The 13-stanza poem entitled "Casey at the Bat" appeared in print for the first time 102 years ago this week.
It's author was a 24-year-old philosophy graduate from Harvard, named Ernest Lawrence Thayer. Thayer was a college classmate of William Randolph Hearst, and when young Hearst became editor of the San Francisco Examiner, he persuaded his friend Thayer to write a series of humor columns for the paper. "Casey at the Bat" was the last column in that series (Thayer was paid a whole $5 for writing it). The poem was supposedly based on an actual game in 1887 between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Giants in which a Philadelphia pitcher named Dan Casey struck out to end the game.I don't know whether this incident started fans of that day to consider the idea of a designated hitter, but I do know that the poem attracted much attention and acclaim, and when it was performed on Broadway two months later by an actor named William DeWolf Hopper, it was such a smashing success that Hopper built a career around it, reciting it in some 10,000 public performances before he retired.
"Casey at the Bat" makes a wonderful read-aloud for families today, and there are a number of reasons that this is so. First of all, it is a poem that is as much fun to read as it is to hear. It is filled with actions and facial expressions that are ideally suited to performing - not just to reading (as Hopper demonstrated so clearly). I know a number of families in which the parents and children have great fun performing and reading the poem together; sometimes the children act out the parts while the parents read it aloud, and sometimes the roles are reversed. (You can find this poem in many collections today. My favorite version - for some unexplainable reason - is in "Classics to Read Aloud to Your Children.")
There is also much to learn from "Casey at the Bat." Our children can profit from knowing early on that failure happens to everyone - even to heroes - and that Casey's failure was due in large part to his own arrogance. Failure will occur in our children's lives, too, and just how will they prepare themselves to handle it when it comes?
These teachings and learnings will not be stirred in children by the usual questions we ask in our little talks that follow most read-alouds. Many parents waste this precious time by having their children focus on the minor, factual points of a tale, such as "who did what to whom?" They don't mean to do this, in many cases, but the questions they ask don't cause the child to scratch any deeper than the surface of the story and don't encourage the child to respond in a way that will develop the child's ability to think and speak in sentences.
We must try, in these after-story discussions, to avoid asking questions that can be answered in just a word or two, and the best way to do this is to remember the six questions that all newspaper reporters are taught to ask: Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? Now just eliminate every one except Why? and How? and concentrate on beginning your questions with one of these words.
For example, "Why do you think Casey let the first two strikes go by?" or "How did the crowd react after each pitch?" Soon you'll get the hang of it, and you'll find other ways of avoiding those one-word responses (such as, "If you were Casey's manager, what are some things you might say to him after the game?") But, for now, try Why. . .? and How. . .?