Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Book Review: The Annotated Casey at the Bat, by Martin Gardner

The Annotated Casey at the Bat, by Martin Gardner

The other day I hung out at the Elliott Bay Book Company with fellow blog citizen Ryan H, and he was very kind and let me geek out about baseball with him for several hours. (I hate the offseason. Everybody just wants to talk about that sport with the prolate spheroid and the Jacobsenesque guys slamdancing.) I wasn't intending to buy any books, but I found this book full of Casey at the Bat parodies and tributes, and well, I've kind of had that poem going through my head since a few weeks ago. So, I couldn't resist.

If you are a fan of Casey at all, you need this book. No, really, you do. I had no idea there were so many other parodies and versions and takes on Casey. It's all levels of awesome.

The book delves into the history of the poem itself and the various versions, as well as the actual characters surrounding Our Hero, including lineups for the Mudville Nine, assorted players for Centerville, Casey's family, the pitcher (James Riley "Fireball" Snedeker. I never even knew he had a name!) who fanned Casey, etc.

First, there are several versions by Thayer himself. Then there are several tributes by the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, which range from as simple as Casey actually hitting the ball, to a sad ballad about the desertion of Mudville, to a brilliant little ditty depicting Casey as "The Man Who Played With Anson on the Old Chicago Team", but culminating in the ultimate poetic snarkiness, as he writes a poem as a response to a letter he received saying "I enjoyed your Casey poem, but what is the original about?" called "He Never Heard of Casey!" An excerpt:

Ten million never heard of Keats, or Shelley, Burns, or Poe;
But they know "the air was shattered by the force of Casey's blow";
They never heard of Shakespeare, nor of Dickens, like as not,
But they know the somber drama from old Mudville's haunted lot.

He never heard of Casey! Am I dreaming? Is it true?
Is fame but wind-blown ashes when the summer day is through?
Does greatness fade so quickly and is grandeur doomed to die
That bloomed in early morning, ere the dusk rides down the sky?

Granny Rice's stuff is fabulous, but there's even more that follows. We have more "revenge of Casey" style poems where he actually gets the hit at the end. In some of these, Casey is in his forties, or even in his sixties. We have a few poems that try to pinpoint the blame for Casey's bad fortune -- a cross-eyed bat boy, a spitballing pitcher, what have you. We also have the rest of Casey's family come to the plate -- poems about his son, his daughter, his sister, even his wife's antics in the batter's box grace the pages of this tome. A couple of times, we actually have Casey as a pitcher, oftentimes getting his revenge on the Centerville team.

There's even, of course, the Mad Magazine "Get a teenager to translate it for you" version that was published in 1960. You don't even really need the explanatory paragraph to figure that out, honestly:

Ten thousand peepers piped him as he rubbed fuzz on his palms;
Five thousand choppers grooved it when he smeared some on his arms.
Then while the shook-up pitcher twirled the ball snagged in his clutch,
A hip look lit up Casey. Man, this cat was just too much!

And now the crazy mixed-up ball went flying out through space.
But Casey, he just eyed it with a cool look on his face.
Right at that charged-up sideman, the old ball really sailed--
"That's so far out," sang Casey. "Like, Strike One!" the umpire wailed.

The British writer J.A. Lindon contributes two pure gems as well - the first is Casey in outer space, aka Casey At The Cap, and the other is, of course, the Village Cricket Casey. They are both great, though I think the kicker is Lindon's excellent palindrome:

Won't I help? Miss it in mad stab? Yes, a Casey bats. Damn! It is simple -- hit now.

Anyway, there is a football version as well (boo!) called "O'Toole's Touchdown" which is immediately recognizeable as well ("And so when Cohen lost five yards, and Zipkin did the same / A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.")

But I must tell you that none of these are even remotely comparible to the very last entry in this anthology, which is "Ahab At The Helm" by none other than Ray Bradbury. I'm not sure it gets much better than this:

It looked extremely rocky for the Melville nine that day,
The score stood at two lowerings, with one lowering yet to play,
And when Fedallah died and rose, and others did the same
A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of this Game.

A straggling few downed-oars to go, leaving behind the rest,
With that hope that springs eternal from the blind dark human breast.
They prayed that Captain Ahab's rage would thrust, strike, overwhelm!
They'd wager "Death to Moby!" with old Ahab at the helm.

I think you've gotten the idea by now -- and in theory, if you enjoyed the few snippets I've included here, you'll enjoy the rest of the poems. It's a truly wonderful collection of literary, mostly-baseball-related delight. Hell, even the Amazon review I see (another Casey parody) is funny.

As an aside, though -- this is NOT a bus book by any means. This book is best enjoyed at home where you can read all of the poems aloud and enjoy the meter and imagery -- also, it's rather embarrassing when you burst out laughing on the bus, really. I think it'd be a lot of fun for a couple of baseball fans to read together, or perhaps for a parent to read to a child.

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