Tuesday, June 4, 2013

125 years later: Still no joy in Mudville tonight

Casey at the Bat /
At 125, still no joy in Mudville.

The baseball season is in full swing. Across the country, America's Summer Game is heating up with pennant race fever.

Here in the Bay Area, we're fortunate to have two Major League teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, to cheer and support. Each team has its own personality and rhythm, just like the cities they represent. Both teams are full of colorful players, too.

One need only look at the Giants' lovable slugger, Pablo Sandoval, nicknamed (Kung Fu) Panda for his friendly demeanor and girth, who often changes the outcome of games with one mighty swing of the bat.

Sandoval hit home runs in his first three at-bats  bats during Game 1 of last year's World Series. It earned him most valuable player honors, and the Giants amazingly swept the Detroit Tigers in four straight games to win their second World Series title in three years.

While Sandoval loves to swing for the fences ~ and his Ruthian home runs are truly a thing of beauty ~ sometimes, he swings and misses, striking out to kill a rally. Sandoval's successes, and his sometime failures at the plate, bring to mind another mighty baseball swinger. Mighty Casey.

"Casey at the Bat", a baseball poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, was published in the San Francisco Examiner 125 years ago on June 3, 1888.

As you might imagine, the poem is filled with a lot of references to baseball as it was in 1888, and in many ways, the game hasn't changed too much in 125 years. The poem captures a lot of the appeal of America's National Pastime and there is a lot of audience involvement and baseball jargon, too.

In the beginning of the poem, we learn of the baseball team from the fictional town of Mudville, which is losing by two runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The team and fans are hopeful that they can win if Mudville's star, Mighty Casey, who is scheduled to hit fifth, comes up to bat with the game on the line. With two outs, Mudville's Flynn and Blake both successfully reach base on a single and a double, and it brings to the plate Mighty Casey with runners in scoring position and Mighty Casey representing the potential winning run. 

As Mighty Casey is so confident of his abilities, he does not swing at the first two pitches and both are called strikes. Suddenly, he finds himself behind in the count 0-2. On the next pitch ~ the game's final pitch ~ an overconfident Mighty Casey strikes out, ending the game. Then, as now, Mudville has lost and the home crowd goes home unhappy.

For 125 years, "Casey at the Bat" has been part of baseball's lore and literature. And, still, there's no joy in Mudville tonight.

* * * 

Here is the text of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat":

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 sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that --
We'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And he former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little change of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, the the wonderment of all, 
And Blake, the much despis-ed , tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon 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 while the writing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed 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 a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd a-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 bade 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 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 that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence 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 and laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville -- mighty Casey has struck out.

* * *

To listen to a reading of "Casey at the Bat" by NPR's Frank Deford:

To learn more about "Casey at the Bat": 

Baseball player figurine by Mississippi artist Walter Inglis Anderson, courtesy of Shearwater Pottery.
Baseball tile art "American Game" by Michael Dickens. 

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