There Is No Joy in Mudville: On Hubris and Casey at the Bat

Underdog stories exist to inspire, which is why we like them. Stories of the favored exist to provide caution, which is why we ignore them.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

There is still much to learn from poetry. I know, I know. Poetry? It's not facts and figures, and it's not memes. So who has time for it? But they hold value, lots of it. Feelings are intangible; they can't be described literally but only as figurative truths. Moral lessons? You state them clearly, and they lose all their power — leaving us to learn the hard way. That's if we learn at all. Yet these are the flexed muscles of poetry. They capture a sentiment and save us from having to learn through painful experience.

And I can't begin to quantify how much heartache Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" has saved me. (I can't count it since it's never happened — another thing that cannot be explained by facts and figures.) Written June 3, 1888, it has become one of the best-known American poems. One that I recommend often, especially to those who think themselves goliaths.

(Casey at the Bat, 1946 | Walt Disney)

Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888

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 despisèd, 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 shirt;
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 air,
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 roar,
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 hand.

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 ‘Fraud!’
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
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 favoured 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.

Underdog stories exist to inspire, which is why we like them. Stories of the favored exist to provide caution, which is why we ignore them. When a heavy favorite loses to an upstart, we want to know all the things the underdog did right, but more often than not, the outcome is decided by all the things the front-runner did wrong. Hubris. Even a child knows this, we learn it in grade school. (But then we get old and forget why literature exists.)

So the lesson is this: No matter where you're ranked, fight like you're in last place. And when trying to make sense of why a team (sports or political) loses a game they should have won, look no further than "Casey at the Bat." Consider it mandatory reading for the school of life.

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