Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

‘Casey at the Bat,’ also known by the full title ‘Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888’ was written by Ernest Tayler in 1888. It focuses on baseball and was first published anonymously under the pseudonym “Phin” in The Daily Examiner in the same year. (This publication is now known as The San Francisco Examiner.)Since its publication, it has become one of the most famous and best-loved poems in American literature. It was popularized by DeWolf Hopper in numerous vaudeville performances. 

Vaudeville is a theatrical genre that originated in France at the end of the 19th century. It became popular in the United States in the 1880s and lasted until the 1930s. These performances included all sorts of acts, such as dancers, acrobats, singers, talks from celebrities and movies. 

 

Inspirations Behind Casey at the Bat 

When asked about this poem, the fictional town of Mudville and Casey, Thayer stated that the character of Casey was not exactly modeled after anyone, although the name came from a someone of Irish ancestry that he used to know. Lovers of baseball, biographers, and poetry readers have speculated that the inspiration for the character really came from several different people. Some of the most frequently discussed include Mike “King” Kelley as well as Thayer’s best friend, Samuel Winslow. 

In regards to Mudville, there are at least two cities that have claimed to be the source of inspiration for the fiction town referenced in the poem. These include Holliston, Massachusetts, and Stockton, California, each with their own reasons. 

 

Summary of Casey at the Bat 

‘Casey at the Bat’ by Ernest Lawrence Thayer is a humorous, dramatic, and very popular depiction of a fictional baseball game in Mudville. 

The poem tells of a loud crowd, an unsuccessful team, and the most important player, Casey. The Mudville team is losing from the first lines of the poem and the crowd is hoping and praying that Casey, who they’re sure can win the game for them, will get a chance to play. Two players go ahead of him, both of whom do better than the crowd expected. When its Casey’s turn he is too confident in his own abilities. This results in his deciding not to swing at the first two pitches and then missing the third, losing the game for the team. 

 

Structure of Casey at the Bat 

Casey at the Bat’ by Ernest Lawrence Thayer is a thirteen stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD, and so on, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines, upon first glance, are obviously quite long, especially for poetry. They appear more like sentences in a paragraph than lines in poetry. 

In addition to the perfect end rhymes that appear throughout ‘Casey at the Bat’ there are also examples of half-rhyme. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “drive” and “despised” in stanza four and the same long “i” sound that appears in “Defiance” and “eye” in stanza seven. 

 

Poetic Techniques in Casey at the Bat

Thayer makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Casey at the Bat’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. The first of these, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “The” and “The” at the beginnings of lines one and two of the first stanza and “It” repeated in stanza five and “There” repeated in stanza six. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “hope” and “human” in line two of the second stanza and “multitude” and “melancholy” in line three of the third stanza. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. There is a good example in line one of the second stanza where the sentence ends and begins again in the middle of the line. Another example can be found in line four of the eighth stanza. It reads: ‘”That ain’t my style,’ said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said”. 

 

Analysis of Casey at the Bat 

Stanzas One and Two 

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.”

In the first stanzas of ‘Casey at the Bat,’ the speaker begins introducing the current state of a baseball game. It is being played by the team from Mudville, a fictional town that Thayer invented for this poem. The game wasn’t going well. They are down “four to two” and there was only one more inning left to play. By setting up low expectations from the first lines of the poem, Thayer is able to go anywhere in the next stanzas. 

The next lines describe how team members were striking out and the crowd’s desire to see Casey, the main subject of this poem, get up and take his turn “at the bat”. This sets up the title sequence of this particular text. A reader will be immediately aware that Casey’s turn at the bat will be an important event. 

In these lines, a reader can find examples of alliteration, dialogue, and anaphora. Dialogue is used interestingly in ‘Casey at the Bat’. In this case, it appears as the general thoughts of the crowd, at least those rooting for Mudville. It is not one person speaking, but a whole group thinking. 

 

Stanzas Three and Four 

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.

In the next stanzas of ‘Casey at Bat,’ two more men come up to bat. The first is a “hoodoo,” a player whose presence is considered bad luck. As even non-fans of baseball know, luck and superstition often play a part in the game. The latter was “a cake,” Thayer says. This is a player who has dubious or uncertain skills. By using these slang words, which would only be recognizable by those who know the game well, Thayer is making it clear that he has a specific audience in mind: baseball lovers and/or players. 

The language in the second half of this stanza is dramatic. He uses the phrase “stricken multitude” and other words like “grim” and “melancholy”. In addition to the syntax, these words present an interesting contrast with the much less formal phrases like “hoodoo” and “cake”. 

Despite the bad omen that came with these two aforementioned players, they did well. They got to second and third base which means that Casey was going to get a chance at the bat. 

 

Stanzas Five and Six 

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.

The perfect rhymes and steady rhythm in stanza five help create a specific dramatic atmosphere as Casey walks up to take his turn. His name is used six times in five lines as if his very presence is good luck. It’s his turn at the bat and the mood of everyone watching the game is lifted. Casey appears to be in good spirits as he “lightly doffed his hat”. This is another example of the elevated diction and slightly distorted syntax that’s placed within a fairly mundane setting. The word “doffed” means to remove. In this case, to acknowledge the crowd and say thank you for the cheers and encouragement. 

 

Stanzas Seven and Eight 

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.

Casey rubs his hands in the dirt and then wipes them on his shirt, a clear example of the repetitive actions some baseball players take in order to make sure that luck is on their side. Rather than call the baseball a baseball, Thayer refers to it as “leather-covered sphere”. This is a funny example of poetic language that feels right at home amongst the other shifts in diction. The same can be said of Casey’s pose of “haughty grandeur”. 

There is more dialogue in the eighth stanza as Casey decides not to hit the ball. It’s not his “style” he says. 

 

Stanzas Nine and Ten 

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; 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!”

A “muffled roar” erupted from the crowd after this, emphasized by a simile comparing their movements and sounds to “the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore”. This drama is matched by their demands to “Kill the umpire”. The speaker humorously adds that this action was in fact quite likely if Casey had not “raised his hand”. 

Casey does not hit the ball for a second time and the umpire calls strike two. 

 

Stanzas Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen 

“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.

Now the crowd directs its anger at Casey rather than the umpire. They call him “Fraud” but he silences them with a look. He appears determined and ready to hit the ball no matter what on the next pitch. Anaphora helps build up tension in the twelfth stanzas as everything happens at once. The “air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow” the fourth line reads. But, unfortunately, the game doesn’t end as the crowd wanted. Casey strikes out and the crowd goes home unhappy. 

This is a surprising and interesting ending to a poem that felt set up for victory from the first lines. Casey’s overconfidence and decision not to swing at the first two pitches was his downfall. 

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