By JERRY GILL
Many years ago, when I was teaching at a college in Florida, I was asked by the graduating seniors to be their commencement speaker.
It was when the Vietnam war was grinding down, President Richard Nixon was being impeached, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. Difficult times indeed.
I chose to interpret the famous poem “Casey at the Bat” by E. L. Thayer as a description of the failure of the United States to fulfill its promise to lead the world toward peace and justice. As the poem’s opening line has it: “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day,” the outlook for our country was indeed not brilliant. Although the minor theme of the speech was the failure of the United States to deal effectively with its own problems, as well as those of the world at large, my major theme had to do with the way Casey’s teammates dealt with their situation.
Even though the team was behind “4 to 2” in the last inning, and “Cooney had died at first and Barrows did the same, Flynn, a hoodoo, let drive a single to the wonderment of all and Jimmy Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball. When the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred, there was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-huggin third.” Then the roar of the crowd rumbled through the valley and recoiled across the flat, “For Casey, the mighty Casey was advancing to the bat.”
Everyone is familiar with the arrogance and disdain with which Casey approaches his task, as well as with the outcome of his turn at the plate. He ignores the first two pitches and swings mightily but emptily at the third. Thus, on that fateful day “There was no joy in Mudville – great Casey had struck out.”
My interest in the dynamics of this poem and the tumultuous event it describes has more to do with the response of Casey’s teammates, Flynn and Blake, than with that of Casey. In my view, they and not Casey, are the heroes of this adventure.
If we were to hold a postgame interview in the locker room with Casey’s teammates we would discover that they were not at all surprised by the outcome of Casey’s grandiose but fruitless effort to save the day by attempting to hit a home run. They knew full well that Casey was a perpetual “hot dog” and would fail the team in the end. You see, Flynn and Blake were true professionals who knew that the key to winning lay not in braggadocio and fame, but in going out there and doing one’s job. Flynn and Blake are the true heroes in this drama because they each did their part, in spite of the odds stacked against them.
In many ways this poem applies equally well to the issues of our current time it did to those of the early 1970s. Today, as then, America seems to be buried amid serious domestic and international problems and unsure of which way to turn. Some would look for a “hero,” like Casey, to deliver us from ourselves. In my view we need, instead, to buckle down, step up to the plate ourselves, and find a way to make a concrete difference in relation to the issues at hand. In short, we need to get on base.
I shall be retiring from Pima College this spring, after a 60-year career as a college professor, 25 of which I have spent here at Pima. As I reminded those seniors back in the 1970s, I want to remind those of you who are working hard to finish school and shape your future to take Flynn and Blake, not Casey, as your heroes. Know the range of your skills and talents, do your job to the best of your ability, and ignore the “hot dogs” whom you are sure to encounter along the way. Get on base and be ready to come home when the opportunity arises.
There can be “joy in Mudville” without fanfare and ballyhoo. Take your place in the lineup and be ready to do your job with simple, honest effort. Just show up and get on base!
Jerry H. Gill is an instructor of philosophy and religion for Pima Community College.