September 02, 2021

#08-130: Casey at the Bat

line drawing of an arrogant-looking baseball player, chest out, bat in hand, standing on a field in front of a crowd
"...a sneer curled Casey's lip..."

Note: In the early days of baseball, a humorous poem captured the imagination of fans and gave us an anti-hero, the "mighty" Casey.

Get Ready: Do you like baseball? Have you ever seen a game, whether live or on TV? Have you ever played? If so, what is it like to be up to bat? (If not, how do you imagine it would be?)

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.

So begins Ernest Thayer's classic ode to baseball, "Casey at the Bat." Written in 1888 and first published anonymously in a newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner, it brilliantly captures the joys and sorrows of sports fans everywhere, in just 52 short lines (in 13 stanzas).

The poem starts, as we have seen, with the Mudville team behind four runs to two, and with the game nearly over. "Cooney" and "Barrows" have both failed to get on base--they are "out"--meaning if there is one more out, Mudville will have lost the game.

As the story continues "a straggling few" of the fans have already gotten up to leave. Others "clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast," and thought that if their hero--a heavy-hitter named "Casey"--could only get a chance to bat, he might save the day.

And so it came to pass--almost. The two men scheduled to bat before Casey were notoriously weak hitters--Flynn was a "hoodoo" (a person cursed with bad luck) and Jimmy Blake was a "cake" (as in "a piece of cake" to strike out).

Perhaps I should pause here and say a few words for those not familiar with the game. (What I have to say will be simplified a lot.) A team is composed of nine players (like the "Mudville nine"). Each team takes turns being "at bat," and the players are to try their luck in a strict, pre-determined order (so the team couldn't just push Casey up in the "batting order"). A game is made up of nine such "innings," in which both teams come to bat and try to get players around the bases before getting three strikes.

Each player has three chances to hit the ball that is thrown or "pitched" toward him (or her); if he misses three times, which is called getting "three strikes," he is "out." A player can also become "out" if he is tagged with the ball while running between bases.

The game we're hearing about is in its last inning. Since the Mudville team is behind, this "at bat" is their last chance to catch up to and overtake the other team.

Now, "to the wonderment of all," Flynn (the hoodoo) and Blake (the cake) both hit the ball and safely run to the bases. One is on second base and the other is on third--ready to reach "home plate" and score a run. A homerun by Casey will win the game 5 to 4.

The crowd goes wild! The poet describes Casey's supreme confidence as he steps up to bat: his benevolent smile to the crowd, and the defiant "sneer [that] curled Casey's lip." But on the first pitch, Casey chooses not to swing. "That ain't my style," he says. And the umpire says that's a strike. (The first two times a batter doesn't swing, it counts as a strike, as though he had missed.)

Upon hearing this very reasonable decision, the crowd is outraged, yelling, "Kill the umpire!" But Casey, "[w]ith a smile of Christian charity," raises his hand and signals that the game should continue. And again he ignores the pitch, and the umpire says, "Strike two!"

The "maddened thousands" are beside themselves! But again Casey stills the tumult, and steels his resolve. The crowd is sure he won't miss a third time. He is no longer sneering. He clenches his teeth and beats the plate with his bat. And here's the pitch!

The last stanza tells us:

Oh, somewhere in this favoured 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.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. charity
  2. ignores
  3. notoriously
  4. ode
  5. outlook
  6. pall
  7. patrons
  8. signals
  9. tumult
  10. umpire

  1. kindness
  2. chances; possibilities
  3. the noisy disturbance made by a crowd
  4. indicates
  5. famously, in a negative way
  6. gloominess; dark covering
  7. a poem written in tribute to someone or something
  8. customers
  9. the "judge" in some kinds of sporting event
  10. doesn't give attention to

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for September 2, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. a; 2. j; 3. e; 4. g; 5. b; 6. f; 7. h; 8. d; 9. c; 10. i