Football games feature marching bands and cheerleaders. Fans may sing their school’s fight song, but there is no famous football song that everyone can sing together. Basketball has a driving rhythm, but has anyone ever written a hit song about scoring a three-pointer? Only baseball, America’s “national pastime”, has an anthem of its own – a song that is said to follow just “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday to You” in familiarity to Americans. The song may even be one of the reasons that baseball prevails as the national pastime, and this year we can sing happy birthday to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. It is 100 years old.
In celebration of the centennial of the ubiquitous baseball song, the new book “Baseball’s Greatest Hit” sets out its creation and popularity, with hundreds of illustrations and attention to detail that should especially delight those who love the historical and statistical aspects of the game. The tune has been recorded at least 1200 times since 1908 – they’re all listed! – by artists from the Andrews Sisters to Frank Zappa. There are chapters about the baseball scene in 1908, the history of recorded sound, the two movies based on the song – a silent film from 1910 that has been lost and a 1949 MGM musical starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly – and even a technical analysis of the tune by music professor David Headlam of the Eastman School of Music.
Despite its encyclopedic scope, “Baseball’s Greatest Hit” is still a little hazy about the origin of the song. The lyrics were written by Jack Norworth (1879-1962), who said many years later that he was inspired by a Polo Grounds “Ballgame Today” poster he saw on a New York Subway and scribbled the words in fifteen minutes. The music was composed by Albert Von Tilzer (1878-1956), one of the most successful of Tin Pan Alley songwriters, who claimed that the melody was built around the line “one-two-three strikes, you’re out”.
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was an immediate hit. It became the “official song” of both the American and National Leagues in 1933, and was played at the first induction ceremonies of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Over the years it has done wonders for the sale of Cracker Jacks. For many years it has been sung during the seventh-inning stretch at ballparks and was even performed as a slow ballad by Carly Simon for Ken Burns’s PBS series “Baseball”.
Baseball’s Greatest Hit” is the collaborative effort of Andy Strasberg, sports writer and marketing executive; Bob Thompson, associate dean of the Conservatory of Music at SUNY-Purchase and co-producer of the Baseball Music Project.; and Tim Wiles, research director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Wiles is also co-editor of ” Line Drives: 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems”, which was featured on OFF THE PAGE in April, 2006, and he has performed Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” hundreds of times. The foreword to the book was written by Carly Simon and the introduction by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.
Tim Wiles will join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about the adventure of researching and writing “Baseball’s Greatest Hit” and the role of the song and the game in American culture.