Poetry and Baseball: Revisiting "Casey at the Bat" with Bill Littlefield

The irrepressible Bill Littlefield, prolific author and former host of WBUR's "Only A Game," penned at the outset of the 2017 season this reassessment of The Mighty Casey under the title "Poetry and Baseball: Revisiting 'Casey at the Bat'." With Opening Day a mere 15 days away, by my calendar, it's time to refresh our memory of what Casey has meant to American baseball -- and by extension, to American history. And also to remember all the great moments Bill Littlefield brought us in "Only A Game," syndicated on NPR. Keep writing, Bill -- we miss you--and we miss your great laugh!

There's only one item on which I beg to differ with Bill: that is his assertion that Casey's downfall is a mere demonstration of pathos, rather than a sublime tragedy perfectly scripted by its classically-educated author. 

The actor DeWolf Hopper, the man who performed his solo recitation of "Casey," by his own count, more than ten thousand times, singlehandedly transformed Casey from a back-page newspaper oddity into the great American ballad. Hopper held "Casey" to be the great American comic poem. "It is as perfect an epitome of our national game today as it was when every player drank his coffee from a mustache cup....there is no day in the playing season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes for the moment {emphasis mine} does not befall on some field."[1]


DeWolf Hopper knew "Casey" from the inside out, probably better than anyone other than the author himself. With his training as an actor, Hopper understood that the roots of the enduring appeal of "Casey" were classical-- but did he know his Greek playwrights? Had Hopper paid sufficient attention to the ancients, he would have known that Aristophanes was the great comic poet of the Greeks--the author of The Wasps, The Frogs, and Lysistrata. Perhaps, Hopper meant to say "...as stark as Aeschylus." Aeschylus (ca 525/524 - ca 456/455 BC) was the first and greatest of the Greek dramatists, one of the survivors of the epic battle of Marathon, in which a handful of Athenian warriors had defeated the mighty Persian army.

Aeschylus, according to Edith Hamilton, "knew life as only the greatest poets can know it; he perceived the mystery of suffering. Mankind he saw fast bound to calamity by the working of unknown powers, committed to a strange venture, companioned by disaster. But to the heroic, desperate odds fling a challenge...The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory."[2] This was the wisdom of the Greeks, which Americans in the year 1888 professed to admire: but the actual behavior of the Mudville multitude (as "Casey" suggests to us) was more akin to that of the Romans, who demanded victory above all.


Battle of Cannae, Rome vs Carthage (216 BC), depicted by John Trumbull (1743). The battle represented the Roman Republic's greatest defeat--used ever after as an example of tactical brilliance by Carthage. General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate the classical example of Cannae.”

But Hopper, citing Aristophanes, may have had it right after all: it was Aristophanes to whom Plato attributed the sublime dramatic insight, often quoted by Churchill: "The qualities required for writing tragedy and comedy are the same, and a tragic genius must also be a comic genius."[3] Hopper himself applied this axiom to acting. In his autobiography, in a comment on Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (1833-1893), whom Hopper held in high regard, he wrote:

"...No man ever was a truly great tragedian who lacked the comic sense. I doubt that a man ever reached the full measure of greatness in any vocation without that saving grace of humor."[4]


Aristophanes c. 446 - c. 386 BC

There is tragedy, there is comedy--and there is pathos. Here again, baseball historians or sports commentators have whiffed at the tragedy embedded in "Casey." Bill Littlefield, host of National Public Radio's "Only a Game," aired a retrospective of the immortal poem on February 27, 2016. "Ernest Lawrence Thayer may not have been a great poet," broadcast Littlefield, "but he understood the nature of myth well enough to know that it’s the fate of heroes to take on one-too-many dragons....It makes a terrible kind of sense, just as tragedy is meant to do."

So far, so good. But then Littlefield reversed field by claiming that "Casey at the Bat" portrays pathos rather than tragedy-- as if pathos were somehow a shabby pratfall version of tragedy. Not so, in the view of the ancients, to whom tragedy resulted from the protagonist's persistent, decisive and heroic action, while pathos described the passive suffering inflicted not by choice but circumstance. These distinctions were first drawn by Aristotle and have been recognized by classicists ever since.[5]


One of the questions that Caseyatthe.blog tries to answer is, "How was 'Casey at the Bat' understood by 19th-century audiences?" I'm starting to understand that both Thayer's classmates and Hopper's music-hall audiences grasped the essential tragedy at the heart of the ballad.


William Lyon Phelps (Yale, Class of '87) was a baseball player himself, and likely was in attendance in 1885 when Yale hosted Sam Winslow and the Harvard Nine (caricature by artist and illustrator Victor de Pauw).[6]

William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943), critic, author, and professor of English Literature at Yale, loved and played baseball. In an introduction to "Casey" in his anthology, What I Like in Poetry[7], Phelps wrote:

This graduate of Harvard University wrote a masterpiece which millions of ambitious men wish they had written. For "Casey" is absolute perfection. The psychology of the hero and the psychology of the crowd leave nothing to be desired. There is more knowledge of human nature displayed in this poem than in many of the works of the psychiatrists. Furthermore, it is a tragedy of Destiny. There is nothing so stupid as Destiny. It is a centrifugal tragedy, by which our minds are turned from the fate of Casey to the universal. For this is the curse that hangs over humanity--our ability to accomplish any feat is in inverse relation to the intensity of our desire. The declamatory art of DeWolf Hopper gave to this tragedy supreme unction.


Eugene Murdock noted in his Mighty Casey: All American (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984) that following the Hartford premiere of the opera The Mighty Casey in 1953, Harold Schonberg, music critic for the New York Times, wrote that the music was well suited to Thayer's "pleasant little fable." Martin Gardner, guardian of the "Casey" canon, and author of The Annotated Casey at the Bat: A Collection of Ballads about the Mighty Casey (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,1995) indignantly came to the poem's defense: "Can it be that the music critic of the New York Times is not a baseball fan? 'Pleasant little fable' indeed! Casey is neither pleasant nor little. It is tragic and titanic."

Thayer's ballad was a fable, indeed, but it was traced on an epic model, drawing upon Thayer's solid grounding in the classics. In later posts we'll trace "Casey's" classical roots to their source--and how Thayer's knack for interpreting the "broken edges of things" took an ancient ballad and turned it on its head.    


[1] DeWolf Hopper, Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper (New York: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1927), p. 93.

[2] Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: Time, Inc. Book Division, 1963), p. 221.

[3] William Manchester, "Preamble," to The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1983 Hardcover edition), pp. 28-29.

[4] DeWolf Hopper, in collaboration with Wesley Winans Stout, Once a Clown, Always a Clown: Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper (Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc.), pp. 130-131.

[5] Bill Littlefield, "Casey At The Bat' — Revisiting The Mudville Nine And DeWolf Hopper," NPR Broadcast February 27, 2016. On the distinction between pathos and tragedy see Warwick Wadlington, "The Sound and the Fury: A Logic of Tragedy," in On Faulkner, edited by Louis J. Budd, Edwin Harrison Cady, in series The Best from American Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), pp. 128-142.

[6] "Search-Light," Time Exposures: Being Portraits of Twenty Men and Women famous in Our Day (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926), pp. 23-28.

[7] William Lyon Phelps, What I Like In Poetry (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934), p. 16.





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