STORY WRITTEN BY JOE SZCZECHOWSKI
For Digital First Media
Major League Baseball’s 2015 season is drawing to a close. The playoffs will be starting next week – again without the participation of the Philadelphia Phillies. Rather than dwell on that, however, let’s strike a positive note – a musical one – and look at the relationship between popular music and the sport of baseball.
Music and baseball go together like popcorn and a movie. No other sport has longer, stronger, or deeper ties to popular music than our Great American Pastime. The old yarn about the 6-year-old who thought the last line of “The Star Spangled Banner” was “Play ball!” is funny because it’s plausible. Baseball is the only sport with an unofficial theme song. “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” was written in 1908 by Jack Norworth, a vaudeville performer and lyricist who wrote over 2,500 songs in his lifetime, including “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Time.” Norworth wasn’t a baseball fan in any sense of the word, but he was always on the lookout for a song idea that would sell. According to the book, “Baseball’s Greatest Hit” by Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, and Tim Wiles, Norworth was riding the subway to Manhattan when he saw a sign advertising a New York (baseball) Giants game that said “Baseball Today – Polo Grounds.” He decided to write a song about going to a baseball game and started scribbling lyrics on the back of an envelope. In about fifteen minutes he had the song written.
Norworth’s lyrics told the tale of a girl named Katie Casey who was “baseball mad” and preferred that her boyfriend take her on a date to a baseball game rather than a show. Albert Von Tilzer, one of Norworth’s songwriting partners, set the lyrics to music. The song was published in May 1908, and was recorded for the first time that September. It became an instant Top-10 hit.
Norworth wrote two versions of the song. In 1927, he published a second version of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” that changed the verses a bit. In both versions, the story stayed the same, but in the second version the female baseball fan was named Nelly Kelly. What didn’t change was the tune’s famous chorus – which is the only part of the song sung at baseball games during the seventh inning stretch. Norworth finally attended his first Major League ballgame on June 27, 1940 – more than 30 years after writing its theme song.
The singing of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” didn’t become the seventh inning stretch tradition that it is today until the early 1970s, however. White Sox sportscaster Harry Caray would often sing along privately to the song when long-time Comiskey Park organist Nancy Faust played it during the seventh inning stretch. Legend has it that White Sox owner Bill Veeck told producer Jay Scott to secretly turn on the stadium microphone right before Caray started singing.
Whatever you thought of Caray’s broadcasting skills, they dwarfed his ability to carry a tune – which was nonexistent. Nevertheless, the fans in attendance loved Caray’s performance, and it soon became a tradition for the fans to sing along. Caray took that tradition with him when he began working for the Chicago Cubs in 1981.
Television station WGN started broadcasting Cubs games nationally that year, and soon fans at baseball stadiums across the country were standing and singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch.
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Music became a staple at professional baseball games starting in 1941, when the Chicago Cubs hired an organist to play during games. By the 1950s, most major-league teams had followed suit. The late Paul Richardson was a Wilmington native who began playing at Phillies games at Connie Mack Stadium in 1970 and was a mainstay with the Phillies for 36 seasons.
Starting in the 1970s, pre-recorded music was used at baseball stadiums. The first closer to enter a game to music was Sparky Lyle of the New York Yankees. Marty Appel, who worked in the Yankees public relations department, wanted to play up Lyle’s fiery nature and decided to play a recording of Sir Edgar Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” when Lyle came in to close a ballgame.
The closest association between a player and entrance music will always belong to legendary Yankee’s closer Mariano Rivera, who took the mound to the sounds of the hard driving rock song “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. The song was not Rivera’s choice, however.
San Diego Padres’ closer Trevor Hoffman became famous for his use of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” as his entrance music during the 1998 season. In the summer of 1999, the Yankees production staff wanted something similar to accompany Rivera’s entrance. “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses were both tried, but the production team wasn’t satisfied with the crowd reaction. Finally, a freelance member of the scoreboard production team named Mike Luzzi suggested Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The rest is history.
Most local fans remember the 1976 recording “Phillies Fever” that was sung by players Dave Cash, Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Gary Maddox. But that wasn’t the first time a few Phillies tried their hands at music. A year earlier, Cash and Bowa cut a single called “Ting-A-Ling Double Play” for Molly Records, a small independent label based in Philadelphia. Say what you will about the quality of the songs, immediately thereafter the Phillies enjoyed a series of winning seasons that culminated with the 1980 World Championship. Coincidence? I think not.
I would bet that the Boston Red Sox would agree. In 2004, Red Sox players Johnny Damon, Bronson Arroyo, and Lenny DiNardo joined Celtic punk group the Dropkick Murphys on a modern recording of “Tessie” – a turn-of-the-century song that was said to have helped the Boston Americans win the first World Series in 1903. “Tessie” was used as a rallying song that season. Remarkably, 2004 turned out to be the year the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
Over the years, baseball teams have adopted popular songs to be played after victories or during the seventh inning stretch. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is butchered by fans during the seventh inning of every Red Sox home game, and the San Francisco Giants, the Kansas City Royals, and the Los Angeles Dodgers apparently all believe that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is their rallying cry. Most historians agree that the first time a pop hit was used extensively by a baseball team was in 1979. That’s the year the Pittsburgh Pirates adopted Sister Sledge’s hit, “We Are Family” as their theme for what would become their world championship season.
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There have been dozens of other songs about the game of baseball and its players recorded over the years. Some of the songs were bona fide hits, most were not. Some, like “Catfish” by Bob Dylan, or “I Love Mickey” by Teresa Brewer, are about specific players. Others, like “Cheap Seats” by Alabama, or “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, are about the game itself. Fans interested in the best collection of baseball-themed music available should look for “Baseball’s Greatest Hits,” a 1990 compilation released by Rhino Records, or its 1992 follow-up, “Baseball’s Greatest Hits – Let’s Play II.”
I wanted to finish with a list of popular hit songs about the game of baseball, but in the past 50 years, only two songs specifically about baseball have been bona fide hits – John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” So this Top-10 list has been expanded to include songs that, with two exceptions, aren’t necessarily about baseball, but should remind you of our Great American Pastime.
10 “Cha Cha Slide” by DJ Casper – While many would argue that this song should only be played at well-oiled wedding receptions, there’s no denying the image of a stadium full of baseball fans every time you hear the line, “Everybody clap your hands….”
9 “All Star” by Smash Mouth – Sure, it could apply to any sport, but when the playoffs start next week, it will be about baseball. “Get your game on” indeed.
8 “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones – The classic opening – “Hey, ho, let’s go…” has been used in baseball stadiums across the country as a rallying chant.
7 “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley (also covered by The Ataris) – You don’t hear baseball players referred to as “the boys of summer” that much anymore, but every time I hear that phrase, I think of baseball.
6 “The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy – This classic talks about the return of warm weather, carousing, and good times. If you’ve ever seen the film, “Bull Durham,” you know those three things are synonymous with baseball.
5 “Enter Sandman” by Metallica – What baseball fan could hear the opening strains of this track and not think of Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer who ever played the game? There are many examples of great entrance music – Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells,” or “Thunderstruck,” etc., but because of Rivera’s tenure and stature, “Enter Sandman” is the ultimate classic.
4 “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf – Okay, the song is really about that other great American pastime, but its use of Yankee announcer Phil Rizzuto’s play-by-play call is sheer, over-the-top (no pun intended) genius.
3 “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits – You’ll hear a snippet of this song in many MLB stadiums when a batter walks. In fact, the organ riff that opens the song sounds like it could have been played on a baseball stadium organ. The breezy, bouncy melody seems perfectly suited to the summer game.
2 “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen – “Glory Days” isn’t strictly about baseball. While the game is mentioned, there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the song as well. Its baseball connection was solidified, however, when its accompanying music video featured Springsteen imagining himself on the pitcher’s mound. In any case, it remains a great, wistful summer tune about fading youth and memories that never fade.
1 “Centerfield” – John Fogerty – In 2010, John Fogerty became the only musician ever enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That year, “Centerfield” was inducted into Cooperstown in honor of the 25th anniversary of its release, and Fogerty was there to perform his 1985 hit on a guitar shaped like a baseball bat. “Centerfiled” has been playing continuously at the Baseball Hall of Fame ever since.
A lifelong baseball fan, Fogerty included mentions of some of the game’s legendary players – including Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, and Ty Cobb – in the song’s lyrics. The famous handclaps that start the song have been sampled and are played to rally fans at some point in almost every major league game during the season. But perhaps the key to the song’s enduring popularity is the fact that the lyrics can be appreciated outside of a baseball context.
“It is about baseball, but it is also a metaphor about getting yourself motivated, about facing the challenge of one thing or another at least at the beginning of an endeavor,” Fogerty said in a May 2010 interview with Tom Singer for MLB.com. “[It’s] about getting yourself all ready, whatever is necessary for the job.”