Where Baseball Literature Begins: Casey At The Bat

This article was written by Glenn Stout

This article was published in The SABR Review of Books

This article was originally published in The SABR Review of Books, Volume III (1988).


Baseball literature begins with “Casey at the Bat.”

While Ernest L. Thayer’s classic verse is neither the first poem to utilize baseball as its subject, nor the first attempt to capture the game under the guise of literature, “Casey At The Bat”, one hundred years after its first appearance, remains the most memorable piece of baseball writing ever produced. No subsequent poem, column, short story or novel approaches “Casey” for its ability to delineate our attraction toward the game.

It is easily the best remembered poem, on any subject, ever written by an American author. Very few of us, upon hearing the first line “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day,” can fail to supply the remainder of the opening stanza, regardless of the depth of our own, individual baseball knowledge. If one’s familiarity with the game is limited to only a single experience, that experience is likely to be “Casey At The Bat.” A few months ago, in baseball-savvy Boston, someone actually asked me, with complete and utter sincerity, “Who’s Ted Williams?”

A few weeks later, recovered from my initial shock and having sufficiently recast my worldview to allow for such a question to be asked, I once again cautiously turned our conversation toward baseball, this time evoking simply the name “Casey” and the place “Mudville.”

To my delight she responded with the poem’s opening words. I exhaled a deep sigh of relief and went on to wax rhapsodic over my own peculiar fascination with the poem. Of course, I haven’t seen her since, but my faith in “Casey” continues unabated.

What I still find curious is that despite the poem’s popularity, and despite its central position in the literature of an essential experience of American culture, “Casey” is entirely ignored in the study of American literature. Now that’s not all bad, for academia has ground enough good literature to dust in its gristmill of analysis, but completely to overlook “Casey”, seems almost sinister, part of some conspiracy to belittle not only baseball, but all that it inspires, as if our affection for the poem and for the game it describes is some kind of dirty little secret unworthy of public scrutiny.

In this instance, I’m one of the unashamed, maddened thousands yelling “Fraud!” “Casey At The Bat” does not belong in any literary bush league. The poem deserves attention proportionate with our affection for it. In its own way “Casey” is no less a work of original American literature than Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” or Kerouac’s “On the Road.” It defines a part of what we are, something uniquely American, and points out something universal and essential in all our lives. Casey’s struggle is our own, and Ernest L. Thayer’s ability to point this out is more art than accident. Casey, presumably, came through in the clutch many other times, and failed only in the scenario described by Thayer, while Thayer himself, something of a banjo hitter in the ongoing league of literature, rose to the occasion only once and knocked the cover off the ball with “Casey.” A happy coincidence perhaps, but the run still counts.

The source of the poem’s success and subsequent staying power stems from the congruence between the poem’s subject baseball, and its form, the ballad. Thayer himself once told a reporter that “I evolved ‘Casey’ from the situation I had seen so often in baseball, a crack batsman coming to bat with the bases filled, and then fallen down.” Unwittingly perhaps, Thayer chose to write about the game’s most dramatic confrontation, the nearly archetypal contest, with the game in balance, between the pitcher and the batter, the batter and himself, the crowd and the unfolding drama, between the individual who seeks to control his own fate and the forces that try to deny that possibility. The symbolic nature of this universal confrontation makes the poem at once eternal and immediate.

Very few of us have not had backyard dreams of coming to the plate in a similar situation, and very few of us have not faced precisely the same confrontation elsewhere. In an American context, the confrontation delicately probes one of our most precious myths, whether the individual can make a difference and find expression within a larger sphere.

Thayer acknowledges this and even subtitles the poem “A Ballad of the Republic.” Casey’s on-field struggle takes place simultaneously in both a human and political dimension. We cannot help but become engaged by Casey’s plight, for Casey is one of us.

With such heady stuff at stake, Thayer’s wise use of ballad form stakes the conflict to the ground and allows easy access to its narrative explication. The poem’s thirteen, four-line stanzas, all following the same basic scheme of rhyme and rhythm, are so transparent and simple that the active voice of the poem, Casey actually at the bat, comes through uncluttered. Where most parodies of Casey fail is in their struggle to duplicate Thayer’s nearly invisible form, twisting the language to fit a pattern that will never work as well again. In Thayer’s poem, the form all but disappears after one or two readings. Thayer’s detailed combination of baseball terminology and idiom all slide nicely into place and the story lays out like a line score in the morning paper.

Now this was no poetic breakthrough on Thayer’s part. The ballad form dominated American newspaper verse, and “Casey At The Bat,” which first appeared on June 3, 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner, is not unlike thousands of other poems that similarly found their way into print. Yet Thayer’s language, drawn from the game itself and its 1880 environs, manages to pull off a highly musical and nearly seamless coupling between word, rhythm, and rhyme that lifts it from the ordinary and forgettable and lets its other elements – drama and metaphor – extend beyond the imposed structure. Ultimately, the poem’s form, by way of its transparency, releases far more than it restricts.

In the first stanza, Thayers writes perhaps the greatest lead in all of baseball literature. The cumulative efforts of the Baseball Writers Association of America have yet to do as well as Thayers. In four short lines he tells the reader all he needs to know about the situation at hand – two outs, two runs down, and, apparently little hope left anywhere. By fixing the poem securely within a baseball game situation, and never straying from the drama of the moment, he allows the poem’s symbolic elements to develop organically, from the play of the game itself, and never appear forced or contrived.

Perhaps this is why “Casey” has never been the subject of any intense scrutiny apart from its own genealogy in American culture. For “Casey,” because it is written for a baseball audience and is so unquestionably “about” baseball, does not provide a convenient handle, outside the game itself, for further analysis. Much modern baseball poetry, the bulk of which I find pretty good, still often errs in leaping too quickly to the symbol and straying from the game itself. “Casey,” on the other hand, keeps its head, and heart, in the center of the diamond. It is primarily a game report, and its significance beyond that stems from the integrity of Thayer’s initial reportage.

Almost effortlessly, Thayers positions the character of the mighty Casey as the heroic, isolated individual, alone against the impersonal demands of fate. “Mighty Casey” is clearly the greatest hitter the denizens of Mudville have ever known. He identifies Casey’s team, the “Mudville nine,” and several teammates, Anglo/Irish everymen Cooney, Barrows, Flynn and Blake, but every other figure in the narrative, the crowd, the umpire, and the pitcher, is left a complete blank. Only Casey develops a personality. As individual readers of the poem, we identify with Casey because there is, quite literally, no one else there. He has no peer.

In human contrast to Casey the individual, is the crowd, an emotional murmuring, mass of mankind shaped from the clays of Mudville that Thayer uses like a mirror on which to project our fears over the potential loss of individuality. The crowd is constantly referred to in a series of nouns and phrases that are ever more indistinct and unsavory – “the straggling few. . . in deep despair,” “the rest,” “the stricken multitude,” “5,000 throats,” “the maddened thousands” and so forth. In 1888 America was in the midst of an industrial revolution that was quickly becoming increasingly dehumanizing, and Thayer’s desultory crowd seems plucked from the darkness of some roaring industrial nightmare. Only Casey’s appearance following the clutch hitting of Flynn and Blake inspires them and is able to replace “grim melancholy” with the “lusty yell” of faith

Casey’s appearance in the poem’s sixth stanza draws focus away from the larger game situation and corresponding crowd reaction and concentrates it on his individual plight. The crowd identifies with Casey. Like a conquering hero he has advanced, not simply walked, to the plate, and stands there, preening, acknowledging the cheers of the crowd for whom he is king

What follows is the greatest at-bat in the history of baseball. Forget Ruth’s “called shot” off Charlie Root. That may well be nothing more than myth. Casey’s at-bat takes place before the multitudes. Watched by “ten thousand eyes” and applauded by “five thousand tongues,” Casey stands alone “in haughty grandeur” to take his licks against the onslaught of fate. On the mound is a demonic, faceless “writhing pitcher,” evil personified, and behind the plate his partner, the austere and emotionless umpire. Together, they act in consort with one another to try to deny Casey his opportunity to strike a blow for the common man. They control the ball, and only by supreme force of will can Casey wrest his destiny from their hands and send it skyward, into the crowd and out of reach of the powers that be. Ruth never knew this much pressure

When Casey watches the first pitch sail by and states unequivocally “That ain’t my style,” he speaks in the language of everyone who has ever felt manipulated and powerless. When the umpire unemotionally calls “strike one” the people react accordingly. Yelling “Kill the umpire!” in the face of the arbiter’s presumably biased and detached judgment is nothing less than a call for revolution. Casey does not concede defeat, but counter-attacks with a “smile of Christian charity,” enforcing his moral superiority against the unfolding conspiracy.

When the second pitch, another ball, is also called a strike, the crowd again threatens to turn violent, calling out “Fraud!” and apparently recognizing the inherent injustice of Casey’s struggle in a game so patently unfair. Yet once more, Casey stills the crowd.

This time he reacts not with moral superiority, for that is of little use in a battle that is taking place outside moral boundaries, but with brute, physical force. His face turns “stern and cold,” “his muscles strain,” his “teeth are clenched in hate,” and his bat turns into a club of “cruel violence.” The frustrations of the crowd have become Casey’s. He is them, and has become an expression of the animal that remains in man, the dark, violent underside that inequity and inequality can call to the fore. He succumbs to the call of the crowd and becomes pure symbol.

At this moment Casey is no longer a lone batsman swinging at a ball to win some game, or merely a solitary figure, in eternal struggle to take hold of his own destiny. He becomes a representation of a large, collective call for the emergence of the pure, brute force of human will.

The poem’s rhythm, reinforced by recurring internal rhyme, builds to a fever pitch as “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.” exploding magnificently in a moment of pure epiphany as everything in the poem reaches its climax.

But we all know what happened next. Casey struck no blow for all mankind, banged no four-bagger into a mass of screaming hands. Hell, he didn’t even foul the damn pitch off. All he hit was air. Thayer withdraws to utter a wistful, rhyming “Oh,” and in that quiet, forgiving, single syllable, begins to draw a picture of a softer, brighter, more optimistic world that we almost forgot in our frenzy over Casey’s fate. Somewhere else, things are better. Perhaps the powers-that-be are not the devil incarnate. Time goes on, the sun still shines, the band still plays, and the laughing of man and the shouts of children creep back into the consciousness. To Ernest L. Thayer, there’s a Norman Rockwell world waiting out there someplace

“There is no joy in Mudville,” but Thayer has already taken us away from that memorable place. “Casey has struck out,” and must remain there forever, defeated and alone to nurse his wounds in private, but by allowing us to leave Mudville Thayer leaves open the possibility that somewhere else, sometime, a different conclusion might be reached. Only Casey has struck out. We live on to come to bat again. In Casey’s one, great swing, baseball becomes a game again.

And that is probably the one, great lesson that comes from “Casey At The Bat.” Baseball, no matter how it affects us and no matter how much time and serious attention we give it, no matter what happens, in spite of everything we do to mess it up, somehow stays a game. And it doesn’t matter, if Thayer has this in mind or not when he sat down and wrote the poem, anymore than it matters how baseball was born or why it works. Just be glad it does, and enjoy it for that. Baseball can mean what we want it to, but it can never be anything else. All I know is that one hundred years from now, unless we mess up the world completely, baseball will still be here and “Casey At The Bat” will still be read and celebrated. If that happens, perhaps Thayer will be proven correct. In another place, in another time, maybe one of us will tear the cover off the ball.

Mudville might win yet, and the girl who asked me about Ted Williams could still come back.