It may have escaped your notice, but Monday marked a baseball-related anniversary that is well worth celebrating: Ernest Thayer's legendary poem "Casey at the Bat" turned 125 years old.
Thayer's comic epic -- in which an improbable ninth-inning rally by the hometown Mudville Nine is snuffed out by the hubristic title character -- was first published on June 3, 1888, in the San Francisco Examiner. Its popularity soon extended far beyond the Bay Area, however. "Casey at the Bat" was staged for the first time that August, in New York City, and the first recorded version appeared five years later.
Both events were harbingers of "Casey's" enduring appeal, as generation upon generation has learned to love Thayer's poem via an endlessly regenerating cavalcade of reinterpretations (my personal favorite being a collaboration between pitcher Tug McGraw and the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra, recorded shortly after the Phillies won the 1980 World Series).
Of course, "Casey at the Bat's" influence has been felt within the world of Minor League Baseball as well. Stockton, Calif., was known as "Mudville" before Thayer's poem appeared, and as such the city has long claimed that the action described in the poem takes place there. Stockton's California League franchise even went so far as to change its name to the "Mudville Nine" for the 2001 and 2002 seasons before reverting back to their original moniker of "Ports" in 2003.
But perhaps no team has done more to insure "Casey at the Bat's" legacy than the Jacksonville Suns, who for the last 25 years have staged a "Casey Challenge" at schools throughout the area. Local students are encouraged to memorize the entirety of the 13-stanza poem, and those who do so are recognized on the field and rewarded with Suns souvenirs.
This program is the brainchild of Suns president Peter "Pedro" Bragan Jr., who dons a team uniform and does staged readings of "Casey at the Bat" at approximately 20 schools each year. He explains how the program came about, how it has evolved, and how it led to him meeting the love of his life.
"It all began in the mid '80s, when we printed up bookmarks with our schedules on them," recalled Bragan, whose father, the late Pete Sr., bought the Suns franchise in 1985. "I wanted to get the lady in charge of the libraries in city schools to see if they would give them out, and she said, 'Yeah, I can do that, but I want you to do something for me. I'd like you to come out and read to the kids."
Bragan was hesitant, as at this juncture of his career, he didn't consider public speaking to be one of his strong suits. But those bookmarks weren't going to distribute themselves, so he accepted the invitation.
"I had prepared a speech that went right over these fourth graders heads, talking about how the Sumerians had developed the first written alphabet -- blah, blah, blah -- going on like that," he said. "I bombed and felt awful about it, but [the head librarian] told me 'No, it's fine, but next time read them a story.'"
Inspired, Bragan went to his mother's house in search of a baseball story he remembered reading in his youth. When he found the book that contained the story, he happened to open it to the pages that contained "Casey at the Bat."
"I remembered that poem, because my uncle Bobby [Bragan, Major League player-turned-baseball executive and league president] had encouraged me to memorize it. And that's when a light bulb went off -- I'd read it to the kids and then challenge them to memorize it."
With help from that same Uncle Bobby, Bragan honed his "Casey at the Bat" performance and soon began delivering it at dozens of schools each March and April (though his pace has slowed in recent seasons, he recalls years when he'd perform the poem "four times in the morning, take a lunch break, then do it two more times in the afternoon").
Bragan's dramatic rendition, often in a full Suns uniform, became the highlight of a presentation that evolved to also include a surprise appearance by mascot Southpaw, the reading of a short baseball story and a comprehension test. At the conclusion, he holds up a prize -- generally a glove, bat or replica jersey -- and issues the "Casey Challenge."
"I tell them, 'Now, I know it's a long poem with some big words, but if somebody as big and dumb as me can do it, then I know that y'all can too," said Bragan. "Here we are, 20-something years later, and just the other day we had about 80 kids recite it on the field before a game. Once they do it, I tell them, 'You should be proud of yourselves. Someday you'll lose that glove or you'll wear out that shirt or maybe you'll forget the poem -- nut you'll never forget that feeling you have in your chest, that pride you feel inside.' That really makes them beam."
The kids aren't the only ones to benefit. Bragan says that his repeated performances of "Casey at the Bat" improved his speaking skills immeasurably, instilling him with a confidence that hadn't existed previously. And, best of all, it is through the "Casey Challenge" that he met his wife, Nancy.
"This was back in the days when I was doing three or four [readings] a day in March," recalled Bragan. "I was visiting my third school and at the point I wanted to get out of there, I wanted to go back to the ballpark to see if the painter was painting the damn wall. I was going to mail it in, to be honest with you."
That attitude changed very quickly.
"This real cute blonde comes in and introduces herself with a beaming grin, and I say, 'Let's just get these kids in here, lady.' I didn't know who she was," said Bragan. "But later the librarian says, 'Did you meet Ms. Miller, the principal?' and the blonde woman stepped to the front. I thought, 'Damn, I'm not going to mail this one in!' and did the poem as good as I ever did. At the end she comes up and says, 'Mr. Bragan, I didn't know about you at first, but that was one of the best programs I ever saw anyone do. 'Thank you, Ma'am,' I said. I was shaking her hand and didn't see a ring: 'How about dinner and a movie?'"
The rest, as they say, is history. And though Bragan can't guarantee that the "Casey Challenge" will result in one finding his or her true love, he still champions the idea within the world of Minor League Baseball whenever he has a chance to.
"I tell every team I talk to, 'You've got to have somebody in your front office memorize 'Casey at the Bat'" he said. "And you know what? I've got to get somebody in my office to memorize it so I can retire!"