Sunday, March 16, 2014

Ernest Thayer - Poetry

I'd never heard this poet's name before, but I know the poem well.  This is 'Casey at the Bat'.  The blurb before the poem describes it as the greatest sports poem ever written, and I'll admit that off the top of my head, I can't think of a finer one.  (But I have resources and might return to this question!)  The entire poem is fairly long.  I won't do the whole thing, just the beginning and the famous end.  The entire poem can be found here.

It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood two to four' with but an inning left to play.
So, when Cooney died at second, and Burrows did the same,
A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest,
With the hope which springs eternal within the human breast.
For the thought: "If only Casey could get a whack at that,"
They'd put even money now, with Casey at the bat.

--- [Casey lets two balls go without a swing and the count goes to 0-2.]

The sneer is gone from Casey's lips, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel vengeance 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 are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville: Mighty Casey has struck out.

There is a power to this poem.  There is simplicity and heroism.  Mock heroism, sure, but as a sports fan, it rings true enough.  There is true tension too, the same tension that would happen in a tightly contested ninth inning.  It had been too long since I'd read the full thing.  This is a great poem.
Of interest to me (and maybe only me) is that this poem was written in 1885.  This is part of the 'dead ball' era of baseball when home runs were rare and more skill was put into precision batting.  The best batters would try to hit the ball away from the fielders, instead of driving it and hoping for a home run.  This doesn't seem to be Casey's strategy at all.  He swung hard enough to shatter the air.  Clearly he was hoping to put the ball over the fence.
It would be another 30 years before Babe Ruth really showed how powerful the 'swing for the fences' strategy could be.  I know that I've always thought of Casey as a Babe Ruth type figure.  I didn't know how far ahead of him this poem was.

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