This short story by Mike Sajovie appears in “Sleigh Bells and Muckrakers” (copyright 2013). The italicized portions were borrowed from Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” – an American poem that was published in 1888.
J. Lewis Snodgrass was a self-proclaimed journalist who challenged baseball owners to change their ways or face dire consequences. He grew up in Cleveland and attended public school. After graduating he milled around the factories and slaughterhouses that lay along the Cuyahoga River in the section of the city known as the flats. Ever the visionary, Snodgrass organized working men by writing pamphlets that exposed unscrupulous business owners and hazardous working conditions. In other words he targeted workers who were quite fond of their limbs and the prospect of a better life.
After several years of failing to get his work published on a grander scale, Snodgrass curtailed his interest in factories and moved on to professional baseball. It was on the baseball diamond, and behind closed doors in secret meetings, where Snodgrass found his true calling: writing elaborate prose about the plight of the American baseball player, working to eliminate the owner-imposed Reserve Clause, and paving the way for the ultimate demise of our national pastime.
Which brings us to the third day of June, 1888 to the beloved city of Mudville. It is in Mudville where Snodgrass writes about unthinkable travesties being committed by a professional baseball club owner against a particular worker named Casey. Ernest Lawrence Thayer, who would achieve fame for penning the classic poem Casey at the Bat, gives his account in The San Francisco Examiner.
It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day; The score stood two to four, with but an inning left to play, So when Cooney died at second, and Burrows did the same, A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the game.
“Huh?” writes Snodgrass. “That’s not how I see it. Sure the Mudville nine is losing 4-2, but only because Cooney and Burrows are both tired from having to play 8 innings without a break. Do you know what that does to a worker’s morale?”
A very wealthy owner of another team clear across the country who wishes to remain anonymous argues that “baseball players do get a chance to rest, you know in between innings when the other team takes the field and most of the players on your team get to sit on the bench until it is their turn to bat. But let’s give this agitator the benefit of a doubt and see where he is going with this. By the way, does anyone know what the hell pallor means?”
Snodgrass explains. “Pallor refers to extreme paleness. One could say that Mr. Thayer writes in a flowery, ornate style. He does this to confuse baseball fans about what is truly going on. Could he be in cahoots with management? The players are weak and pale because they are weary, battle-scarred, and in jeopardy of losing their limbs out there. The fans are weak and pale because they pay outrageous ticket prices and eat hot dogs laced with rat feces, which they purchased at concession stands at the ballpark, which are owned and controlled by the owners.”
The very wealthy owner of another team clear across the country who wishes to remain anonymous chimes in, “Snodgrass is a blood-sucking instigator who is running out of people to pick on so he goes after people who make this country great. But thanks for clarifying what pallor means.”
A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest With that hope which springs eternal within the human breast; They thought, “If only Casey could get a whack at that – We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”
“Seriously, Mr. Thayer, do you think I was born yesterday? The fans that left didn’t have enough money to pay for the whole game. They were ushered out quietly and never heard from again. And where exactly are the people who are still watching going to get the money for that friendly bet? The owners took every last penny from them at the gate. I say it’s time for solidarity. Let’s rise up like men and transfer ownership of the game to the players!”
But Flynn preceded Casey, and likewise so did Blake, And the former was a puddin’, while the latter was a fake; So on that stricken multitude a death-like silence sat; For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.
“Oh, Casey will get to bat alright. This game is rigged. Casey is the best player in the league. He puts people’s butts in the seats so the owner can get fat off the backs of working stiffs like you and me, and every last baseball player out there. And Casey only makes 10,000 paltry dollars a year!”
The very wealthy owner of another team clear across the country who wishes to remain anonymous jumps to his feet. “Casey’s getting $10,000 a year? Don’t let my players know that. Next thing you know they’re gonna want a percentage of the receipts. Rose, call the lawyers and tell them to go ahead with that reserve clause. My players aren’t getting a penny over $2000 and will be stuck on my team until I trade them or they die (whichever comes first) and they darn well better like it!”
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all, And the much despised Blakey tore the cover off the ball; And when the dust had lifted, and they saw what had occurred, There was Blakey safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
“Did you say dust?” asks Snodgrass. “Casey’s impending at bat is not to be celebrated. Doesn’t anyone else see that Casey is being subjected to unsafe and unfair working conditions? He’s a farm animal weighted down in baggy knickers, suffocating in sweltering heat. He slaves for low wages while the ungodly smell of hot dogs and Cracker Jack pollute the air around him. And that dust, that dirty-sandy- grainy dust gets inside his lungs!”
Then from the glad multitude went up a joyous yell; It rumbled in the mountaintops, it rattled in the dell; It struck upon the hillside and rebounded on the flat, For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place; There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face. And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat, No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.
Snodgrass is impressed. “From one writer to another, you are very good. I, too, see the crowd is going crazy, and you describe the aura well. You do realize, however, that Casey does not own that hat. And Casey does not own that bat. And Casey can’t afford a cat. Not with a salary quite like that.”
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt. Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt. Then when the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip, Defiance glanced in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.
“That dirt on his shirt is going to cost Casey big. He’ll most likely get fined for it,” cries Snodgrass.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air, And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there. Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped – “That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.
“Casey can’t concentrate because he is bogged down with financial concerns. I mean, how can anyone make it on $10,000 a year these days? He has a wife and children, and a girlfriend in St. Louis, to support. But does management care?” Snodgrass is livid.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar, Like the beating of the storm-waves on the stern and distant shore; “Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone in the stand; And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
“Sometimes people have to die for the cause,” Snodgrass explains. “But I have to give Casey credit for preventing a melee. Potential sponsors might be watching. His nice guy image could land him an endorsement. And if he’s careful not to tip off management, he might have enough money next month to buy a ring for that girlfriend of his.”
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone; He stilled the rising tumult; he made the game go on; He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew; But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two!”
“Casey is a pawn,” says Snodgrass. “His followers may put him on a pedestal, but the people he works for treat him like a slab of meat. Why should he have to play baseball for peanuts while the rest of us get to work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for minimum wage? I envision a world where baseball players enjoy lifestyles consistent with the middle class. A world with collective bargaining, free agency, and open exchanges where players way past their prime can purchase magic ointments at affordable prices. Ointments that allow them to hit more home runs later in their careers than they did during their youth. I want baseball players to be coddled so the sport doesn’t go the way of the canals, or the American public school system.”
“There you go again, Snodgrass,” harps the very wealthy owner of another baseball team clear across the country who wishes to remain anonymous. “Baseball players are incapable of thinking for themselves. If we give them more money what’s going to happen next? They’re going to want to spend it on food, shelter and clothes. Frivolous items! And you can forget about their batting averages. You give them more money and you take away their will to win.”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered “Fraud!” But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed. They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain, And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let the ball go by again.
“Casey has the makings of a union organizer,” says Snodgrass. “Calm, cool and collected. The other workers look up to him. Even management admires him. Just say the word, Casey, and I’ll get the ball rolling. How would you like to be playing in New York next year? Maybe even have your own cabin on the train?”
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lips, his teeth are clenched in hate; He pounds with cruel vengeance his bat upon the plate. And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go, And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright, The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.
“No, no, no – Casey didn’t strike out! The players went on strike because the owner was treating everyone unfairly. Having full grown men play outside for money in front of adoring fans, what were they thinking? The owners thought they could just put up their own money and pay workers to have other workers throw balls at them? Where’s the humanity?” Blah, blah, blah.
J. Lewis Snodgrass wrote his pamphlets on labor relations in professional baseball until his fingers turned blue. All propaganda, at least for the time being. Casey batted .344 that season. The fan favorite had a restraining order placed on Gertrude Pennymaker, a burlesque dancer from St. Louis who lied about having an affair with Casey. A restraining order was also placed on Snodgrass who kept hounding Casey about becoming his agent. Casey had no idea what contract negotiations and licensing agreements were. He just wanted to play baseball. He lasted another 12 years with Mudville and retired with numerous accolades, including spending his entire career with the same team.
Snodgrass hung around until the 1920s, fading into memory after starting a chain of fried chicken restaurants during the Harding administration.
Illustrations and design by Joyce Sajovie