Casey at the Bat

by Ernest L. Thayer

illustrated by Joe Morse

Published by KCP Poetry

48 pages, 2006





A Whole New Ball Game

Reviewed by Lincoln Cho


Ernest L. Thayer's American classic poem "Casey at the Bat," as imagined by illustrator Joe Morse, is astonishing. It may be that, like me, you never even knew that ol' Casey had gotten somewhat tired. But reading the poem graced with Morse's illustrations puts a new spin on the story. Really? It's a whole new ball game.

Let's face it, since Thayer penned the well known poem in 1888, there aren't a lot of people that don't have some recollections about the Mudville Nine leftover from childhood. Generally, if illustrations accompanied Thayer's words, they were the kind of syrupy sweet illustrations delivered by Norman Rockwell and other illustrators of his school. That's not to say those earlier illustrations were bad. It's just that they were... different. Different enough that exactly the same poem seems to tell a whole new story under Morse's hand.

The illustrations I remember had a sunny edge. The colors were always bright, even cheery. And Casey and his pals were heroic. And they were all white.

Morse's Mudville Nine are starkly urban and quite multi-racial and Casey's features are proudly African. The landscape that frames the play is urban as well: graffiti, overpasses, housing projects. Ernest L. Thayer could not have imagined the places that Joe Morse would take his creation. To Thayer -- born in 1863, died in 1940 -- it would have looked like so much science fiction.

What we get, really, is a whole new story. It's uncanny. And as graphic a representation of the difference a really fabulous illustration -- and illustrator -- can make. Take this stanza:

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.

And here we're shown the faces of perhaps eight or 10 people; their mouths are open -- we can tell they're shouting -- and the anger they're feeling touches all of their eyes; every line in their faces; the set of their jaws. We can see it in their body language, too. The little of their bodies that is shown. Fists raised, hand gesticulating, shoulders squared. Alone, without words and hung on a wall, this is a portrait of anger. You've got to know, just looking at it, that pesky umpire had best fear for his life.

Though marketed as a children's book -- for kids in grade five and up -- Casey at the Bat will appeal to illustration aficionados. The book also feels a little like the very best of graphic novels. The whole thing is a fabulous production: hard bound and with a Japanese linen spine, silver foil blocking and vellum overlay, this is a book to keep or share.

KCP Poetry is a division of Kids Can Press. Part of their new "Visions in Poetry" series, KCP has also recently published graphic versions of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott; Noyes' The Highwayman and Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. A graphic version of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven will be published in the fall of 2006. | March 2006


Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe magazine.