EDITOR’S NOTE: When the baseball season begins on Sunday, fans once again will rise during the middle of the seventh inning to stretch and sing what may be the best-loved song in sports. In this adaptation from her new book Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song, Amy Whorf McGuiggan describes the making of this tradition.
If we need evidence that baseball and its heroes have always held a special place in the lives of Americans, we need look no farther than the work of artists — filmmakers, songwriters, composers, poets, writers, and painters — arbiters of the public taste who have celebrated the game since its inception. No other sport has enjoyed so intimate a relationship with creative artists, who for more than a century have tried, as surrogates for the rest of us, to convey their feelings about the game and to define baseball’s magical hold.
Of all the arts, music shares a special relationship with baseball. Hundreds of songs have been written about baseball since the earliest-known composition was penned in 1858, but only one has held onto the hearts of fans through the generations. Other songs had their heyday, rhythmically dancing through the heads of a generation and ever present on the parlor piano, but most are now forgotten by all except students of baseball music and collectors of sheet music. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is the exception. Not only is it a song that has stood the test of time, it is the song — among the broad array of baseball polkas, waltzes, schottisches, and galops written to celebrate teams, players, and the game itself — that has come to define the national game. It is rightfully called baseball’s anthem.
Dashed off, with accompanying doodles, on a scrap of paper during a New York subway ride by Jack Norworth, a vaudeville song-and-dance headliner who, it was said, had never attended a professional baseball game, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” with music by Tin Pan Alley composer Albert Von Tilzer (who also had never attended a game), was debuted on a vaudeville stage in April 1908. In no time it became a hit, inspiring robust sales of the sheet music. In the weeks following the song’s debut, so many other vaudevillians had apparently “borrowed” it for their acts that Norworth was forced to abandon it in his. Or so the legend goes.
Baseball songs that followed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” some with similar titles (such as the 1909 song, “I Want to Go to the Ball Game”), hoped to work the same magic on audiences — to be handed down, like the game itself, from one generation to the next. But most were weak imitations that struck out and never enjoyed anywhere near the same success. Even one of the era’s most prolific and acclaimed songwriters, Broadway luminary George M. Cohan, who wrote “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Over There” — all of which hit grand slams with audiences — couldn’t find the same success with a baseball tune.
A century after Von Tilzer’s publishing company, the York Music Company, published “the sensational baseball song,” it is the rare person, baseball fan or not, who cannot hum or sing its catchy chorus, although few know the song’s first and second verses or why, in fact, we sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” when we’re already there. (Answer: The song is meant to be sung by a woman who wants to be taken to a ball game instead of a show.) The song ranks eighth on the National Endowment for the Arts top songs of the 20th century — sandwiched between the West Side Story original cast album and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” a hit for the Righteous Brothers. Only “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday” are sung more often.
For decades, singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has been a seventh-inning-stretch tradition at baseball parks from coast to coast. For fans, the song has all the color of the game and creates an instant nostalgia, a yearning for a simpler time when the nation had baseball fever and had it bad. Like baseball teams and individual players, who are measured against those who came before them and will come after them, every baseball song, past and future, is measured against “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” And so far, after a century, the song’s impressive streak remains unchallenged.
– Amy Whorf McGuiggan is a freelance writer and the author of My Provincetown and Christmas in New England. She lives in Hingham, Mass. Adapted from Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song, by Amy Whorf McGuiggan by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2009 by Amy Whorf McGuiggan. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press 800-755-1105 and on the web at nebraskapress.unl.edu.