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Dick Heller: Anthem anniversary
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 “Ball game Today at the 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 she’d like to go.
To see a show, but Miss Kate said, “No.
“I’ll tell you what you can do.”
A century later, that verse has been mercifully forgotten, but the chorus of Norworth’s 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 it’s 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 quickie 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 at least a century - it was one of the nation’s biggest hits in an era when people bought sheet music and sang around the piano in the parlor.
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. The unidentified “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, let’s go.”
Then Nelly started to fret and pout/And to him I heard her shout …
All together now, folks: So what!
After Sept. 11, the song was replaced by “God Bless America” at many ballparks. Now many venues have returned to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning, with “God Bless America” being added during patriotic holidays. Certainly both deserve exposure.
According to the Library of Congress, baseball’s vast musical library dates back to 1858, when “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 Clipper’s 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.
Other notable 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?”
Yet ever since Tinker, Evers and Chance fussed and feuded in the Cubbies’ infield, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has served as baseball’s own national anthem - despite an inherent contradiction.
“Why would fans get up and sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ when they’re 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 is just as much a part of the game’s tradition as, well, peanuts and Cracker Jack. And who would wish it otherwise?
About the Author
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