Yesterday, June 3, marked the 127th anniversary of the publication of Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer. The San Francisco Examiner ran the comic ballad in what Martin Gardner later classified as,
…the nation’s best-known piece of comic verse—a ballad that began a native legend as colorful and permanent as that of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.
I didn’t write on Casey yesterday because I couldn’t decide on the angle of the piece. As poetry it doesn’t stand up to the kind of scrutiny we would apply to more serious works. Casey has more the feel of the humorous poems of Robert W. Service, the poet of the Yukon, who penned such poems as The Shooting of Dan Magrew, The Cremation of Sam Mcgee, and The Ballad of Salvation Bill a few years later – all of which were considered,
…doggerel by the literary set, yet remain extremely popular to this day. (“Robert W. Service,” Who2 Profiles, Answers.com, Web, Apr. 4, 2011.)
So, it isn’t the technical complexity or the sophisticated nuance of the poem that appeals. It’s the story of Casey (and of Dan, Sam, and Bill) that continues to hold our interest over all these years. Casey, a big fish in the little backwater pond of the fictional Mudville, approaches the plate in the bottom of the 9th with the underappreciated Jimmy Blake at second, and the maligned Flynn “hugging third.” Casey represents the winning run, as the Mudville Nine are behind 4-2.
But Casey, full of confidence and of himself, proceeds to take the first two strikes as he stands, “in haughty grandeur there.” The crowd wants the ump’s head after the called second strike, but Casey quiets them with “one scornful look” (not sure if it’s directed at them or the ump). Then Casey gets angry, pounding with “cruel vengeance, his bat upon the plate.” He swings. He whiffs. And the crowd goes home joyless.
As readers and lovers of the Great American Game of Baseball, we connect with the story as Casey couldn’t connect with the ball. Regardless of the size of our hometown, we idolize local heroes like Casey. We want them to go yard, to hit it out of the park, to win in a walkoff. But when the hero boasts his prowess like a transplanted Miles Gloriosus, there’s something lost in the victory, and something gained in the defeat. What’s lost is what Stanley Williams call the “moral spine” of the story (The Moral Premise) – the essential timeless truth that “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16;18). While we may celebrate on a surface level with the braggadocio common to many gifted and spoiled athletes, at our core, we resonate with the truth more than with the lie that, “it ain’t bragging if you done it” (Dizzy Dean).
What’s gained in Casey’s failure is a confirmation, though immediately painful in the loss, that sooner or later hubris exacts a painful penalty. Humility, we should infer, is the essence of true greatness (see Aquinas on Aristotle’s definition of “true greatness” alongside a casual reading of Philippians 2) and is often harder won than the closest of baseball games. Baseball is a humbling sport. A 15-0 victory rout on Tuesday night will likely turn into a 9-2 pummeling defeat on Wednesday as it did for my beloved Texas Rangers yesterday. Baseball and Casey are there to make us laugh (it’s easier to laugh when you don’t live in Mudville), and to be reminded that the greater the talent, the greater the need for a humble at-bat.