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Casey at the Bat

Casey at the Bat

Ernest Lawrence Thayer 1888

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summery

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Crilicism

Sources

For Further Study

There are certain works of art that have gained the status as true pieces of Americana, such as Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn, Thomas Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, and Ernest Thayer’s ballad “Casey at the Bat.” Thayer was a newspaperman for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Daily Examiner during the last part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. He was assigned to write editorials and ballads for the newspaper, and “Casey at the Bat” was published in the Examiner on June 3, 1888, under his pseudonym “Phin.” Although Thayer wrote many other ballads besides “Casey at the Bat,” they all passed into obscurity. “Casey at the Bat” gained its fame through a novelist, Archibald Gunter, who gave a newspaper clipping of the ballad to an actor friend named DeWolf Hopper. Hopper recited the ballad in August of 1888, in between acts of a play he was performing in New York, and the audience gave him a riotous standing ovation. Thus, DeWolf Hopper launched his own career and immortalized “Casey at the Bat.” Hopper later wrote that he had recited baseball’s most famous poem more than ten thousand times during the following forty-seven years.

Author Biography

Thayer was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 14, 1863. He was the son of Edward Davis (a manufacturer of woolen goods) and Ellen Darling Thayer. While a philosophy major at Harvard, Thayer met future newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst when the two worked together on the Harvard Lampoon. Following his graduation in 1885, Thayer was offered a job by Hearst, who had just taken over the San Francisco Examiner. For the next year and a half, until his health failed, Thayer worked for the Examiner, turning out editorials, obituaries, and ballad poems, often under the pen name “Phin,” for five dollars a column. “Casey at the Bat” was written in May of 1888 and first appeared in the Examiner on June 3rd of that year.

The poem might have been forgotten except for its reading by renowned actor De Wolf Hopper in New York City during the late 1880s. Hopper was performing at Wallack’s Theatre, which was featuring a baseball theme night, with members of the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants in the audience. The reading was a hit and gained wide popular acceptance. It also created a kind of mini-industry for Hopper, who estimated that he recited the poem more than 10,000 times during his career.

Thayer wrote only a few poems after that, all of which appeared in newspapers and were quickly forgotten. During these years, Thayer worked in his family’s textile mills and traveled abroad until his retirement in 1912. The following year he married Rosalind Buel Hammett. He died of a brain hemorrhage at his home in Santa Barbara, California, on August 21, 1940.

Poem Text

It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine
      that day, 
The score stood four to six with but an inning left
      to play. 
And so, when Cooney died at first, and Burrows
      did the same, 
A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the
      game. 
A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the                5
      rest, 
With that hope which springs eternal within the
      human breast. 
For they thought if only Casey could get a whack
      at that, 
They’d put up even money with Casey at the bat. 
But Flynn preceded Casey, and likewise so did
      Blake, 
And the former was a pudding and the latter was a              10
      fake; 
So on that stricken multitude a death-like silence
      sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s
      getting to the bat. 
But Flynn let drive a single to the wonderment of
      all, 
And the much despised Blakey tore the cover off
      the ball, 
And when the dust had lifted and they saw what                 15
      had occurred, 
There was Blakey safe on second, and Flynn a
      hugging third. 
Then from the gladdened multitude went up a
      joyous yell, 
It bounded from the mountain top and rattled in the
      dell, 
It struck upon the hillside, and rebounded on the
      flat, 
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the                  20
      bat. 
There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped
      into his place, 
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on
      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                 25
      hands with dirt, 
Five thousand tongues applauded as he wiped them
      on his shirt; 
And while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into
      his hip— 
Defiance gleamed from 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              30
      there; 
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded
      sped— 
“That hain’t my style,” said Casey—“Strike one,”
      the Umpire said. 
From the bleachers black with people there rose a
      sullen roar, 
Like the beating of the storm waves on a stern and
      distant shore, 
“Kill him! kill the Umpire!” shouted some one                  35
      from the stand— 
And it’s likely they’d have done it had not Casey
      raised his hand. 
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s
      visage shone, 
He stilled the rising tumult and he bade the game
      go on; 
He signalled to the pitcher and again the spheroid
      flew, 
But Casey still ignored it and the Umpire said                 40
      “Strike two.” 
“Fraud!” yelled the maddened thousands, and the
      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 would not let that ball
      go by again. 
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip; his teeth are              45
      clenched with 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                   50
      hearts are light, 
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere
      children shout; 
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has
      “Struck Out.”

Poem Summery

Lines 1-6

The poem begins with a gloomy situation: the game is almost over and the home team is losing. There are three references to death: Cooney and Burrows have “died,” and the crowd in the stands is “wreathed”—as in a funeral wreath—in a “pallor,” or an absence of color, especially in the face, as in a corpse.

Line 7

This is the first mention of Casey, when the exposition of the poem begins. Casey’s power in batting is obviously well known by everyone watching.

Lines 8-10

Casey’s teammates are well beneath his power. The first two players mentioned are less than adequate: Flynn is a “pudding” and Blake is a “fake.” Clearly, these two are not expected to get on base.

Lines 11-12

The fourth mention of death comes in line 11. All hope seems to be gone for any redemption by the hero. The speaker of the poem suggests that the only chance the team has rests with Casey. And only Casey, in a heroic way, can breathe life into the crowd, can help them escape “death.”

Lines 13-16

When Flynn and Blakey both get hits, it seems as though a miracle has taken place, lending the moment an almost religious feeling.

Lines 17-20

The crowd is delirious: a reason to hope has been brought to the multitude by Casey. They look to him for their deliverance. The two players who went before him, Flynn and Blakey, struggle just to get on base, a stark comparison to what is expected of “mighty Casey.” By the time Casey comes to bat, the poet has prepared the reader to anticipate his Herculean powers.

Lines 21-24

Casey is not only superhuman, but also a confident gentleman, tipping his hat to the crowd.

Lines 25-26

Although wiping dirty hands on a shirt is usually considered bad manners, it seems in Casey’s case a heroic gesture worthy of applause.

Lines 27-32

Casey is in complete control of the situation. Cocky, unflustered, Casey lets an inside pitch fly by without any attempt at hitting it.

Lines 33-35

The masses rise up as one to angrily defend their hero from the unjust official.

Lines 36-38

With a reference to Christ, Casey’s might is established. He is not only in charge of the duel between him and the pitcher, but he is also able to control five thousand people in the bleachers, simply with a smile and by raising his hand.

Lines 39-41

The crowd in the stands continues to act like a mob, uncontrolled and prone to violence. Note how Thayer uses the rhythms of the game of baseball, with its successive pitches and judgments by the umpire (and the crowd’s increasing anger), to increase the tension of the situation step by step.

Lines 42-44

Casey’s smile has turned to a “scornful look.” His cocky confidence has begun to evaporate, and he begins to take the situation seriously. The tension is mounting for him, too.

Line 45

The poem now shifts from past tense to present tense, giving the situation at hand even more of a dramatic tone, as if we are in the stands watching the baseball game as it unfolds in front of us.

Line 46

The “Christian charity” mentioned in line 37 is now gone. Now there is violence in Casey’s actions, just like the violent feelings of the unruly mob in the stands. Casey is no longer above the common man’s emotions—he has become one of them.

Lines 47-48

Casey has finally swung his bat, for the first time, but we are left hanging by the speaker: is it a foul ball, a strike, a home run? This is the climax of the poem, and we aren’t told what has happened.

Lines 49-51

The suspense is greatly heightened by the poet describing events outside of the baseball field, still leaving untold the outcome of Casey’s swing. Thayer seems to be deliberately telling us every thing but what we want to know most.

Line 52

This last line is one of the most famous in American poetry. With the buildup of the all-powerful Casey coming to bat to save the day, then finally shattering the air with his mighty blow, we hope and pray for the ball to be knocked out of the park. But Casey doesn’t hit the ball foul, or hit the ball for a single or double. He misses the ball completely, striking out. Lines 49–51, describing scenes of happiness, are in stark, bittersweet contrast to the failure of Casey the hero and the effects of that failure on the crowd.

Themes

Success and Failure

In the last line of this poem, the unthinkable happens. Not only has the Mudville team lost—that has been anticipated from the very first line—and not only has Casey failed to score, but the thing that really drains all the joy from the town of Mudville is that Casey is the cause of his own failure. Fans learn to accept loss from their team; that is just part of the way the game is played. The game described in the poem is a turbulent ride for the fans’ emotions, swinging from the gloom of the first twelve lines to ensuing hope and then ultimate loss. They could still walk away with the consolation that it is only a game, that nobody was permanently injured, that there is always next week, or next season, for Mudville to win. A team’s loss

Media Adaptations

  • Casey at the Bat, narrated by Curt Gowdy is available on audio cassette from Spoken Arts, Inc.
  • A video cassette titled Shelly Duvall ’s Tall Tales and Legends Series: Casey at the Bat was released by Playhouse Videos in 1994.
  • Casey at the Bat, a record album, was released by Raintree Publishers in 1985.

is not really a failure on the scale that a man’s loss is.

The successes of Casey’s teammates do not make much of an impression on the fans. They expect nothing of Flynn, the “pudding,” so his base hit could be looked at as something of a miracle, but not much is made of it. Blakey’s hit is so solid that it tears the cover off the ball. He is so despised, however, that this achievement only quiets them, but it does not win their admiration. It is only Casey who can succeed or fail in the mob’s eyes. The great thing about hero worship is that one person’s success can spread to all who empathize, as is the case with the five thousand Mudville fans, who would feel personally triumphant if Casey had won the game. The terrible thing about hero worship, as we see here, is that the reverse is also possible; the failure of one man spreads out to encompass the whole town.

Ubermensch (“Superman”)

When German philosopher Fredrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) developed the idea of the ubermensch (which is most often translated into English as “superman,” but could also be “overman” or “beyondman”), he certainly did not have in mind a baseball player, not even one as talented as readers are led to believe Casey is. Nietzsche used the word to mean the highly developed individual who could see beyond the bonds of conventional morality, with the assumption that morality holds most people back from the heights of the fullest human potential. Nietzsche did not

Topics for Further Study

  • Compose a ballad to a moment that is not really a life-and-death situation, but appears to be because of the way you tell it. Add numerous details to prolong the suspense.
  • Research myths or tall tales of other world cultures and compare them to “Casey at the Bat.” Report on what a myth tells you about aspects of the culture in the modern world.
  • Explain how the slang that is used in this poem heightens the tension of the drama.

think that the superman he had envisioned even existed yet, but was to be the future of human evolution. Although his theory is based on moral growth, so that the superman of his dreams is one who would be, in the words of one of his book titles, “beyond good and evil,” the word has come to refer to someone who has attained physical powers beyond those of ordinary humans.

Much of the common understanding of the word comes from the comic book character named Superman, which was created during the Great Depression in 1938 and is still widely popular today. This character was created to be all things that ordinary humans are not: he can fly, bend steel, see through objects with his X-ray vision, and in the popular 1978 movie incarnation, he even reversed time. These are the sort of unimaginable accomplishments readers associate with Casey from the poem. We associate them with Casey, but we do not know what incredible feats Casey is capable of because the poem’s source of humor is precisely that he never does anything extraordinary. The crowd does expect greatness of him, though. He is presented as their savior, a godlike being who can accomplish things that mere mortals cannot. Though the baseball game is hardly important by real-world standards, it is presented as a life-or-death situation for the Mudville fans, with the thought of defeat “wreathing” a “pallor” around them and causing a “death-like” silence. They represent the ordinary things about humanity—with the emphasis on mud and death and failure—and they rely on Casey to show them mankind’s greatness.

Pride

This poem would tell a terribly unhappy, even tragic, story if it were simply a matter of Casey being unable to ease his fans’ feelings of inadequacy. While that element is present, the poem is at the same time humorous because of Casey’s own over-estimation of himself. Anyone can strike out in baseball. Failure is expected more often than not: the best batters in the game have base hits only one out of three times at bat. But Casey has no idea that he can fail. If he kept his confidence to himself, he might have been remembered as a man who gave his best. It is a tradition in American humor, though, that what a character thinks of a situation is broadly different than what the situation actually is. A person in Casey’s position needs to have more than the usual amount of pride in order to put up with the pressure of his fans’ expectations and still be able to play decently. Casey’s problem is that, even as he overcomes the odds that are against him to have a chance in a hopeless situation, his own pride is the cause of his downfall.

Any player can swing at the baseball and miss at any time, and Casey should not bear blame for that, but what about first two pitches, which he allows to pass him by? “That hain’t my style,” is a claim of a man who feels confident that he will be able to hit any pitch he feels is his style. In this case, that confidence is misplaced. The pride he feels in his hitting ability is not in sync with reality. True pride reflects approval of something that one has done, and readers can assume from the expectations of his fans that Casey has done many things in his career for which to be proud. The false pride shown here comes from Casey enjoying the pleasure of what he thinks he will accomplish without his having even accomplished anything yet.

Style

“Casey at the Bat” is considered a ballad. Its subtitle when it was originally published was A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888. The poem lends itself well to being spoken aloud. With its four-line style, the rhythm has a singsong quality to it. “Casey at the Bat” can also be categorized as a “narrative poem.” It follows the general narrative pattern: a fear of impending tragedy, the last-minute appearance of a hero (Casey) who is seen as a deliverer, and finally, the achievements of the hero (or in this case, lack of achievements). “Casey at the Bat” focuses on the relationship between society and the hero. There is also a mock-heroic quality to the ballad, elevating a baseball player to the position of savior.

Historical Context

The history of baseball that is commonly discussed was made up in 1905, when a committee appointed to study the game’s origin accepted a myth, rather than seeking the truth, and they crowned this myth the official version. According to the committee, which was appointed by sporting goods magnate Albert G. Spalding, baseball was invented in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, by Abner Doubleday. No serious historians believe this story: there are too many documented references to baseball well before that date, and too many similarities exist between baseball and the traditional English game “rounders” for credit to be handed out this way. There are several possible explanations for why they might have committed such a glaring, obvious error. The first is simply a matter of bad research: although the commission was composed of famous, esteemed men, including two U.S. senators, they were too lazy to find and examine old historical records, instead putting out advertisements for anyone who might have knowledge about the matter. This method netted Abner Graves, a resident of Cooperstown who supposedly remembered Doubleday inventing the game seventy years earlier. The committee was inclined to believe Graves’s story because it supported—in what was a hot controversy of the time—the patriotic theory that America’s national pastime owed nothing to England, that it had sprung entirely from the mind of one American. If there was going to be one lone mythical inventor of the game, Abner Doubleday was a good candidate for the position: later in life he was a Civil War hero, a general for the Union Army who had ordered the Northern troops to return the South’s fire when the war started at Fort Sumter.

In fact, baseball probably has no such clear-cut time and place of origin and likely, historians agree, evolved out of games that came before it. Children’s games played with bats and balls, such as “old-cat” and “one-old-cat” and “barnball” were played around America for decades before Doubleday was alleged to have been touched by inspiration. More evidence that baseball preceded Doubleday came in 1991, when the librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Tom Heitz, came across a July 12, 1825 account of nine men from Delaware County, New York, challenging any team to a game. The most distinct changes in the game’s evolution into baseball as we know it came from the New York Knickerbockers, a sporting organization started by clerks, professional men, and shopkeepers who used to play the game in 1842 and 1843 at 27th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Tired of battling horse-drawn carriage traffic, the Knickerbockers rented a section of Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, and in 1845 they wrote up rules, including the measurements of the field and the foul lines, the number of strikes a batter was allowed, outs per inning, and innings per game. Under the Knickerbockers’ rules, the game’s only umpire sat at a table along the third base line, sometimes in a top hat and tails. This was acceptable for the way they played, with the pitcher throwing soft underhand pitches that a batter was expected to hit. In the following decades, as pitchers tried to purposely make batters swing at impossible pitches, the umpire was required to move up behind the catcher and rule on good pitches and bad ones.

By the mid-1850s, the craze for baseball had spread across the country. People were already calling the game America’s national sport, and at least one song, “The Baseball Fever” (1857), had been written about it. The Civil War and a 1862 tour by the New York Excelsiors helped the New York rules devised by the Knickerbockers spread across the country. In 1862, William H. Connmeyer of New York took a big step toward changing the game from an athletic competition to a show for spectators when he enclosed a field, constructed seating for 1500 people, and charged admission: as an act of patriotism, he started the performance with a band playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” a tradition carried on to this day.

The sport changed once it was discovered that money could be made off of it. Players became professional, with the best pulling in enormous salaries. In the 1870s, newspaper sportswriters built certain players up in the public’s imagination to the status of legends, describing superhuman, Herculean feats with the sort of inflated language that Thayer, a newspaperman himself, parodies in “Casey at the Bat.” With more and more money invested, team owners organized themselves—first

Compare & Contrast

  • 1888: The National Geographic Society was founded by Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell, and the first issue of the society’s magazine was published.

    Today: National Geographic magazine is published monthly and is one of the most popular periodicals in the entire world. The company’s television programs are staples of educational broadcasting.

  • 1888: Americans feared Chinese immigrants: anti-Chinese riots swept Seattle, and the Chinese Exclusion Act—which forbid Chinese workers who had left the United States to return—was passed by Congress.

    Today: Although many American citizens disagree with China’s policies on human rights, the country’s huge population makes it too economically important for the government to break off diplomatic ties.

  • 1888: Hype from sportswriters invented the first generation of baseball heroes, including Michael J. (“King”) Kelly, the inspiration for one of the most popular songs of the day, “Slide, Kelly, Slide.”

    1920: The popularity of major league baseball dropped dramatically with news of the “Black Sox Scandal,” a conspiracy by members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the 1919 World Series

    1994: Bad publicity from a strike by major league players left many fans disgusted with the players’ astronomical salaries and the team owners who proved to be just as greedy. Attendance at games plummeted after the strike.

    1998: The race between St. Louis’ Mark McGwire and Chicago’s Sammy Sosa to beat Roger Maris’s home-run record inflamed national attention.

into the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1858 and then into the stronger, more dominant National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871. The change of name was slight, but the new organization made sweeping changes. Among these, they cut the number of professional teams from around two dozen to seven, located in the country’s largest cities, and they initiated the notorious “Reserve Clause,” which prohibited players from negotiating the best deals they could find and instead allowed team owners to “trade” players like property with each other. The struggle between players and owners mirrored labor struggles all over America during the late 1800s, the period of urban growth known as the Industrial Revolution. Cities grew crowded, noisy, and polluted by factories during the 1880s, which is certainly one reason why people were attracted to the large open fields of grass at ballparks and the mythic struggles of heroes, such as the one presented in “Casey at the Bat.”

Critical Overview

In Something about the Author, it is noted that by the time of Thayer’s death, “Casey at the Bat” had been established as an authentic masterpiece. William Lyon Phelps of Yale commented, “The psychology of the hero and the psychology of the crowd leave nothing to be desired. There is more knowledge of human nature displayed in this poem than in many of the works of the psychiatrist.” And yet, Thayer himself was not overly impressed with his particular work. He is quoted in Something about the Author as saying, “During my brief connection with the Examiner, I put out large quantities of nonsense, both prose and verse.... In general quality ‘Casey’ (at least in my judgment) is neither better nor worse than much of the other stuff.” Jim Moore and Natalie Vermilyea noted in their Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” that when Thayer had a request in 1896 for a handwritten copy of “Casey at the Bat” for the Worcester Free Library, he made changes that he felt improved his poem, although some of these alterations have since been disregarded. “The changes he made in this poem were mostly cosmetic,” Moore and Vermilyea write. The authors go on to describe the “curious change” that Thayer made to the poem’s final line. Instead of “mighty Casey has struck out”—as it was originally written—Thayer changed the line to read “great Casey has struck out.” Moore and Vermilyea note that the original phrase “is one of the most famous in the poem.... The original sounds better and most reprintings over the years use ‘mighty Casey’ despite Thayer’s change.” As far as poetic inspiration for “Casey at the Bat,” Thayer answered that question himself in a letter to The Sporting News in 1905, reprinted by Moore and Vermilyea: “You ask me what special incentive that I had for writing Casey. It was the same incentive that I had for writing a thousand other things. It was my business to write, and I needed the money.”

Crilicism

Jeannine Johnson

Jeannine Johnson received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University. In the following essay, Johnson explains the elements of the mock-heroic form in “Casey at the Bat.”

“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer was first published in 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner. It was common at that time for daily newspapers to publish poems of all kinds, from the serious and scholarly to the comic and popular. “Casey at the Bat” fits in this latter category, and it has always been cherished more for its entertainment and cultural value than for its literary merit. Thayer was a reporter and humor columnist for the Examiner, and he never imagined that his light piece would be embraced as ardently as it was. Immediately after publication, the poem achieved tremendous popularity, and its last line—“But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has ‘Struck Out’”—still sounds familiar to contemporary ears.

The poem records one brief, dramatic moment in the history of the Mudville baseball team. It is the bottom of the ninth inning and the home team is trailing by two runs. There are two outs, with two men on base, and the great slugger Casey is coming to bat. The poet uses five stanzas to establish the situation prior to the hero’s first appearance. He prolongs his description and delays

“‘Casey at the Bat’ ... has always been cherished more for its entertainment and cultural value than for its literary merit.”

introducing Casey, thereby using the poem’s form to replicate the anticipation and the agony felt by the crowd as they await their deliverer. The poem’s first line makes it clear that the state of affairs is quite dire: “It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day.” The circumstances worsen when the first two outs of the inning are recorded, at which point “a pallor wreathed the features” of the spectators. The poet stresses the seriousness of their plight, suggesting that even “that hope which springs eternal within the human breast” is an insufficient comfort. He then reiterates just how grave their condition is: “on that stricken multitude a death-like silence sat.”

Thayer magnifies the enormity of Mudville’s predicament. However, the team’s situation quickly changes from ominous to favorable. After two consecutive hitters reach base, the speaker triumphantly announces, “from the gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell, / It bounded from the mountain top and rattled in the dell; / It struck upon the hillside, and rebounded on the flat, / For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.” The cry of the crowd acts as a herald or trumpet call for the hero’s imminent conquests. And Thayer amplifies the spectators’ shout by pursuing it from the ballpark to the wide expanse of the fictional surrounding country.

By this point, we recognize the poet’s overstatements as a mark of the mock-heroic genre. The poem’s solemn tone and elevated language are undercut by its commonplace subject matter: a single at bat by a minor-league baseball player. “Casey at the Bat” imitates the grand style and regular, intricate form of epic, or heroic, poetry. The poem is written entirely in quatrains that are each made up of two rhyming couplets. Each line contains fourteen syllables and is therefore called a “fourteener.” In English, epic poetry has traditionally been written

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Annotated “Casey at the Bat”: A Collection of Ballads About Mighty Casey is a fun anthology containing three versions of the poem by Thayer and a collection of spin-offs, imitations, and parodies. Some tell what became of Casey later in life, such as Clarence P. Mac-Donald’s “Casey: Twenty Years Later” and Neil McConlogue’s “Casey: Forty Years Later.” Quite a number carry the theme of Thayer’s poem over to other people, such as “Mrs. Casey at the Bat,” “Casey’s Son,” “Casey’s Sister at the Bat” and “Casey’s Daughter at the Bat.” One of the most interesting is famed science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s combination of the Casey and Moby Dick legends in “Ahab at the Helm.” The second edition, edited by Martin Gardner, was published by the University of Chicago in 1984.
  • Baseball players are a notoriously superstitious bunch, for some reason. Many of their legends and beliefs were assembled by Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger in Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces Visions and Voodoo from a Native American Rite, published in 1980. Included here are poems, stories, interviews, drawings photographs and other materials.
  • Baseball’s Best Short Stories is a recent publication from 1995, edited by Paul D. Staudohar. The first one in the collection is Frank DeFord’s 1988 story spun off of Thayer’s poem and also named “Casey at the Bat,” and Chet Williamson’s “Ghandi at the Bat.” Those stories that do not mention “Casey” certainly carry the poem’s spirit.
  • One of the best fiction writers to ever write about the game of baseball was Ring Lardner (1885-1933), who wrote at a time considered the golden age of the game and who applied a light, humorous touch to his subjects. All of his short stories about baseball are collected in Ring Around the Bases, an anthology published in 1992.
  • None of the baseball players interviewed in Lawrence S. Ritter’s 1966 collection The Glory of Their Times: The Early Days of Baseball By The Men Who Played It was active at the time Thayer wrote “Casey at the Bat,” but most of them played during the first and second decades of the twentieth century. The yarns that ball players spin are a unique literary form full of lies, bragging, and exaggeration that reflects the idea captured in the poem.

in heroic couplets, or rhymed pairs of ten-syllable (usually iambic pentameter) lines. The paired fourteeners look a bit like long heroic couplets, and indeed they are meant to recall this form. However, the four extra syllables seem unnecessary or gratuitous, and they exaggerate the poetic structure, just as the poet exaggerates his portrayal of the hero. The lines also have something in common with the verse ballad, which consists of four-line stanzas in which each line usually contains seven syllables. The second and fourth lines of a ballad stanza rhyme, like many hymns and songs. Fourteeners combine two lines of ballad meter into one, creating extended, rambling phrases that further aggrandize the poem’s subject.

Though the poem’s form contributes to the satire, it is the theme of the poem that is most important in Thayer’s parody of heroic verse. Epic poetry conventionally celebrates the marvelous deeds of men (and it is almost always men) who are in some way larger than life. The classical poems the Odyssey and the Iliad by Homer exalt ancient Greek warriors and gods who battle against powerful foes and against impervious fate. In the English epic tradition, John Milton’s Paradise Lost both laments and rejoices in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, presenting a formidable antihero in Satan. Thayer describes his twentieth-century, American hero as “the mighty Casey.” He characterizes “great Casey’s visage” as stern, scornful, and sneering. He is self-assured and revered, dignified and feared. When the umpire calls the first strike, a fan insists on killing him until his hero intervenes: “it’s likely they’d have done it had not Casey raised his hand.” Casey’s authority is so great that it takes only a simple gesture to command his subjects. When strike two is called, again the belligerent crowd objects and again Casey quiets them with “one scornful look.”

In his poem, Thayer both confirms and satirizes the tendency to make heroes of professional athletes. Baseball in the 1880s and 1890s was already thoroughly embedded in American culture. By that time, it was already a heavily commercialized spectator sport: several professional baseball associations had been formed before and during the 1870s, including today’s National League. In addition, amateur and semiprofessional teams, in large and small towns, were widespread and beloved by their communities. By the late 1800s, sports reporting had become a staple of daily newspapers, and there was an extraordinary proliferation of magazine articles, novels, histories, and instruction manuals all dedicated to baseball.

One of the reasons for the exceptional popularity of Thayer’s own baseball poem can be traced to an actor and comedian named DeWolf Hopper. Writer and editor George Plimpton explained why in The Norton Book of Sports:

In 1889 [Hopper] was performing in the comic opera Prince Methusalem. Hearing one afternoon that members of the New York Giants and Chicago White Stockings baseball teams would be in attendance that night, he hoped to do something specifically for them. A friend of his recommended the Thayer ballad—a frayed clipping of which he was carrying around in his wallet. Hopper memorized it and in the middle of the second act stopped the performance and dedicated the poem to the ballplayers to their astonishment and delight, as well as the audience’s. Hopper added the piece to his repertoire and estimated at the end of his career that he had performed it over 10,000 times.

Of course, Hopper’s continued recitation of the poem did not alone create its success, but it did testify to the wide renown of the poem, independent of his own performances. Somewhat ironically, within about a year of its publication, Thayer became exasperated with his poem’s celebrity and he ultimately distanced himself from it.

Thayer’s disdain for this unwanted attention perhaps derived from a distaste for the kind of simple-minded adoration that he satirizes in “Casey at the Bat.” But even if the poet mocks a tendency toward hero worship in professional athletics, there is affection in Thayer’s parody. In Casey, the poet creates a figure who seems invincible, and yet the poem ends in the hero’s failure. In the last two stanzas, as Casey faces the last pitch, the poem shifts in verb tense, from the past to the present: “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.” The narrator repeats “and now” three times to expand this climactic moment and compound the sense of urgency shared by Casey and the crowd. The repetition also indicates the speaker’s reluctance to admit that the seemingly impossible has occurred: Casey has struck out. The narrator wants to maintain the present—the “now” in which victory is still possible.

Knowing such denial is unreasonable, the speaker exclaims in despair, “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 speaker uses the vocative “Oh” to declare his agony and to reinforce the poem’s connection to the elevated form of heroic poetry. And here, again, the poet uses repetition to underscore the importance of his statements. The word “somewhere” is repeated four times, as if the speaker were trying to convince himself that somewhere in the world there yet exists happiness and satisfaction, even if there is no joy in Mudville. But this insistent repetition proves to be no consolation, and the poem ends by explicitly confirming what has been, in the preceding lines, only indirectly conveyed: that the mighty Casey has indeed failed. The speaker has been forced not only to witness but to broadcast what was previously unthinkable, and once having done so, he is left with disbelief, distress, and nothing more to say.

Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.

Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer points out the irony of the concluding message of “Casey at the Bat,” given that the work is a celebration of the popularity and heroic quality of the game of baseball

Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s narrative ballad “Casey at the Bat,” written in 1888, characterized a moment in American baseball when the game rose from being a sporting activity to a national pastime. At the time Thayer wrote “Casey at the Bat,” baseball was becoming a matter of life and death to many of its fans. The rising enthusiasm for the game, as Thayer seems to point out in the poem, was presenting some difficulties for an American public that was hungry for the spectacle and mythological satisfaction that sporting events can provide. The promoters of the sport, chiefly major-league team owners and sporting-good manufacturers, did little to diminish the notion that baseball was a matter of life and death played by champions or heroes for the honor of a town or a city.

Coincidentally, during the same year, 1888, Albert Goodwill Spalding, the St. Paul of the game, launched his famous world tour of the Chicago White Sox and a team of All-Stars drawn from the fledgling National League. In a famous photograph from their international excursion, the touring teams stand atop the shoulders and arms of Egypt’s famous Sphinx—a moment that crystallizes, for many, the rise of baseball to the cohesive role that it continues to play in the American consciousness.

Thayer’s ballad, which is both a celebration of the game and an artifact of the era, is not about the modern show biz of the major leagues, but about the importance of how a small game in a small town—a place synonymous with almost every small town in America—symbolizes the life-and-death aspirations of those who hang their hopes on their heroes. As a mock tragedy, it says almost as much about the literary structure of tragedy as it does about baseball.

As many narrative ballads often do, “Casey at the Bat” hyperbolizes the game to the point that every gesture and every play take on a universal significance. The question that continually strikes readers of the poem is whether it is or is not a parody of the game. As a verbal structure, the poem gleans its language of hyperbole from baseball writing from the period—the purple prose of game reports that exploded successful players and events with partisan enthusiasm and dismissed losers with equal verbal zeal. To readers of the poem in 1888, the description of the game details and the players would not have seemed as uncharacteristically large and verbose as they appear today. Therefore Thayer, with tongue-in-cheek, is actually mimicking, rather than parodying, the language of the sport. The line “Then from the gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell,” sounds almost exactly like a description from Toronto’s The Globe newspaper about Ned “Cannonball” Crane’s home run in the top of a Saturday double-header in 1887 that clinched the American Association championship: “And then the mighty audience arose and cheered and stamped and whistled and smashed hats ... the frantic fans rushed onto the field and carried Crane aloft ... it was a great day for sports in Toronto.” (Crane, coincidentally, was a member of the All-Star team on Spalding’s 1888 World Tour).

What baseball chose to celebrate in 1888, whether in poems or newspaper accounts, was the heroic quality of the game. In its fledgling years, heroes were the substance behind the public-awareness campaigns of Spalding and his competitors in the sporting-goods industry that spread baseball throughout America. In “Casey at the Bat,” however, Thayer exaggerates the nature of heroes to hilarious proportions and, in the process, echoes the motif of the champion—the questing knight of Medieval and Celtic legend or the failed attackers of Thebes in classical Greek drama. Like the heroes of Irish legends, such as Cuchulain or Fergus, the characters of “Casey at the Bat” are portrayed as a pantheon of classical champions, each with a particular gift to contribute to victory or a foible that could contribute to disaster in the game. Thayer’s use of Irish names—a subtle reminder that the majority of ballplayers in the 1880s were of Irish background—adds to the mythical quality of the ballad and calls to mind the characters of Irish legend. “Cooney,” who dies at first, is the lost warrior. Little is expected of “Flynn,” who bats before Casey in the line-up. He is described as a “pudding,” an nineteenth-century equivalent of a .098 hitter. “Blake,” who with “Flynn” succeeds in getting a hit and setting the stage for Casey’s unexpected, tragic and mindless at bat, is considered a “fake,” the type of player who only puts on a show when he thinks he can grab the spotlight. Little is expected of these players, yet they both succeed in getting base hits. But this gathering of Iliadic failed or partially successful champions serves only as a precursor to the focus of the poem, “mighty Casey.” Like the heroes of legend or epic, much is expected of Casey.

The failure of Casey as a dramatic character is self-explanatory in the poem. He is a showoff who has bought into his own legend and who destroys the hopes of his team and his town through his antics of letting strikes go by. Casey is more than a failed hero: he is a Lancelot type figure drawn almost directly from Arthurian romance—a character who, through his failures, triggers or causes a wasteland situation to develop. Not only does Mudville lose the game, it appears to lose its sunlight (“somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright”), its musical appreciation or power to generate communal interface (“The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,”), and its power of regenerative and vital joy (“somewhere men are laughing, somewhere children shout”). “But there is no joy in Mudville,” Thayer concludes. “Mighty Casey has ‘Struck Out.’” The roster of heroes—Flynn, Blake, Burrows, Cooney and Casey—, like the seven champions who throw themselves against Thebes and die in the process, are doomed to failure through the sin of one player’s pride. The consequence, in absurdly hilarious terms, is a fall from nature. Such is the impact of loss.

Compared to today’s players, pampered millionaires who are supported by a cast of trainers and physiotherapists, the players of 1888 were heroic because the game they played was much more physical, dangerous, and dirty. The pitcher’s mound was about eight feet closer to home plate. Only the catchers wore catching mitts and most grabs were made barehanded. The fast ball would not be invented until 1896, but the pitches were mostly a selection of what today would be termed junk balls—inside curves, high stuff aimed at the head and the body—and the balls themselves were rough and unpredictable in their trajectories. Scruffing the ball, as Thayer indicates (“the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip”), was part of the pitcher’s routine and made standing in the batter’s box an iffy proposition. Fans often stood on the field itself and interfered with the play, and dirty tricks, such as spiking and spitting in the face of runners, were the order of the day. Through the use of game details, the “violence” and the “cruel” aspects of the game are conveyed by Thayer and make the story that he tells more real and his heroes more heroic for the dangers that they face.

To further support this hyperbolized drama and its delightful absurdity and mock profundity, Thayer mixes a few well-chosen terms of baseball (“Cooney died at first”) with several essentially dramatic poetic devices. The lines of the poem are eight feet long and sound like two, four-foot lines that have been fused. The couplet end rhymes, therefore, make the reader wait with anticipation to catch the sonic resonances and connections—a delaying tactic that parallels the excitement and breathless anticipation of a successful climax, a climax that Thayer thwarts through Casey’s antics at the plate.

What further supports the sense of drama is a tense shift between stanzas eleven and twelve, where the poem suddenly departs from the past tense and slips into the present, as if to transport the reader from the perspective of legendary memory to the actual moment of the game. This shift, and the transport which it effects, further serves to draw the reader into the action and build the sense of tension that is dashed by the letdown of the ending. The suffering, the dramatic “spectacle” as Aristotle terms it in his work The Poetics, is an essential aspect of tragedy. “Casey at the Bat” is a mock tragic poem—after all, it is only a game—that utilizes the key elements of classical tragedy.

Nothing popularizes a concept such as tragedy, because tragedy in its truest sense is a shared experience of the group. Tragedy is about the loss of hope on a mass scale, the defiance of the spectator’s desire for poetic justice and victory. Thayer aptly notes the expectations of the fans who share “that hope which springs eternal within the human breast.” As a drama, “Casey at the Bat” bears all of the basic, six elements that Aristotle claims are the key ingredients in tragic drama: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. The plot aspect is simple enough. The home team wants to win and it does not. There is the protagonist, Casey, on whom the hopes of the group are pinned. He fails. The language of the poem, even in a mocking sense, is poetic—elevated and elegiac with its references to the cheers “bound[ing] from the mountain top” and rattling “in the dell.” The long lines, with their marching rhythms, are reminiscent of The Iliad and of epic poetry, even though the poem is a dramatic narrative ballad that has acquired the reading of a folk tale because of its inseparable connection with the commonplace, idyllic passion of baseball. In Casey’s pompous pride at the plate, the reader is allowed a glimpse of “thought,” a look inside the mind of a hero who has acquired a distinct sense of hubris bordering on Sophoclean blindness—a tragic flaw. The fans are the chorus. They comment on the action and witness the spectacle. The loss of the game and suffering of the fans, a mass suffering that is portrayed throughout the poem by a faceless, chorus-like group (“bleachers black with people”), causes an enormous tragic catharsis that is felt, in an elegiac way, not only by the audience but by nature itself. And the entire poem, with its ballad structure, long lines, rhyming couplets, and marching rhythms, presents the drama in verse that is “song.”

Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” as a tragic structure, however, conveys a very important message to readers, players, and fans of baseball: it is only a game. As St. Augustine argues so vehemently in The Confessions, the problem with spectator activities such as sports or the theater is that people expend real emotions on illusions. Tragedy, St. Augustine notes, is the worst offender of the theater, because it evokes such extremes of emotion that people lose perspective on life and reality. The underlying statement of “Casey at the Bat” is that baseball is a game, not a matter of life and death. It is ironic that the poem most synonymous with the sport and a foundation of so much mythology associated with baseball (the flawed champion of Malamud’s The Natural or the bathetic knights of Eight Men Out) is also an effort to keep the pastime in perspective and a humorous warning that the “perfect game” is something to be enjoyed rather than suffered.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.

Sources

Burk, Robert F., Never Just A Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Moore, Jim, and Natalie Vermilyea, Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” McFarland & Company, 1994.

Plimpton, George, ed., The Norton Book of Sports, Norton, 1992.

Rader, Benjamin G., Baseball: A History of America’s Game, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Something about the Author, Volume 60, Gale, 1990.

Thayer, Ernest Lawrence, Casey at the Bat: A Centennial Edition, afterword by Donald Hall, Boston: David R. Godine, 1988.

For Further Study

“Beginnings: Hooray for Captain Spalding!” A Baseball Century: The First 100 Years of the National League, edited by Sally Andrews, et. al., New York: Rutledge Books/MacMillian Publishing Co., 1978, pp. 23–40.

This opening chapter of a commemorative picture book gives the early history of the game concisely and includes rare pictures of players, parks, paintings, etc.

Heyleer, John, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, New York: Villard Books, 1994.

The author, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, mentions the way that baseball developed in the 1800s, but his main focus in this book is the business of the game in recent decades.

Honig, Donald, Baseball When The Grass Was Real, New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1975.

This book contains interviews with major-league players who played from the 1920s to the 1940s. Many of the attitudes, the pride, and the exaggeration that are seen in the poem can be seen in their stories.

Voigt, David Quentin, American Baseball: From Gentleman’s Sport to Commissioner System, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

This well-researched and annotated book is mostly concerned with baseball’s evolution in the 1800s and gives an excellent description of the tensions between the venture capitalists who owned the teams and the players who were the country’s first generation of sports heroes.

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