Casey at the Bat
A small town stands united behind their local sports team and the team's star player as they try to make a spectacular comeback against seemingly insurmountable odds.
This isn't the synopsis for a new season of Friday Night Lights—wrong sport, wrong medium.
We're talking about Ernest Thayer's poem, "Casey at the Bat." It's a baseball poem that's full of action and drama, complete with a super-suspenseful surprise ending. Oh, yeah—and it's funny, too.
In life, though, Thayer was more of a journalist than a poet. He worked at the San Francisco Examiner and occasionally wrote comic ballads for the paper's Sunday edition. One of those ballads, "Casey at the Bat," became kind of a cultural phenomenon not long after its 1888 publication when an actor/comedian named William DeWolf Hopper (great name) did a dramatic reading of the poem as part of his act. It became a hit. Hopper went on to recite the poem for appreciative audiences thousands of times.
As far as poetry goes, Thayer was a total one-hit wonder. But even today, most of us still know the story of "Casey at the Bat." It has become an almost inescapable part of the American cultural landscape. The story has inspired countless poetic imitations, stories, and even films. "Casey…" is still around because it's still just as fun, funny, and relevant today as it was in 1888. The poem is certainly comic (Thayer wasn't shooting for high art; he wanted to entertain), but it also explores some big ideas like the transformative nature of competition and society's hero-obsession.
Any way you look at it, "Casey…" is a winner (well… sort of).
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever looked at sports fans and thought, "Hey, settle down. It's just a game. What's everyone getting so worked up about?" Or, perhaps you're a sports fan and you see a bunch of tweens losing their minds at a Justin Bieber concert, or a bunch of senior citizens losing what's left of their minds watching the Rolling Stones (er… Google them) and think to yourself, "Really? What's the big deal already?"
These might seem like very different events, but at the core of their experiences, they are similar. We care so desperately because of what these events represent to us as individuals. On some level, the experience is personal. We experience things like competition, fame, talent, and adoration vicariously—that is, through the entertainers and athletes we idolize. We want to be close to them, we want to cheer for them and wave giant foam fingers, because we want to be part of what they represent. Unfortunately, this can make us seem—like those Mudville fans that Ernest Thayer wrote about—a little crazy at times.
Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" explores this idea of hero-worship and fandom. It even gives us a little glimpse of what it might feel like to be on the other side of all that adoration. We all think we'd like to switch places with the star athlete or entertainer, but that role carries its own set of issues and anxieties that we usually don't consider. Sure, you probably get to be super-rich, and—yeah—that would be cool. But it doesn't mean everything goes your way. Just take a look at Casey. He loses his cool, he loses the admiration of the fans, and he loses the game. That's a lot of losing. And remember, he has to go back out in front of those Mudville fans for the next game. He can't just get a doctor's note and skip it, like PE (yes, we know about that all too well).
So think about poor Casey the next time you see some guy waving a giant foam finger and going out of his mind at some event that seems totally insignificant to you. Before you mock that dude, you had better think about where you let your own personal foam finger fly. Chances are, at some time or other, at some other event, you are that guy—or gal, of course.