Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s 1888 poem Casey at the Bat is about unrealized hope, hubris, and the importance of jumping on first-pitch fastballs. It’s stood the test of time to emerge as one of the most indelible pieces of baseball writing. From Vaudeville stages to cartoonist easels, the tale has come to life, entertaining generations with its timeless simplicity and unsatisfying ending.
I’ve heard it recited scores of times. Despite this, last night — in a desperate attempt to find new bedtime material for my sleep-adverse son — a whole new element of the story presented itself upon reading.
Why did the opposing manager pitch to Casey? Given all available evidence, shouldn’t the strategy have been an intentional walk? Or, outside that, to pitch around him?
Let’s look at the situation. Mudville trailed 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth. Flynn, who had let fly a single, was a-hugging third. The much-maligned Jimmy Blake was safe at second after doubling. Casey, the game-winning run, stepped into the batter’s box with first base open.
Here’s what we know about the mighty Casey. He was the player the home crowd had placed all their faith in. A hitter so fearsome they’d have put even money on delivering in such a situation, meaning he’d shown close to a 50 percent success rate with runners in scoring position. The poem implies they’d also take this wager in a first- and second scenario, revealing their confidence was, specifically, in Casey rapping an extra-base hit.
We know he was so confident in his abilities that he was willing to hit with two strikes. It’s an assumption, but the powerful hopefulness of the crowd implies that this was not, in aggregate, misplaced faith.
Critically, we do not know who was on-deck. But it was not the titular character. In fact, the absence of such information is an editorial choice. The next man in the order was so meaningless he wasn’t given a name or addressed at all. Casey was to end the game with a towering drive. He was going big — or going home.
Look, managerial mindsets have evolved greatly in the 130 years since this fictional event took place. Intentional walks were not as ubiquitous. The game was played with more machismo. It would likely have been seen as a cowardly move to take the bat out of Casey’s hands. And allowing the game-winning run to reach base is always a risk.
But I must say, with the facts at hand and the educated guesses gleaned from context clues, the opposing manager was not playing the percentages in allowing his pitcher, fresh off giving up two hard-hit balls, to face Casey. That he’d be allowed to challenge him so aggressively is shocking.
Mudville’s opponent was perfectly willing to let Mudville’s best player beat them. Had things gone another way, the local scribes would have been out for blood in the next day’s newspaper.
The first two offerings to Casey were both called strikes, though the lusty dissension from the crowd paints a picture of their borderline nature. Thayer did not offer any Pitchf/x data in an appendix or anything. Again, analytics weren’t as celebrated in 1888.
We’re left to imagine where the third and final pitch was located. Perhaps Casey, so anxious to be the hero, chased something out of the strike zone. I’ve always believed it was yet another hittable fastball. In my mind, the poem is about failing to capitalize on opportunity, not about having it taken away by outside forces.
Things had to happen this way for the sake of the story. All things equal, though, I’m pitching around Casey and taking my chances with the Next Man at the Bat. Just because it worked out doesn’t mean it was smart.