Last week in my fiction workshop, one of the writers remarked in her story, “there was joy in Mudville.” Most of the other writers didn’t know what she was talking about. But I did. It awakened for me my earliest memory of a literary experience. I read plenty of picture books and had them read to me, and I pored over the “A” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia (the volume with the entry for “Animals”) more or less every day, but the first poem I remember ever doing its work on me—a poem with just words, no pictures—was “Casey at the Bat.”
We had a book called The Best Loved Poems of the American People, published by Doubleday in 1936. It looked exactly like the one pictured here (which I just bought).
One evening my father sat me on his lap in the chair where he sat to pay the bills and told me there was a poem he wanted to read me. I don’t think he had ever done such a thing before, and I don’t think he ever did again, for reasons that will soon become apparent.
The poem was “Casey at the Bat,” Ernest Thayer’s baseball ballad from 1888. I’m not sure how old I was. I may have been old enough to read a little, but I wasn’t able to read the poem to myself. And I know I was still little enough to be wearing those snug-fitting pajamas made out of t-shirt material that little boys used to wear. I remember the pajamas. And I remember being a tad perplexed when my father started reading:
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.”
The poem is an emotional roller-coaster, especially for a boy in pajamas on his father’s lap. After those first two Mudville batters get thrown out at first, the next two batters—Flynn and Jimmy Blake, described in outmoded terms of abuse as a “hoodoo” (a jinx) and a “cake” (an easy out)—get on base, to everybody’s surprise. And our hero Casey finds himself at the plate.
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.
Oh, this was so good. The hopes of five-thousand fans are on this guy’s shoulders, and he just smiles. The first pitch comes in, and Casey watches it go by. “That’s not my style,” he says. The umpire calls it a strike. The crowd is furious.
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.
This man isn’t just a sports star. He’s the personification of chivalry and noblesse oblige. No wonder this is one of The Most Beloved Poems of the American People. This American Person was definitely loving it.
Casey lets another pitch go by. The umpire calls that one a strike too. The crowd is even more furious. Casey silences them. It’s 0-and-2, but Casey isn’t worried. So the people in the stands aren’t worried either.
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.
If the Mudvillians could be so confident in Casey’s powers, I figured I could be too. I eagerly awaited that third pitch.
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.
My father stopped here to let that air-shattering blow sink in. Aha! I KNEW Casey could do it! Then my father continued to the final stanza…
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.
Wait, what? I couldn’t believe it. I stared silently at my father. I thought maybe I had misunderstood. “What happened? Casey struck out? His team lost?”
“Well, yes,” my father said.
I kept staring. Reproachfully. “Why did you read that to me?” I asked. Then I went over to the couch, stretched myself out, and cried and cried and cried.
My poor father didn’t know what to do. He was just trying to have a little father-son time. He thought he had picked an activity that I would enjoy.
I had never cried over an actual baseball game, only this poem about a baseball game. Why was I so affected by the failure of this imaginary baseball player, and the disappointment of his imaginary town? What was this sadness that was more delicious than its consolation? I have wondered whether my father chose “Casey at the Bat” because he thought a poem about sports would be a good way to get a little boy interested in poetry. It is just as likely that the poem is what got me interested in sports. “Casey at the Bat” made me understand the drama that inheres in a sporting match, both on the field and in the stands.
I’m reminded of a scene that CS Lewis depicts in the second chapter of An Experiment in Criticism. He imagines a family of bookish types, for whom reading is a kind of fashion, a demonstration of superior taste. They discuss books in the parlor and argue about which authors are in and which are out…”Yet, while this goes on downstairs,” writes Lewis, “the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bed-clothes by the light of an electric torch.”
I realize that “Casey at the Bat” isn’t great literature. I’ve read a lot of better literature in the intervening years. But my first experience of that baseball poem was as pure a literary experience as I’ve ever had.