One batter can’t play the game alone. Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Once upon a time, when I was a little kid, I discovered a poem that I read over and over, loving how it sounded. Many years later, when I hadn’t thought about it in what felt like a lifetime, I found, in a piece by Martin Gardner, the very poem I had loved (a better-formatted version of the poem lives here).

“Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, was not unusual for a child to read, yet it had haunted my memory. At eight or nine, I had no ideas about the romantic appeal of baseball, the figure of the great hitter as national hero, the slow, graceful game as popular art form. What held my attention was something that I would now call an emotional rhythm — not just meter, the tapping of beats, but a building tension, an escalation toward a heroic finale withheld and withheld, and, finally, withheld. Heroism deflated. Mighty Casey, the Mudville Nine’s last and best hope, ruined, absurd.

Oh, how the poem takes its time. How everything comes to rest on Casey’s last swing — all Mudville’s dreams of victory, all its faith in the dominance of one man. Suddenly, all is serious. Casey, down to the wire after all the poem’s delicious delay, can no longer play around. He’s dropped the pose of the benevolent god of the sandlot, the consummate stylist:

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 poet adopts a device, anaphora, that intensifies the next two lines — crucial for their delay of the moment of truth, and for their misleading resolution of the tension:

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.

We know by now that he’s blown it, don’t we? Did we read all of the hyperbolically heroic earlier stanzas just to find that Casey’s hubris would not bring him down? Of course not. But the poem, while it tells us clearly that we are right, that Casey’s blow propels nothing but wind and silence toward those benches “black with people,” also makes us wait until the last line for its joyous deflation of the arrogant hero, heightening the effect again with repetition:

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!

Poor Mudville: a desolate populace surrounded by lucky towns whose heroes are heroes. It isn’t a serious poem, but it’s not altogether light, either. Casey is stripped of his style, his scorn, his haughty grandeur — how will he face five thousand dejected fans? Who can ever convince them again that heroes exist? Gardner calls Casey “the incomparable symbol of the great and glorious poop-out,” and I’d say he is that and more: the figure who teaches us how misguided it is to pin all our hopes on one person we believe to be better than everyone else. In doing so, we will surely (re)discover the eternal principle of human fallibility.

The punch of the poem is its hero’s stumbling: the reality is that even the great can fail. Like Hans Christian Anderson’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the poem exposes the vulnerability of those who seem to hold all the keys. And whether the particular Achilles’ heel is arrogance or pride or vanity, the general truth is that when the powerful stumble, they pull everyone around them down, too. No one’s truly immune when the leader whiffs it.

Furthermore, it’s not guaranteed that Casey’s arrogance caused him to screw up. He could have struck out even if he’d been feeling humble. That’s the kicker: even if he was good enough to warrant his overweening confidence, he was no perpetual-motion machine, free of any drag that would impede his performance. Some days, it doesn’t matter that you’re the expert. There’s always the chance that, months after you’ve turned off the spellchecker “because you don’t need it,” someone will point out that you’ve been spelling “millennial” wrong in essays you’ve published (er, hypothetically).

We mess up. We fail, even when it’s important not to. So says the poem, resolutely. What it doesn’t portray is what comes next in real life: trying again, this time a little more aware of the possibility of failure. How we negotiate that without being permanently discouraged is the crux of living in the world.

One of the ways we do, I’m sure, is by relying more heavily on a team, realizing that going it alone means there’s no one else to take up the slack. Of course, even teams can fail. But there’s comfort in pulling together, inspiration in company, and the chances are pretty good that a group can average out the weaknesses of its members. Clearly, in its fictional history, the Mudville Nine had won before.

Baseball, like democracy, is played by teams of people, not won or lost by single players. And that’s why the 131-year-old “Casey at the Bat” is still such a good illustration for us in the U. S.: if we put all our eggs in the basket of one person — whether they’re truly accomplished or merely self-promoting — we are bound to lose. But we can huddle together, practice developing the crucial cooperation of the whole team, and in the long term, rack up a winning season.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.

Martin Gardner was well known for his scholarship on Thayer and “Casey.” His website provides information about his annotated edition of “Casey at the Bat.”