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Ernest Lawrence Thayer

Casey at the Bat

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1888

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Few poems in the American literary canon have achieved the widespread pop culture reach of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s 1888 sports ballad “Casey at the Bat.” Published at a time when baseball itself was just coming into its own as America’s pastime, “Casey at the Bat” drew on, and skewed, the gravitas of tragic literature that since Antiquity elevated flawed figures into the status of heroes. The poem tells the story of a narcissistic baseball player for a minor league baseball team. At a clinch moment in an otherwise entirely forgettable ballgame, the player strikes out to end the game. The author, Ernest Lawrence Thayer, a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle, where the poem originally appeared, would regret authoring the poem even as it became one of the most quoted poems of the era.

The poem is a ballad, a genre of poetry dating back to Medieval Europe with an easy appeal to a wide audience. With its catchy pattern and an inviting beat that lends itself to easy memorization and dramatic recitation, the poem has been embraced as a kind of national epic not only because of its use of baseball but because the poem offers a lesson through conventional wisdom: pride comes before the fall. The poem, with its fallible yet larger-than-life central character, has been the subject of stage interpretations and film and cartoon adaptations. Its closing line—“But there is no joy in Mudville” (Line 52)—has become a tagline in sports culture. The story of Casey’s strike-out has become a cautionary tale about the relationship between adoring fans and flawed athletes, a relationship that, more than a century after Thayer’s poem appeared, is still an intrinsic element of sports culture.

Poet Biography

Ernest Lawrence Thayer was neither an athlete nor a sportswriter. Raised in upper-class comfort in Lawrence, Massachusetts, along the Vermont border (his father was an executive in the region’s flourishing textile industry), Thayer, always a sickly child, found comfort and companionship in reading. He graduated in 1885 from Harvard with a philosophy degree intending to teach. One of his classmates, however, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), an ambitious entrepreneur with an interest in the promise of the burgeoning newspaper industry, offered his friend a job as a columnist for one of the newspapers Hearst acquired, The San Francisco Daily Examiner, which later became The San Francisco Examiner.

Thayer reluctantly accepted the position. For two years, until chronic health problems forced him to retire, Thayer wrote news articles, editorials, and feature pieces. It was in his Sunday column in which, under the pseudonym of Phin, he wrote with stinging humor about the foibles of his fellow San Franciscans, that “Casey at the Bat” first appeared on June 3, 1888, just before Thayer left the newspaper. It was his last column. Reportedly based on Thayer’s familiarity with a hapless minor league baseball team in nearby Stockton, the poem, with its hilarious mock-heroic send-up of larger-than-life sports heroes, found an immediate audience not just in the San Francisco area but nationally, thanks largely to the dramatic interpretation of it by DeWolf Hopper, at the time one of the most popular comic actors on Broadway. His over-the-top comic recitation of the poem became a part of New York’s cultural scene for more than a decade. Hopper’s interpretation of the poem is part of the Smithsonian archives of American culture and is still available on YouTube.

Thayer, returning to Lawrence to work at the family’s textile mill, published little after he left San Francisco. He tried to distance himself from “Casey” even as the poem took on a life of its own, telling anyone who would listen that it took him less than an hour to write. The poem was set to music. It was often recited at baseball games. It was recorded dozens of times. It was a mainstay on radio often with lively special effects. It was developed into a hugely successful silent film with two-time Oscar-winner Wallace Beery in the title role; and in 1946, it became one of the most enduring shorts produced by the Walt Disney Studios (although that cartoon, which took many liberties with the original poem, did not credit Thayer).

Thayer retired to Santa Barbara, California, in 1912. He married and lived in relative obscurity for 30 years. He had sold the rights to the poem for $5 when it first appeared and hence never received any royalties. When Thayer died after a massive brain hemorrhage in August 1940, he was all but forgotten—but not his poem. The New York Times’ brief obituary, only four column inches, identified Thayer as the journalist who wrote “Casey at the Bat.”

Poem Text

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 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. 

Thayer, Ernest Lawrence. “Casey at the Bat.” 1888. Poets.org.

Summary

It is the bottom half of the ninth inning. The rowdy Mudville home crowd, 5,000 strong, faces a depressing reality. The home team trails 4-2. The speaker thus begins with a dramatic understatement: “The outlook wasn’t brilliant” (Line 1).  When neither of the first two batters, Cooney and Barrows, makes it to first, a “pall-like silence fell upon” the crowd. Some, in “deep despair” (Line 5), even begin to head home.

With two outs, however, the die-hard fans refuse to give up. If only the team’s best hitter, a bruising hulk named Casey, could get to bat, the team would have a fighting chance. But Casey is two back in the line-up. The two players preceding him, Flynn and Jimmy Blake, aren’t known for their hitting or their base running. To use the vernacular, Flynn is a “lulu,” an umbrella insult for a player with few skills. Thayer in later versions changed the word to “hoodoo,” meaning a jinx, or a person who brings bad luck. Blake, meanwhile, is a “cake,” an outdated, derogatory term referencing effeminacy. Thayer later changed the word to “fake” (Line 10).

Then the unexpected happens. “To the wonderment of all” (Line 13), both Flynn and Blake get on base. In fact, Blake’s hit, a double, is so hard, it “tore the cover off the ball” (Line 14), a bit of excited hyperbole that suggests the sheer power of the blast. The stage is set. With Flynn now on third and Blake on second and the crowd swelling to a “lusty yell” that resounded off the very mountains, Casey, “mighty Casey” (Line 20), steps up to bat. Despite the pressure, Casey’s demeanor is calm, confident: “There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face” (Line 22). Before taking his place at the plate, Casey even doffs his hat gallantly to the cheering crowd.

Rubbing his hands in the dirt and then streaking it on his uniform, signaling he is ready to bat, Casey takes his stance. He sneers at the pitcher, ready. But he lets the first pitch go by—“That ain’t my style” (Line 32), he says haughtily. The umpire calls strike one. The crowd is indignant. Someone screams, “Kill him! Kill the umpire” (Line 35). Nonplussed, Casey “stilled the rising tumult” (Line 38) with a wave of his hand. With a generous smile, Casey signals to the pitcher to continue and then settles in for the next pitch.

Once again, he serenely ignores the pitch, determined to wait for his kind of pitch. The umpire, however, calls strike two. Even as the crowd condemns the call, Casey quiets them with a single hard stare: “The sneer is gone from Casey’s lips, his teeth are clenched in hate” (Line 45). His muscles tense, his face stern and cold, Casey, all business now, will not let another pitch go by. The pitcher sends the ball to the plate, and the force of Casey’s swing shatters the very afternoon air. But he misses the ball for strike three.

The strike out kills the Mudville rally, and the game is over. As the disappointed faithful stream out of the ballpark in disbelief, “there is no joy in Mudville” (Line 52).

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