Joy in Mudville

LeRoy Neiman takes on the legendary "Casey at the Bat".

Mudville never had it so good. New stadium, hip crowds–even ballpark hot dogs at a reasonable price ($1.25).

Same old Casey, however; same old result. But, as it was written, when things looked most dire for the Mudville Nine:

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair.
The rest clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, ‘If only Casey could but get a whack at that–‘
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.

And so it is with that poem, a venerable American standard, that all of the grace and humor, power and drama, and mostly huge expectation and optimism represented in the personage of Casey is captured again–but with some new and unanticipated wrinkles–by the hand of LeRoy Neiman, himself a venerable American standard.

Casey strides back to the dugout in one of LeRoy Neiman’s 34 illustrations for the classic poem.
©Deuce II Editions

In customary natty attire, with sketchbook and bushy black mustache, Neiman has become as familiar a part of the sports scene as a scoreboard. His vibrantly colored paintings and chiaroscuro sketches have become as popular as a hometown winning streak.

So when Judith Goldman, a former print curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art (and a former managing editor of ARTnews), conceived the idea of illustrating the poem “Casey at the Bat” for the inaugural book in her new publishing venture, Deuce II Editions, Neiman came to mind. “Frankly, LeRoy Neiman was and wasn’t an obvious choice,” says Goldman, a longtime baseball lover who was a White Sox fan as a young girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago (she had a crush on outfielder Minnie Minoso). “I mean, there are two art worlds. There’s the so-called high-art world, with which I was familiar, having dealt with such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella. And then there is the commercial, or popular art world, one in which illustrators are prominent. LeRoy is in that latter category.

“I knew about LeRoy’s colorful paintings and screen prints, many of which were about sports subjects. I knew he knew his way around the dugouts. So I was comfortable with that aspect of LeRoy. But I wanted to see his black-and-white drawings. And I was impressed by them.

“I knew the art police–the highbrows–would look askance at my selecting LeRoy for this project. But I believed that they really didn’t know, or appreciate, all that he could do. I think he’s been terribly underrated. In a way, he’s been ghettoized in the art world. Just because he deals in other areas than artists like the Johnses and Stellas, it doesn’t mean they’re better. It’s apples and oranges. If one is not hamstrung by the boundaries that the art world sets, it’s a lot more interesting.”

Goldman sought an introduction to Neiman through a mutual friend, got it, and made her pitch to the artist in his studio just off Central Park West in Manhattan. Six months later, he had completed the black-and-white charcoal drawings for the book. They will be shown at New York’s Marlborough Gallery through the 24th of this month. “I only do work that I want to do,” says Neiman, “and I loved all aspects of the idea. I’ve always loved Casey as well. I saw him as a combination of Mark McGwire, Mickey Mantle, and Babe Ruth. He’s got mighty arms, like McGwire; I gave him Mickey’s number–No. 7–and I made him a left-handed batter, like the Babe.

“There is something about the power hitter that is awesome,” Neiman explains. “He’s the savior, the cavalry, the guy we depend on when the chips are down. And even if he swings and misses and strikes out, we still love him because he tried so hard. The force of his bat that generates a gale of nothing but air is still thrilling to see.”

The poem itself, written by Ernest L. Thayer and first published in the San Francisco Examineron June 3, 1888, has gone through countless renderings, recitations, and takeoffs.

“Mudville was supposed to be a city in Kansas, but is no longer in existence,” says Neiman. “This, of course, is just one of the many legends. I was reading up on them. It was said that Casey’s full name was Brian Kavanaugh Casey. He was a right fielder and the son of a plumber. One story goes that he had hit 99 homers in the season for Mudville and was going for his 100th.”

Neiman has transported the Mudville park to a place resembling Shea Stadium, with buildings rising up behind it that look like the New York skyline. (After all, the expansion-team Mets of the early 1960s were sometimes referred to as the hapless Mudville Nine.) In Neiman’s rendition, though, the players wear uniforms of the 1940s. “I liked those baggy flannel uniforms and the old spiked shoes,” he says. “They had such texture. And my deepest childhood memories of baseball are from that time.”

Neiman, meanwhile, has the hitters wear the modern earflap-style batting helmets. They include Flynn, who

preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu, and the latter was a fake;
So upon that stricken multitude a deathlike silence sat,
For there seemed but little hope of Casey’s getting to the bat.

Flynn and Blake, however, do reach base. And Neiman depicts the fans, steeped in tension, the mood of anticipation almost palpable, as Casey comes to bat. The hot-dog vendor stops midsale. One fan seems to be describing the breathless action to a friend on a cell phone. Among the banners in the stands, one reads: “Casey We Believe.” While Casey, awash in what Neiman calls “a beloved arrogance,” stands with “defiance” at the plate, the left-field scoreboard informs: “Mudville 2, Vis 4, At Bat 7, Ball 0, Strike 0, Outs 2, Inning 9.”

Suddenly, there are two called strikes on Casey. No longer is he doffing his cap to the cheering fans (“He was a cocky bastard,” says Neiman), but now we see in strong lines on the page how

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.

And then that powerful swing of the ages, and, viewing from the grandstands, the distraught fans. But while that last fruitless cut at the bat ended the game, it inspired the immortal closing lines:

And somewhere men are laughing,
And somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville–mighty Casey has Struck Out.

Yet Neiman’s Casey strides with undiminished hauteur back to the dugout. “He knows there’ll be another day,” says Neiman. “That’s the beauty of Casey.”

Ira Berkow, a sports columnist for the New York Times, is the author, most recently, of Court Vision: Unexpected Views on the Lure of Basketball (William Morrow).

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