Baseball Poetry: Joy and Tragedy in Mudville
by Bob Schwartz
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright…
Baseball has inspired more literature, novels, stories, essays, poems, than all other sports combined. It isn’t that those other sports haven’t inspired some great works. It’s just that the volume of baseball writing is so huge.
I’ve mentioned Bart Giamatti before: Yale University President, baseball commissioner, writer of exquisite baseball elegies. Also the recently deceased W.P. Kinsella, author of the ultimate novel about baseball magic, Shoeless Joe, and many other baseball stories. For other classic baseball novels among the hundreds published, see The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris, to name a few.
And then there are thousands of baseball poems, by professional and amateur writers/baseball fans. Poems about baseball in general, about particular teams, about particular seasons, about particular players. Multiple volumes of baseball haiku.
Here is a favorite baseball poem:
by Robert Francis
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
And then there’s the most famous baseball poem ever, Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer. Note well: This poem, published in 1888, has been popular for more than a century. And it is a tragedy. Casey battles a nameless pitcher in the ninth inning, with two out, men on second and third. Casey strikes out. Any game that inspires such a poem, and any fans who embrace such a poem, understand something about something that goes beyond the simple and conventional. They understand baseball.
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 pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get 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 the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on 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 lit 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
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the
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
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 have killed him had not Casey raised his
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 dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles
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 are laughing, and somewhere children
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.