Batter Up

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 25, 2024

There is a certain piece of literature which is dear to the hearts of many people who don’t generally love poetry, and who also possibly have no interest in organized sports, such as baseball. It is a poem which celebrates both hero-worship and disappointment. 

The work in question is, “CASEY AT THE BAT.” It describes a baseball game from a certain moment (in sports lingo, it is “the bottom of the Ninth, with the bases loaded”) critical to the climax of the game. We see everything from the viewpoint of the 5,000 spectators, who are naturally rooting for their Home team – “Home,” in this case, being a place called Mudville.

As the narrative opens, the situation looks so desperate that some of the crowd are already leaving. But those who remain have their hopes pinned on Casey. The tension builds as Casey, with superb confidence, has one strike called against him – then two. We know, just as all his supporters know, “that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.”

There is a sense of authenticity in the narrative, as it describes certain team members’ well-known mannerisms, such as a pitcher’s tendency, as part of his wind-up, to grind the ball into his hip, and some batter’s habit of rubbing his hands with dirt, and then wiping them on his shirt.

So, what happens? I will have to let the last stanza speak for itself:

Oh, somewhere in this favored 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.

Whenever any words are quoted from this poem, they are most likely to be “there is no joy in Mudville.” It was the failure of a Hero.

Who wrote this – and what else do we know about him? Some of the answers may surprise you. The author was Ernest Thayer. He wrote it when he was a young man of 25. He lived to be 77, and did much other writing, mostly journalistic – but “Casey” is the only thing for which he is known or remembered. He was a graduate of Harvard and was active in student publications. One of his classmates was William Randolph Hearst, who became a media magnate, with a whole chain of newspapers. One of the first was the San Francisco Examiner, for which Hearst asked Thayer to write an occasional piece. The very last piece he submitted, in 1888, before retiring to follow other interests, was “Casey at the Bat.” Somehow this bit of verse (for which Thayer was paid $5) captured the public’s imagination and attained immense popularity. There was even one stage performer who made a career of reciting it, which he did thousands of times.

But Thayer himself, instead of relishing this chance of great fame, tried to shrug it off. For many years, if anybody wanted to interview him, he refused to discuss Casey. He travelled extensively, and, at home in Lawrence, Massachusetts, involved himself in his family’s wool business.

But in later years he came to accept his glorious reputation, even though it was based on just one poem. In 1912, after he met his future wife, the widow Rosalind Buell of Montecito, they settled here. They were quite prominent socially, and during World War I Thayer led campaigns for “Liberty Loans.” They both lived to the year 1940, and are buried in Santa Barbara Cemetery. I haven’t seen the marker, but doubt very much if it mentions “Casey.”

Of other interesting examples of creators now known for only one creation, two are among my own favorite pieces of music. The name of Enrico Toselli, a prolific Italian pianist and composer, is today preserved only in “Toselli’s Serenade.” And Franz von Suppé of Austria, who produced over 100 operettas, is today justly world famous, but only for his Overture to an operetta called “The Light Cavalry.”

The same fate, I’m afraid, may be awaiting my own works. After writing and publishing ten thousand original epigrams (with none ever longer than 17 words), the only one (if any) that I’m likely to be remembered for is the one I made the title of my first book: “I MAY NOT BE TOTALLY PERFECT, BUT PARTS OF ME ARE EXCELLENT.” If I’d been hoping for a broader reputation, I can only feel a sort of kinship with “Casey,” and to have produced no joy in Mudville.  


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