easily left off the “a.” This is the language of childish wonder. When a child is scared, he or she is “a-scared,” often, as they put it. Here, the adults of the piece are also becoming the wide-eyed children of this spectacle as it plays out.
Salvation now has a chance to come to pass, as Casey—mighty Casey—is stepping to the plate. My feeling is that Casey must be the lead-off hitter, which is why the two light-hitting guys were in front of him. Why is he the lead-off hitter when the best hitter on any team has long hit third? This isn’t pro ball. This is that ball field behind the barn. This is Every Town, USA. And you want your best hitter to get as many chances at the dish as possible. So you bat him lead-off.
Casey lets the first pitch blow by him for a called strike. “That ain’t my style,” he says, ostensibly playing to the crowd. Again, this is entertainment, weekend leisure. The stakes are both high, and not high. The stakes are your mood for a little bit, bragging rights with your buddies.
When I was a kid and I read this poem, which I did often as a baseball nut, it was an automatic belief of mine that Casey was awesome, but arrogant. But as I read it as an adult, I no longer see it that way. I see that Casey was probably once awesome, but here he’s reached a point in his career, such as it was, in the local lore, in Every Town, USA, where he just doesn’t have it anymore. I don’t think he’s letting pitches go by out of hubris; I think he’s trying to work the count. Maybe he’ll be walked. Maybe a better batsman can bail out his Mudville Nine. Maybe the younger, stronger, hungrier version of Casey is on-deck.
The pitcher winds up once more and still Casey does not move his bat. The people watching start to lose their shit. They want the umpire strung up. The more things change, right? Then we have a funny bit:
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 spheroid flew;
but Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said: “Strike two.”
Oh dear. Things are getting quite dark now. Everyone at the time had what we now think of as creepy Christian images in their homes. Saints in gestures of forgiveness or what not, which is what Thayer is playing off of. But as we mentioned before, the theater was huge back then; hence, this is quite theatrical. Casey is a batter-cum-MC. It has always put me in baseball-friendly stitches that he gestures to the pitcher to resume pitching activities. But he knows he’s in trouble.
A third pitch comes, with there being no margin for error, and you probably know what happens.
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.
The use of the word “somewhere” is quite similar to how it’s deployed in “Over the Rainbow.” It’s a word that signifies both a kind of hopelessness—for the reprieve, the succor, the better things, the connections, seem quite far off—and a kind of hope in that these things exist. They are just not here, right now. They might not be encountered for a fortnight, a year, a decade, maybe not in this place, maybe not this town, this city, this time zone, this country. Maybe not this world? No. No, no, no—we must not go there. That is only the case when there is no more chance of games to be played, rather than the next game, the next result, to look forward to.
When we read a short story, we often like a definitive timeline. We like to know that the events are opening around Halloween, for example, and they’re wrapping up by April of the next year. There’s no definitive sense of time in “Casey at the Bat.” It’s a case of Any Time, USA (but not the winter). This could be the first game of the season, with new hopes for that campaign, or it could be the rubber match of the local playoffs in early November. We don’t know. We don’t know if Casey didn’t crack three homers into the paddock the next day, scattering the horses.
Personally, I like it all the different ways at once. The loss that could trigger the next day’s victory, the whiff that could be the start of a hot streak, the sadness that is itself a start towards joy the sooner it commences, and the sooner it thus finishes.