This essay includes material from Mark's book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available from the SteynOnline bookstore:
Well, the snow outside my New Hampshire window is below two-and-a-half foot, and so it must be time for the "summer" game. Baseball season is here, which means that baseball season's enduring blockbuster anthem is back for another summer of seventh-inning stretches, 110 years after it was introduced to the public in May 1908.
"It's a tune that has all the color, all the swing, all the punch and feeling of the game," said Frank Sinatra, pinch-hitting for Bill Stern and guest-hosting Stern's "Colgate Sports Newsreel" in 1949. "It's the theme song of a great nation's national pastime, a diamond hymn for free Americans."
Indeed. And it was written by two guys who'd never been taken out to a single ball game.
It was born in New York back in the days when it was a three-team town: the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, the New York Highlanders (the Yankees), and the New York Giants. As it happens, a lad from my small North Country nowheresville pitched for the Giants from 1902 to 1904, and a couple of years later, to rather more spectacular effect, it was the Giants that inspired "Take Me Out To The Ball Game".
One day in May 1908 a fellow called Jack Norworth was riding the subway and saw a sign that read, "Baseball today at the Polo Grounds". That was the home of the Giants, up toward Washington Heights. Norworth was a songwriter and vaudevillian, a dapper fellow known to his pals as Handsome Jack, who would only appear on stage in top hat and tails. He and his wife, the great singing star Nora Bayes, were two of the highest-paid headliners in New York, getting $2,250 per week, which put them in the big-bucks league table just below the hottest sensation in town, the London music-hall star Vesta Victoria, who got $3,000 per. Despite being Mrs Norworth off-stage, Miss Bayes insisted that the billing read "Nora Bayes, Assisted By Jack Norworth".
He assisted her very well, but, when you write for female stars, there's not a big demand for sports material. Nevertheless, sitting on the subway and musing on the advertisement, Handsome Jack found himself thinking: Why not a song about baseball? So he scribbled down some lyrics on a scrap of paper (which is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame). Even though he was writing a song for a male sporting pastime, he nevertheless conceived it as a number for his famous wife. So he concocted a tale of a gal who'd rather see the Giants than go to Coney Island. As the verse explains:
Katie Casey was baseball mad
Had the fever and had it bad
Just to root for the home town crew
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...'
And all together now:
Take Me Out To The Ball Game...
Jack Norworth had never seen a baseball game, but he was surely familiar with "Casey At The Bat". Is that where the name "Katie Casey" came from? Sports Illustrated's Frank DeFord evidently thought so, and created a droll fable positing the Katie Casey of the song as the daughter of the Casey in the poem. Other than that genealogical footnote, the original verse need not detain us long. What counts is the chorus:
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...
While a little learning may be a dangerous thing, a total lack of knowledge can be very liberating. Blissfully ignorant of the sport, Norworth wrote about the spectators and the concessions stand. For the benefit of non-Americans, Cracker Jack is a kind of candy-coated popcorn, and back in 1908 you might have had to explain that to a few Americans, too. It was 15 years old, having made its debut at the 1893 World's Fair. Cracker Jack's citation in "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" is by far the most celebrated reference to a brand-name snack in any popular song, and, I would estimate, a big part of the reason why a decidedly anachronistic delicacy (complete with the indestructible Sailor Jack and his canine chum Bingo on the box) is still around. For one thing, Cracker Jack's presence in the lyric makes its availability all but compulsory at ball games. As Robert McKay, who sells it at Yankees games and was Cracker Jack vendor of the year in 2002, told NPR:
You hold it up, it's their favorite, and they will just ask for it. Basically that's all you have to do... We're walking around, 'Cracker Jack', hand goes up.
And the ball game sales alone are a pretty good base for Frito Lay, Cracker Jack's current owners. If Norworth had written "Buy me some peanuts and sarsaparilla/I don't care – it's the real magilla", you'd still be able to get sarsaparilla at every convenience store. Whether or not the lyric had (in Sinatra's phrase) "all the color" of the game back when it was written, across the course of the last 99 years the color of the song has become the color of the game.
So Handsome Jack had the words. Now all he needed was the tune. For that, he turned to Albert Von Tilzer, who sounds like some Mitteleuropean conservatory type. In fact, he was born Albert Gumm in Indianapolis. His older brother Harry had been the first one to go into the music business, and, to make himself sound a bit more impressive, adopted his mother's maiden name and stuck a baronial "von" in front of it. You won't find the von Tilzers in the Almanach de Gotha, but Harry did well enough by it that, when his kid brothers Albert, Will and Jules followed him into Tin Pan Alley, they opted for the same handle. Harry was the hit-maker: he published 2,000 songs and sold hundreds of millions of copies of them; among the biggest were a sentimental favorite of mine, "My Old New Hampshire Home", and one of the last blockbuster parlor ballads, "A Bird In A Gilded Cage". Brother Albert never built up a catalogue to match, though "My Cutie's Due At Two To Two" is one of my favorite train songs and "Oh How She Could Yacki-Hacki Wicki-Wacki Woo" is one of my favorite Hawaiian numbers. But over the years Harry's hundreds of hits have faded, and Albert's "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" has got bigger and bigger.
The verse is journeyman stuff – uninspiring words set in the tumty-tumtiest fashion. But he did a grand job on the chorus. It's the hardest kind of tune to write: something simple but not boring. Von Tilzer put all the big words under the right notes, and, whether he wrote it with that in mind, he made it a fun song for singalongs, especially the end:
For it's one!
Three strikes you're out
At the ooooold
The first time Nora Bayes sang it on stage, the crowd loved it. Encore after encore, with the customers bellowing along. That one-two-three gimmick is so cute to sing you don't realize you're ending on a bit of a downer: three strikes you're out. In fact, the last half of the chorus is freighted with defeat:
Let me root, root, root, for the home team
If they don't win it's a shame...
A "shame" isn't how most fans see it. Frank DeFord felt this was a bit unsatisfactory and proposed an upbeat rewrite:
Let me root, root, root for the home team
If we win big it's no shame
For it's hits
And vict'ry is ours
At the old ball game...
No, no, no. Just not as much fun as that one-two-three (as we'll conclusively demonstrate in a moment or two). That's where knowing too much about a subject can clobber you. And, when it came to baseball, neither man had any urge to encumber themselves with too much expertise. It was in 1858 that "The Baseball Polka", the first known baseball song, had been written. It quickly became the first unknown baseball song. Exactly half-a-century later, "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" gave the national pastime its first musical hit: Edward Meeker took it to Number Five, Harvey Hindermyer hit Number Three, and in October of 1908 Billy Murray and the Haydn Quartet's recording of the song reached Number One. But Norworth and Von Tilzer still had no urge to see a game. It wasn't even Mr and Mrs Norworth's biggest hit of 1908: that honor went to the spooning song Jack and Nora wrote that year – "Shine On, Harvest Moon".
But other songwriters knew a gold mine when they saw it. George M Cohan, Billy Jerome and Jean Schwartz tried to steal the Norworth/Von Tilzer bases with a sequel – "Take Your Girl To The Ball Game". They struck out. In 1910, Al Von Tilzer himself decided to write another baseball song, this time with Harry Breen. It came out as "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" sideways. Same set-up: a gal who'd rather go to the game than to Coney. But this time, instead of Katie Casey, it's Mamie McShane:
Now Mamie McShane
Loved a good baseball game...
When Freddie said smilin'
Let's go to the Islan'
She'd put on her bonnet and sing...
And here it comes, folks. A chorus that's full of crowds and rooting and even an old ball game:
Back, Back, Back To The Bleachers for mine, for mine
Back, back, back where the rooters root all the time
I want to sit where the crowd comes in
I want to root for our team to win
So it's Back, Back, Back To The Bleachers for mine, mine, mine
Baseball runs and vict'ry is ours at the old ball game.
Harry Breen seems to have test-run the Frank DeFord version ninetysomething years earlier. It flopped.
In 1927, Jack Norworth rewrote the verse with the version we know today. Same tumty-tumty journeyman tune, new gal. Forget Katie Casey (and Mamie McShane). Now it's Nelly Kelly:
Nelly Kelly loved baseball games
Knew the players, knew all their names
You could see her there ev'ry day
When they'd play...
There's not a lot you can do with it. The liveliest variations are Gene Kelly and Betty Garrett's on a record they made around the time they appeared with Sinatra in Take Me Out To The Ball Game, MGM's 1949 baseball musical:
BETTY: Mr Kelly loves baseball games
GENE: Why I know all the players, I know all their names
I was raised with a baseball bat
BETTY: Well, fancy that, fancy that
Do you know a man named DiMaggio?
GENE: Well, I know him so well that I call him Joe...
And so on.
By this time, Nora Bayes was dead if not buried. She had had four husbands apart from Handsome Jack, and evidently the divorces were sufficiently acrimonious that, when she died penniless in 1928, none of the quintet wanted to pony up for a grave. For years, her body lay unburied in the receiving vault of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Messrs Norworth and Von Tilzer, on the other hand, finally got to see what this baseball thing was all about. It was June 27th 1940, 32 years after they wrote the song, and the Brooklyn Dodgers took them out to the ball game at Ebbetts Field. Dodgers 5, Chicago Cubs 4. Big deal, shrugged Albert Von Tilzer, who never went again. But Jack Norworth discovered a belated fondness for the game, and eventually, living in California, he founded the Laguna Beach Little League. In 1958, on the demi-centennial of the song, a grateful Cracker Jack company inaugurated the Jack Norworth Trophy for Laguna Beach, with boxes of Cracker Jack for every player on opening day. And Major League Baseball gave Jack a gold lifetime ballpark pass.
He died the following year. He never heard Harry Caray, or Carly Simon's somewhat careless rendering on the Ken Burns documentary, or the jazzy Andre Previn version, or the one by "Bruce Springstone" in the manner of Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", or the one where they do the lyric two words out of sync with the tune. But he heard it sung at ballparks all over the country, and he knew that the lyrics he scribbled down on that scrap of paper in the subway car were as famous as any words ever written by any American. Today, a century after he wrote it, "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" is the third most performed song in the country, after "Happy Birthday" and the national anthem. It's part of the soundtrack of America. And, as Sinatra put it on that long ago radio show, "as long as our national pastime is played by free men in a free land", we'll be singing Jack Norworth's words to Albert Von Tilzer's tune – one, two, three strikes, over and over and over, but never out, at the old ball game.
~The above is anthologized in Mark's book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the special promo code at checkout to enjoy the special Steyn Club member discount. As we always say, club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Sunday song selections. And we're proud to say that this site now offers more free content than ever before.
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