Have you read the poem, “Casey at the Bat,” by Earnest Lawrence Thayer? Or at least heard it recited? Most people have, I imagine. It’s one of the best known poems in American English, and can usually be found in any compilation of the best known or best loved poems of the American people. It was written in 1888, and has been reprinted in books and even in comics, it’s been used in film and TV, either in whole or in part, and it’s even been put to music. On the whole, it certainly isn’t great poetry, but I suspect its popularity comes from the fact that it tells a story in rhyme. It’s up there with “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” All of those poems tell a story, a plain, ordinary story. They don’t fool around with flowery language, they just come right out and tell the damn story. I think people instinctively like stories, and sometimes I wonder if language can get in the way of the telling.
The story in “Casey at the Bat” is simple. Casey, mighty Casey, is the power hitter on the baseball team for Mudville, and everyone at the game expects him to drive in the winning run in the last inning of the game. The score was 4 to 2, with runners on second and third base (in the vernacular of the game, that puts them in “scoring position”). Casey comes to bat and the fans look for a home run to win the game by a score of 5 to 4. But Casey doesn’t deliver. He lets two pitches go by, both called strikes, then swings and misses at the third. The game is over, and in one of the most iconic lines in all of literature, the poem ends: “. . . there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”
That last line is so much of a surprise, almost a jolt. Yet it makes the poem. Had Casey hit a home run and won the game, the poem would have fizzled. It is that last line that has put the poem so indelibly in the American consciousness. It is, after all, about baseball, a uniquely American game. The line isn’t odd or unusual, and it isn’t out of the realm of the ordinary or the commonplace. After all, baseball players strike out all the time. Yet here is a man, powerful, smart, not heavily conceited—he even quiets the crowd when the umpire calls “strike one!” “That ain’t my style,” Casey says, and raises his hand. He seems to know what he’s doing, and although he doesn’t point to center field like Babe Ruth did, we admire him and expect the best from him. We look to him to do what he does best: tear “. . . the cover off the ball.” But he doesn’t. He fails. Spectacularly. Well, at least he tried, and we can accept that.
I find myself wondering about a couple of points in the poem. Why was this game so important? Nothing is said. Was this a championship game, perhaps the last game of the season that would decide the pennant? It certainly wasn’t about major league baseball, though Thayer might have used fictitious names to tell a story about the majors. I also wonder why the score was so low. If Casey was as spectacular as he is made out in the poem, why hadn’t he driven in more runs? He may have driven in both the runs the Mudville nine had, but again, nothing is said. Perhaps he didn’t play that day until he was put in as a pinch hitter in the ninth. But the fans at the ballpark knew Casey would be coming to bat fifth in the inning, and that sounds like he was already in the lineup. Nothing is said about the opposing pitcher, either. In today’s recounting of a game such as this, the pitcher would be given accolades for striking out the heavy hitter, and his name would be prominently displayed in the newspapers.
In any event, those are minor questions. Casey let us down and the poem achieved a level of popularity not given to many poems. I still think it’s the story that matters. The story trumps flowery writing, though that’s not to disparage Shakespeare or Milton. Read the classics, but don’t lose sight of the story.