Weekend arts: An ode to a baseball poem — or two

Given a previous rant here about baseball poets — most notably those who come out of hibernation in the spring — I may not be temperamentally suited to write about the most recent commemorations of “Casey at the Bat,” which turned 125 years old this week.

(Is a centenary and a quarter even a noteworthy milestone? Don’t think we did this for the Civil War to this extent, but that’s a topic for another time.)

CaseyAtBatLrg_4Thankfully Luke Epplin has placed the poem in a broader context at The Atlantic, detailing the literary and cultural history of an iconic slice of sports art. Drawing generously from John Evangelist Walsh’s 2007 book on the subject, Epplin unpacks the story of Edward Thayer’s 56-line verse from its publication in 1888 to its overly dramatic 1906 reading by William DeWolf Hopper (video recording at the bottom) and to several film adaptations after that.

(If you care to listen to Frank Deford’s Hopperesque recent reading on NPR, be my guest.)

What’s the appeal of “Casey at the Bat,” if there’s any, beyond nostalgia? Is there really something deeper that makes sense in contemporary American culture? Here’s Epplin’s conclusion:

Casey’s downfall illustrates the enduring sports dictum that arrogance, both on and off the playing field, should never go unpunished. That truism is why many NBA fans turned against LeBron James when he took his talents to South Beach, and then felt vindicated when his Miami Heat were trounced in the Finals the next season by the Dallas Mavericks. It’s also why it is more gratifying for some to watch Alex Rodriguez go down on strikes than blast another pitch into Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch.

Personally, I think the derision over James and A-Rod is a bit more complicated than that, but there are a few grains of truth there.

Schadenfreude may have given Hopper the dramatic impetus for his flourishing delivery, as Epplin suggests, but at the risk of offering a superficial interpretation, I think references to a more pastoral-seeming world might also help to explain why current audiences lap up the story of mighty Casey striking out. As well as the more florid language of another time.

For Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra, baseball poetry doesn’t get any better than Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto,” relegating “Casey at the Bat” to runner-up status. The Beat poet’s reading of his own work is “just another example of baseball — an inherently conservative institution — serving as a vehicle for change. Or, at the very least, a reflection of it:”

And Tito Fuentes comes up looking like a bullfighter
in his tight pants and small pointy shoes.
And the right field bleechers go mad with Chicanos and blacks
and Brooklyn beer-drinkers,
“Tito! Sock it to him, sweet Tito!”
And sweet Tito puts his foot in the bucket
and smacks one that don’t come back at all,
and flees around the bases
like he’s escaping from the United Fruit Company.
As the gringo dollar beats out the pound.
And sweet Tito beats it out like he’s beating out usury,
not to mention fascism and anti-semitism.

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