Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. – Vince Lombardi
The baseball season has begun, signaling to all Americans not born in Florida or California that the Divine Child of Spring has once again defeated Old Man Winter. The world (along with the home team’s pennant hopes) has been reborn once again. It’s no accident that Easter occurs at this time of year. Rebirth and redemption. New possibilities. Let’s play two, as Ernie Banks said. It’s not over till it’s over, said Yogi Berra. The Cubs (!) are favored to win it all.
So return with me to the days of yesteryear, when the oral tradition was still alive, as told in Casey at the Bat, the full title of which is A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888.
It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood two to four, with but an inning left to play.
So, when Cooney died at second, 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 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 even money now, with Casey at the bat.
But Flynn preceded Casey, and likewise so did Blake,
And the former was a pudd’n and the latter was a fake.
So on that stricken multitude a deathlike 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 had occurred,
There was Blakey safe at second, and Flynn a-huggin’ third.
Then from the gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell –
It rumbled in the mountaintops, it rattled in the dell;
It struck upon the hillside and rebounded on 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 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 hands with dirt,
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then when the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance glanced 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 the 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 made 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.”
“Fraud!” cried 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 wouldn’t let the ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lips, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel vengeance 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.
Forget Whitman, forget Emily, forget T.S. Eliot. Casey, writes Donald Hall in his remarkable essay in the centennial edition of the poem, is the most popular poem in our country’s history, if not exactly in its literature. It has spawned dozens of other poems over these 128 years, ranging from versions where Casey strikes out again to ones in which he redeems himself with a home run. See Casey’s Revenge (1907) or The Volunteer (1908), where an aging Casey returns decades later to step out of the stands and save the day .
But none of these re-tellings (all great mythic narratives have many versions) have held our imaginations and hearts like the original version. And for a very long time, we loved to listen to it. From the 1890s to his death in 1935, an actor named DeWolf Hopper recited Casey onstage to enraptured audiences over 10,000 times. Listen to his melodramatic rendition here.
Many writers have tried to explain this mystery. Hall points out that the language of the poem
…is a small consistent comic triumph of irony. The diction is mock heroic, big words for small occasions: When a few fans go home in the ninth inning, they depart not in discouragement or disdain but “in deep despair.”
This is comic opera, but it is still opera, and this is not a small occasion. Casey “…crystallizes baseball’s moment, the medallion carved at the center of the game, where pitcher and batter confront each other.” And the critical factor is that we expect Casey to succeed, but instead he fails. Contrasts like this are the heart of both comedy and baseball. The best hitters fail seven out of ten times, and each dramatic confrontation between batter and pitcher contains all the possibilities of great success or crashing failure. (Quick test: Whom do you picture yourself as, pitcher or batter?)
We love this poem because it speaks about America, the land of opportunity and achievement – the land of heroes. And yet, it is perhaps the only enduringly popular American story in which the hero is a failure, or in current vernacular, a loser.
Now the death of the hero is hardly unique as a theme in literature. In dozens of stories heroes die saving the innocent community, defeating the Other (think John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima) or preventing the forces of evil from dishonoring the sacred heroine. More commonly, of course, the American hero, though willing to die for the cause, lives to ride off into the sunset. But when they die their defeats have meaning. They die for something, and in this way they re-enact the fundamental theme of Western culture, the willing sacrifice of the Son for his otherworldy Father. “Casey,” writes Hall,
…is Christlike: It is “With a smile of Christian charity” that he “stilled the rising tumult”; if we remember that this metaphoric storm occurs at sea (“the beating of the stormwaves”), we may understand that Casey’s charity earns its adjective.
Casey, however, just plain strikes out. Game over. There is no willing sacrifice, no meaning except for failure. As they said in Viet Nam, where America suffered its first defeat, it don’t mean nothin’.
Part Two of this essay is here.