Casey at the Bat is one of my all-time favorite poems. I always thought it was just about baseball.
But is it? Is there a metaphor or an allegory hidden somewhere in the last inning of a baseball game?
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It's not an allegory, but it is a common feature of life. It's not "just" about baseball: it's about disappointment, about expectation, about confidence, about the trope of overcoming adversity. Sometimes, you just lose. It happens.
There's no need to apply an allegorical reading where the baseball represents, I dunno, the Free Coinage of Silver and Casey represents William Jennings Bryan. (Example borrowed from Cecil Adams.) The poem is appreciated by people who aren't baseball fans because they know the bittersweet feeling it evokes: the heartbreak of loss combined with the silliness of the poem's style. It reminds you that there's another game tomorrow, and life goes on.
True allegories are actually quite rare. The trope rarely works well, because no two situations are ever truly identical, and trying to force them to be just makes people uncomfortable. But great works capitalize on common human experiences. As they say about history, it never repeats itself, but it rhymes.
I have a copy of that article! Koppett wrote it for The Sporting News, and my download dates the article from 8/27/1998, although it could have been a reprint from 1979.
In the article Koppett refers to a session of the Court of Historic Appeals in San Francisco on July 12 of 1979(?), aimed at determining the authorship and timing of the original poem. Koppett expressed dismay (he writes as if he attended the court proceedings) that the court ignored 18 lines that were erased from the original tape recording, as dictated by Thayer prior to transcribing. Before you say "What ... tape recorder in 1888?" ... Koppett noted in the article that Thayer was a good buddy of Alexander Graham Bell, who made a tape-recording device for Thayer's private use since he (Thayer) was in poor health back then.
There has been much speculation about whether or not the poem is pure fiction or represents an actual event. Koppett insisted that there had been evidence amassed that the poem [quoting the article:] "referred specifically to a game played in Stockton, which has a low-lying district that has been called Mudville, and that 'Casey' was modeled on a local hero named John Cahill (who, before that, had played 252 major league games in three seasons with a lifetime batting average of .205)."
In his article Koppett referred to several things that have baffled "experts" about the poem: (1) why didn't the pitcher waste one with an 0-2 count?; (2) why would losing an early season game make an entire town so joyless?; (3) why so much despair over one strikeout?; (4) why such ambiguity over the location of the game?
Koppett, as did others, believed that Casey conspired with his Uncle Arnold in the stands to take bets and throw the game, and that Thayer, who worked as an investigative reporter, uncovered the story but was forced to suppress the details due to underworld pressure. In response to (4) above, Casey and Arnold had been running a coast-to-coast con game. How's that for a conspiracy theory? The missing text was actually found on the surviving "blank" piece of tape through audio reconstruction using advanced technology. Anyway, here are the 18 missing lines--starting with "@"--and their place in the poem [note: this website bunches short lines together, so the stanzas are intact, but the lines separate with "/"]:
"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered fraud; / But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed. / @They knew he’d never fail them and they still refused to doubt / While suddenly a voice declared, “I’ll bet you he strikes out!”
Five thousand roars of laughter soon because a rising din. / I’ll take that bet,” and “So will I,” and “Hey, there, count me in.” / And while the gambling fever swept the stands from every side, / The pitcher threw a wide one and “Ball One” the umpire cried.
Ball Two inflamed the spirit of the Mudville betting clan / “Come on, let’s raise the ante, stranger,” yelled a local man. / And more and more believers in their Casey’s artistry / Displayed their faith with wagers while the pitcher threw Ball Three.
And now excitement mounted as the count had run its string / A walk would put the winning run on base—a foolish thing. / “I still say he will miss it,” called the stranger, loud and brash. / “I’ll double every bet and cover any extra cash!”
The crowd responded wildly, turning to this reckless knave. / And no one paid attention to the wink that Casey gave. / For the stranger came from Reno—and Arnold was his name. / And his brother’s son was Casey, who’d agreed to throw the game.@
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. [Etc. ... continues as commonly known]
In summary, Koppett insists that Thayer was writing about an actual event and purposely wanted to uncover fraud. He (Koppett) also is certain that Casey and Uncle Arnold had connections of the type that could keep Thayer quiet, hence the missing 18 lines. Also noted in the article is that Thayer didn't have much regard for his own poem, but did express hostility toward DeWolf Hopper, the actor who was revered for reciting the poem so many times ... and making it famous.
No, there is no complication regarding the theme of Casey at The Bat. The poem as generally known is purely about baseball and nothing else. However, it is unclear whether this is a portrayal of a specific game and player or not, but we do not have enough information to determine if it is and if it is, who it is. Additionally, in a 1979 article, sportswriter Leonard Koppett claims that there were 19 lines originally written, but omitted from the final version, which gave the poem and new meaning about gambling, but there are no corroborating sources to this claim.