Ernest Lawrence Thayer's Casey at the Bat
brought to life by Christopher Bing
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Read The Mudville Sunday Monitor!
I've got chills.
Truth is, I hadn't been looking forward to reading and reviewing this book. My love for baseball faded in childhood. Casey at the Bat, Ernest Lawrence Thayer's 1888 poem about the highs and lows of fandom, had lost relevance for me.
Thank goodness Christopher Bing has more vision than I do. If I'd known what he was up to, I would have grabbed up Casey at the Bat 10 years ago, when he won a Caldecott Honor for it.
You probably remember the poem. (Because it's out of copyright and in the public domain, I can reproduce it for you below.)
The poem's charm is in the way it plays with expectations. Its sense of build, and our own sense of conventional storytelling, lead us to expect nothing less than a game-winning home run from mighty Casey.
Things don't quite work out that way. It's a poignant reminder of what it is to be a fan: that for every winner there's a loser, and even worse, that in the end there can be only one champ. Everyone else goes home disappointed.
Bing's contribution brings a lot more than that to the plate.
He imagines not only a real Mudville (the city where Casey's team plays) but a real 1880's newspaper - The Mudville Sunday Monitor covering the events of the day, including the game. And I say, "Wow."
You see, it was baseball that lured me into newspaper reading and concerning myself with the events of my own day.
Casey at the Bat
My parents were avid newspaper readers. As a young baseball fan, I wanted that sports section. I needed to read about my beloved Cubbies.
Well, soon I was reading about other teams as well. And not long after that, the proximity of those other newspaper sections started exerting their own siren call.
I think you might find the same thing if you present Casey at the Bat to your young baseball fan.
Only a small amount of the text on each page comprises the poem. The rest consists of images and text faithfully inspired by 19th century newspapers. The language in the accompanying articles is true to the style of the time, and the newspaper itself looks like a yellowed copy that was once fresh off the press. The illustrations look precisely as if they were printed from engraved copper plates.
The Sunday Monitor's advertisements are a blast from the past - Cockle's Anti Bilious Pills and Brown's Bronchial Troches - but it's those articles that really may have something to teach. Baseball aficionados will learn about a move to ban the overhand pitch (if you can imagine!). More significantly...
They might notice some African-American faces among the players and wonder how that could be, given that this fictional game takes place nearly sixty years before Jackie Robinson. Then they might notice an editorial in the (equally fictional) National Sports Reporter & Gazette, entitled, "Dark Days Ahead," decrying the rumors about a pending ban of "Negro players from the game of baseball."
Do you see what's happening? We started with baseball. We're progressing to learning.
This is a phenomenal book that curious minds can pore over endlessly and find themselves transported back to a different time. (One with an expanded vocabulary compared to our own!) Casey at the Bat is a perfect book to sneak into the hands of a child with a narrow interest in sports. It can widen those horizons.
Casey at the Bat
by Ernest Lawrence Thayer
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
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."
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon 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 lit 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.
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 while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.
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.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, "Strike two!"
"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and 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 that ball go by again.
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 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 favoured 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.
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