If there is one poem that many adult males (and likely many adult females) will remember from elementary school, it is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s Casey at the Bat. Perhaps it was included in the elementary curricula because publishers, anthologists, or teachers realized it was exactly the kind of poem that could capture a boy’s attention and imagination. (Only one other 19th century poem is as well known as “Casey,” and that’s Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas.)
The poem has an interesting history. Written by Thayer and published by William Randolph Hearst in May 1888, it made no great impression until the comic actor DeWolf Hopper read it between acts at a performance in August of 1888. In the audience were several baseball players; it was “Baseball Night” at the theater. The reading was a huge success, and Hopper went on to recite the poem an estimated 15,000 times over almost 50 years. Other than his work as a student editor of the Harvard Crimson, Thayer is not known for any other writing.
What any of us (male or female) might remember most about the poem is the concluding line, the line that captures all of the emotion of dashed hope, bitter disappointment, and angst we might imagine: “But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”
Yet the poem is more, far more, than its famous ending line. It is about America and sport and what continues as our national captivation with baseball. In fact, the poem is subtitled “A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888.”
“Casey at the Bat” is also about the work of baseball, and how both players and fans work hard to make the magic happen. And it is also about the idea of work itself.
The story is simple and relatively compact. A baseball team, called only the “Mudville nine,” is down 4 to 2. It’s the last inning, the last chance for the team, and there are two outs. Two players, Flynn and Jimmy Blake, miraculously get hits and land on second and third bases. Then Casey, mighty Casey, steps into the batter’s box.
Most of the poem is about Casey — the buildup and tension as the first and second strikes are called. The crowd goes crazy; Casey remains utterly calm, seemingly unfazed and unaffected. The crowd screams for the umpire’s head — twice. And finally we read the windup to the third pitch, the one everyone knows Casey will not, cannot let go by.
What is this “work” poem really about?
Preparation. Expectations. Over-confidence. Bravado. Waiting until the last possible moment. The hopes and dreams and disappointments that happen in the workplace, whether a baseball stadium or cubeville.
We never learn the name of the opposing pitcher, or even the first names of Flynn or Casey (we know “Jimmy” Blake likely because Thayer needed two syllables to complete the line). We don’t know the size of Mudville, only that it’s big enough for 5,000 to fill the stadium (remember this was 1888).
The little we do know forces us to look on the action at hand, how this work of baseball happens in this particular game. In the process, the story of the poem becomes a metaphor for a particular kind of work situation — the over-confidence and even arrogance that leads to failure.
Think Enron. Think J.C. Penney. Think politics. Think of a hundred other examples of how pride leads to failure.
Thayer’s genius cast this understanding on the then relatively new spectator sport of baseball. Indeed, there was no joy in Mudville, but the lesson is immortal.
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