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Magic Moments: Baseball's Greatest (Musical) Hit

By Dick Heller, August 7, 2013

The tune is simplistic, corny and old-fashioned. A child of five or so can rattle it off with no sweat.  When it comes to musical accomplishment, this banal ditty makes something like “Hail to the Redskins” sound like “Stardust.”

Yet for 105 years, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has been, for better or worse, baseball’s national anthem.

Tin Pan Alley songwriter Jack Norworth was riding a New York City subway one day in the spring of 1908 when he spotted a sign reading “Baseball Today — Polo Grounds.” Immediately inspired, Norworth grabbed a piece of scrap paper and began scribbling the first verse of a song for his wife, vaudeville actress Nora Bayes:

     Katie Casey was baseball mad/Had the fever and had it bad.

     Just to root for the home town crew/Every sou Katie blew.

     On a Saturday, her young beau/Called to see if shed like to go.

     To see a show, but Miss Kate said, "No . . .

     “Ill tell you what you can do.”

In 1908, a simple subway sign inspired songwriter Jack Norworth to pen a song that would become the anthem of our National Pastime. It took him only 15 minutes to write “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” which, more than 100 years later, is still one of the most frequently played songs in the country. 

More than a century later, that verse has been mercifully forgotten, but the chorus of Norworths little ditty endures as the third-most frequently played song in the United States behind “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday.” It is, of course . . .

     Take me out to the ball game/Take me out with the crowd.

     Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack/I don’t care if I never get back.

     Let me root, root, root for the home team/If they don’t win it’s a shame.

     For its one, two, three strikes you’re out/At the old ball game!

Norworth wrote the song in 15 minutes, and it was time well spent. Today, nobody remembers most of the 2,500 other tunes he turned out, but this quick effort is played and sung during the seventh-inning stretch at most games. Heck, it even survived the croaky version warbled over the P.A. system at Wrigley Field by longtime Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray.

Norworth turned over his lyrics to composer Albert Von Tilzer, who set them to music, and the tune was published in May 1908. By the time the Cubs won the 1908 World Series — their last such achievement for seemingly forever — it was one of the nation’s biggest hits in an era when people bought sheet music and sang around a piano in the parlor. Strangely, the song wasn’t performed at a ballpark until 1934, first at a high school contest in Los Angeles and later at a major league game that year.

Ironically, neither Norworth nor Von Tilzer had ever seen a baseball game. Norworth finally made one in 1942, 17 years before his death at 80. Over the decades, the song has been performed by entertainers in virtually every field. One of the better renditions was by Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in the 1949 MGM musical of the same name.

 “It’s a tune that has all the color, all the swing, all the color and punch of the game,” Sinatra said during a radio program that year. “It’s the theme song of a great nation’s national pastime, a diamond hymn for free Americans.”  And who could argue with Young Blue Eyes?

For reasons unknown, Norworth revised the verses in 1927. “Katie Casey” was sent to the showers, and the first verse became . . .

     Nelly Kelly loved baseball games/Knew the players by all their names.

     You could see her there ev’ry day/Shout “hurray" when they’d play.

     Her boyfriend by the name of Joe/Said “To Coney Isle, dear, lets go.”

     Then Nelly started to fret and pout/And to him I heard her shout . . .

After the September 11 tragedy, the song was replaced by “God Bless America” at all ballparks. Now many venues have returned to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning, with “God Bless America” added during patriotic holidays.

According to the Library of Congress, baseballs vast musical store dates back to 1858, when something called “The Base Ball Polka” was written. Les Brown and His Band of Renown reached the charts with “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” during and after the Yankee Clippers epic 56-game hitting streak in 1941. More recent hits include “Centerfield” by John Fogerty and “Right Field” by Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary. 

As early as the mid 19th century, songwriters have been inspired to compose songs about the game of baseball. This rare sheet music features  “The Temple Cup Two-Step March” which was composed in 1894 by John W. Cavanagh and dedicated to “Our Champions — The New York Base Ball Club.” The cover features a team photo of the 1894 Giants, as well as a small photo of the coveted Temple Cup. The printed notation along the top border, “As played by Sousa’s peerless band,” indicates the tune’s popularity at the time.

Other more-or-less unforgettable titles include “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” by Terry Cashman, “Van Lingle Mungo” by Dave Frishberg and the poignant “If You Can't Make a Hit at the Ballgame, You Can't Make a Hit With Me.” 

Then there was “I Love Mickey,” a 1950s atrocity in which Teresa Brewer repeated the title phrase endlessly and Yankees slugger Mantle responded, “Who?” Shudder!

Yet ever since Tinker, Evers and Chance fussed and feuded in the Cubbies’ infield, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has served as baseballs own national anthem — despite an inherent contradiction.

 “Why would fans get up and sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ when theyre already there?” former pitcher Larry Andersen once mused. “It’s a stupid thing. The first person to do it must have been a moron.”

Nonetheless, the song now is just as much a part of the games tradition as, well, peanuts and Cracker Jack. And who would wish it otherwise?

(Courtesy of “Go Jump in the Lake”)



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