Barry’s Blog # 162: A Poem for the Losers, Part Two of Three

Outside of the limited range of our monotheistic tradition, all great mythic narratives have many versions. None of the retellings of Casey, however, have held our imaginations and hearts like a reading of the original poem. And for a very long time, we loved to listen to it. When the actor De Wolf Hopper first recited it onstage, The New York World reported,

The audience literally went wild…Men got up on their seats and cheered… it was one of the wildest scenes ever seen in a theatre.

Hopper literally made a career of this. From the 1890s to his death in 1935, he recited Casey onstage to enraptured audiences over 10,000 times. You can listen to his melodramatic rendition here.

For Donald Hall, 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.”

It may be comic opera, but it is still opera, and for all those generations of American fathers and sons, this is certainly 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.” By the way, another of Hall’s books is Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball).

doc4fcb8c2c597f58502314101And 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. Each dramatic confrontation between batter and pitcher contains all the possibilities of great success or crashing failure. Even so, all but the very best hitters fail seven out of ten times. (Quick test: Whom do you picture yourself as, pitcher or batter, trying to score or trying to prevent a score, breaking boundaries or maintaining them?)

We love this poem because it speaks about America, the land of opportunity, competition and achievement – the land of heroes. America is also about fair play and equal opportunity, the level playing field.

Competition vs equality. Wherever one of these values predominates, its shadow is nearby, and we are conflicted. In sports we’re talking about fairness vs. cheating. Fairness implies that all who play by the rules have a chance to prosper. Children learn that a sense of fairness characterizes a maturing, well-adjusted individual; we should be “good sports” who are kind to those we have defeated and properly forgiving to those who have defeated us within the ritual boundaries of the rules. We should shake hands and voice the ceremonial mantra: “Nice game!”

Indeed, hockey players (perhaps the most violent of all sports other than football) have always lined up after the game to shake hands. Little league players do this, as do beer-league softball players and some college baseball teams. Pro football players may do this, but as individuals. And in recent years, with the loosening of masculine behavioral expectations, basketball players actually hug each other! But not pro baseball players, who retreat back to their dugouts and either celebrate or scowl out at the field (as Casey probably did).

On the other hand, cheating in sports reveals capitalism’s core values and the realities of privilege. We love our fictional villains nearly as much as our heroes, precisely because they will do anything to win. Even in losing, they briefly unveil the shadow of our heroic ideals: competition actually trumps fairness, except for the religious theme in which good triumphs over evil. But seriously…it’s April 2020, and all but the most desperately innocent of us have just watched Republicans choose domination over public health (in the Wisconsin primary election) and Democrats choose corporate funding over the people’s will (in the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign).

It’s the Christian thing to be fair, but it’s the American thing to win at any cost. And it’s the American thing to play at being disturbed if this truth emerges.

Why are so many outraged at drug use (or recently in baseball, sign-stealing) in sports? Our moral indignation expresses our innocent longing for ritual fields where everyone agrees on the rules, where the pursuit of money doesn’t overcome the purity of fairness, where men (and now women) free themselves for a while from the soul-killing pressure of office, store, factory, school, hospital, military preparedness, to race around the bases instead of with the rats, to be children again and just play.

Eldridge Cleaver, however, saw that when all secretly subscribe to the notion of “every man for himself”:

…the weak are seen as the natural and just prey of the strong. But since this dark principle violates our democratic ideals…we force it underground…spectator sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving.

That process and its implication that only the fittest should survive is called “Social Darwinism” and it had arisen only a decade or so before Casey, although it is rooted deeply in American Puritanism. In our time, it has re-emerged in the conservative and religious drive to destroy all of the welfare state gains that progressives achieved in the 1930s and 1960s.

So Casey is perhaps the only enduringly popular American story in which the hero is a failure, or in current vernacular, a loser. 5ac27b1810d6bb26008b45d0-750-563 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 evil Other (think of Sands of Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, Titanic) just in the nick of time, or preventing the forces of evil from dishonoring the heroine.

Consider also that, outside of the sacred containers of sport, the American hero’s opponent is not a pitcher but the racialized Other. Geronimo had surrendered only two years before Thayer wrote Casey. Northern Paiutes would begin the Ghost Dance a year later, followed shortly by the Wounded Knee massacre. Big-Foot-Wounded-Knee-3000-3x2gty-58ddb2e73df78c51628ae697 Ten years after Casey, the U.S. Army would begin to murder over 200,000 Filipinos. And regarding that other line – the color line – there is no consensus among historians. But one source declares that also in 1889, team owners agreed that no black men would be allowed to profane the sacred ground. They would enforce that decision until 1947.

More commonly, of course, American heroes, though willing to die for the cause, live to ride off into the sunset. But when they do die, their defeats have meaning. They die for something, and in this way, they re-enact the essential American myth of regeneration through violence and the even more fundamental theme of Western culture itself, 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, nothing learned, unless we take the Puritan perspective that Casey had been guilty of the sin of pride. But mostly, the remaining fans slink home, their adrenalin rush dissipated, hungry for dinner. Game over. As foot soldiers often said in Viet Nam, It don’t mean nothin’.

Of course, Casey, despite his “smile of Christian charity”, does arrogantly let the first two pitches go by before striking out (we never learn if he even attempts to swing at the third one). Some might condemn him for not behaving in the approvingly restrained, modest, Puritan manner…nahhh. Casey is a hero, and heroes are privileged to choose and re-choose their styles, as Trumpus proves on a daily basis (I use this term to remind us all that this President is embodying and enacting our mythic narratives. We are all Trumpus).

American heroes, very much like the villains they oppose in westerns, crime dramas (think Dirty Harry), spy thrillers (think James Bond) and science fiction, are privileged to ignore the conventions of fair play and silly legalisms when they need to defeat the Other. Think Oliver North. Think Richard Nixon (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”).

But Casey is the hero who loses. And here is the essence of our fascination with him. We aspire to be heroes and winners, but we identify with the losers. I have written extensively about Hero mythology in America, and I encourage interested readers to read Chapter Nine of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence or my essay, “The Hero Must Die.”

Read Part Three here.


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3 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 162: A Poem for the Losers, Part Two of Three

  1. Garth Gilchrist says:

    Barry, this is wonderful stuff. Just read both blogs (by the way they were both listed as “Part Two.”) Thanks so much for all this effort, insight, genius (feeling increasingly humble in your presence :)). This is actually very helpful to me personally – which I hope you’re glad to hear, that your writing is actually doing some present tense good, not just fascinating people. God, it would be wonderful if Bernie could get into the manager’s chair and martial the team, but the game is rigged.


  2. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 161: A Poem for the Losers, Part One | madnessatthegates

  3. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 161: A Poem for the Losers, Part One of Three – Barry Spector’s Blog

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