Catchiest Hits of Baseball

Only three songs are enshrined in Cooperstown, that needs to change

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.

Ah, who doesn’t know the opening lines to baseball’s seventh-inning anthem? Where all 30,000 fans (or decidedly fewer depending on location) stand up and crack their backs after sitting on good, hard plastic for nearly two hours. Me, for one. I didn’t know.

I was vaguely aware Take Me Out to the Ballgame had additional lyrics thanks to Ken Burns (like how I loosely know extra lyrics exist to the Fresh Prince theme) but couldn’t recite them for the life of me. I’m willing to bet most other fans are in the same boat.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame is like the national anthem in the sense everyone knows the main lyrics without being cognizant they ever learned it. It exists in your mind the same way you know how vanilla smells or how a solid hit off a wooden bat sounds.

The song is such a mainstay in our culture that it’s one of only three baseball songs enshrined in Cooperstown – and that should change. Music about the sport stretches back one at least hundred sixty-three years, and as you can imagine there are some songs that truly shine, and many more that (don’t say fall flat) are memorable for different reasons. I think it’s time to vote on the greatest baseball songs the same way the BBWA votes on Hall of Fame Players.

To me, a baseball song has lyrics about the game or is dedicated to it, embodying the heart and soul of the sport not just giving it a passive reference. Alas, Springsteen’s Glory Days, AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells, or even Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful that just feels like baseball on a summer night sadly don’t make the cut for this first ballot. Maybe the Veterans Committee will have a soft spot for them.

To find the songs most deserving of a first-ballot induction, voters should understand the history of the tunes. Baseball’s music, like the sport itself, has evolved with the changing times around them. Instead of the Deadball and Integration era, however, you have eras like, well…

 

The Polka Era 1858-1900

 

The first song composed for base ball (note the space between the word) may have been played for the first time on September 26th, 1858 during “The Banquet for Base Ball” where it was reported over 100 ball players attended.

The group was celebrating a tournament between the Niagara and Flour City Clubs, and things reportedly got rambunctious – as a group of base ball players would – ending at around one in the morning.

A rather fantastic speech by the President of Flour City – where he connected base ball to Neptune, Dragons, Mars, and the smoke of battle – and was book-ended by four songs. The first was “The Base Ball Polka” as heard above by Composer J.R. Blodgett and can be found in the Library of Congress.

From what I can pin down, this is the first composed song specifically for the sport. I’d be thrilled if someone found an earlier piece though for now, Blodgett holds the title. Turns out that this Polka was routinely played during Niagara games, as well.

Other songs were sung that day like one by Everett Baker with lyrics celebrating the game between Flour City and Niagara. The lyrics are peak 19th century, “The game of Ball hath turn’d the land to sport delighted ways” and was followed by two more songs by the local Glee Club, though their lyrics weren’t recorded.

In any case, Blodgett’s Polka was only the first trickle of composed baseball songs. Two years later the Live Oak Base Ball Club received a Polka specifically dedicated to them, then the floodgates burst. Within that decade you had the Home Run Quick Step, the Atlantic Club Polka, Home Run Polka, At the Game of Ball and a myriad of other compositions heralding the newly minted national pastime.

The song Slide, Kelly, Slide! in 1889 became one of the most popular songs of this era. Named after Mike “King” Kelly, who hit a respectable 69 home runs and twice led the league in batting average over his 16-year career, the song is an earworm if I’ve ever heard one (though others may disagree with me on this one), I totally get why it was popular. According to the book – yes, there’s a book – Slide, Kelly, Slide! The Wild Life and Times of Mike “King” Kelly, this was the first pop hit record of the country.

If some one doesn’t steal you
And your batting doesn’t fail you
They’ll take you to Australia!
Slide, Kelly, Slide!

It made a mark on the country, allegedly becoming a common saying and in 1927 a movie titled Slide, Kelly Slide! was made starring, seriously, Harry Carry. Only – not that Harry Carry. After retiring from a lengthy career in the Majors, King Kelly brought his fame and talent to Brooklyn where he began acting in Vaudeville.

 

The Vaudeville Era 1900-1919

 

The Polka and Two-Step stayed in fashion for a while in the 20th century, but Vaudeville defines this era for baseball music, and like Slide, Kelly, Slide! many of the songs would focus on specific players and practice the revolutionary notion of putting lyrics to songs, not just festive Polkas (and I love Polkas, for the record). As a kind of transitional piece, the 1904 song Husky Hans by William Hartz starts us off:

Three cheers for Husky Hans!
So modest in his way
.
He’s the star, they say by far, of every game they play

Who is this modest and surely devilishly handsome Huskey Hans? None other than the Flying Dutchman himself, Hall of Famer Honus Wagner who was clearly appreciated in his time as well as ours. With Vaudeville acts now in full swing (like Hello! Ma Baby – memorialized forever in the form of a dancing frog released in 1899) some legendary Vaudeville composers got their hands on the sport.

George M. Cohan was known as “The Man who Created Broadway” and composed hit after hit like Give my Regard to Broadway, Over There, You’re a Grand Old Flag, and… you get the idea. He had the Midas touch and decided to put his pen to baseball.

In 1908 he produced the song Take Your Girl to the Ball Game and heavily advertised for the act. Despite Mr. Broadway himself pushing the song, it never caught on. That’s because another song was exploding onto the scene.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

Take Me out to the Ball Game by Jack Northworth and Albert Von Tilzer was officially patented on May 2, 1908. You can hear an original recording by Edward Meeker – known for being a studio singer for Thomas Edison (I love baseball) – above.

The song has a fascinating past. Instead of me giving you a cheap knock-off history (albeit the good kind of knock-off – not quite name brand but won’t completely fall apart at first use), take a few minutes to read these essays by Amy Whorf McGuiggan and the feminist history of the song by Anna Laymon. It’s well worth your time.

Another highlight of this Vaudeville era is J.T. Nealon and E.E. Hummer’s, Baseball on the Brain. Here’s how the Library of Congress summarizes it: “…a local coroner, a former umpire, and a jury of baseball fans certify that an unclaimed corpse has died of ‘baseball on the brain.’ The corpse’s ghost goes on to haunt the ballpark at night, except during the off-season, when it spends the winter in Florida.”

Pure magic.

Honorable mention goes out to a song by Bertha Stanfield Dempsey, simply for the wonderful hubris of the title, “America’s Pinch Hit March – The HIT That Ended The Worlds Greatest War”.

Like the Polka Era there are surely more songs during this time than what’s here, and just like baseball, an unexpected figure revolutionized the course of the game and moved the sport to a new period.

 

The Babe Ruth Era 1919-1930

 

They love you
Your true sharp eyes of blue
Idol of all forsooth
Heaven above can’t change the love
We hold for you, Babe Ruth!

The Colossus of Chords, The Titan of Tenor, The Sultan of Sharps, The Mammoth of Measures, The King of Swing (an actual nickname), The Great Bandbino – Babe Ruth.

The Babe may have inspired more songs than hit home runs – that’s not hyperbole. The above lyrics are from Oh! You, Babe Ruth! and the whole song sounds like an ode to a dictator in Wonderland. I can’t recommend it enough.

The following are only the songs that found their way into the notated music section of the Library of Congress. Baseball Gods only know how many other tunes were created for the Titan of Tenor.

Batterin’ Babe Look at Him Now
Babe Ruth Blues
Home Run Babe Ruth Memory
Oh, I Don’t Envy Babe Ruth Any More
You Make a Babe-Ruth Hit with Me
Babe You’re a Bear with the Bat
Babe Ruth Song
Babe Ruth the Broadway Whirl
Babe Ruth He is a Home Run Guy

Yeah. He gets his own era. We’re still fascinated by Ruth today. Besides multiple movies about the man (though Joe Posnanski rightfully asks why we can’t make a good movie about the guy), he’s still recognized as likely the greatest ballplayer of all time and holds clout in our culture.

He was named to the Team of the Century in 1999, his 1927 World Series ring sold for $4.4 million in 2017, and in 2019 was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ruth was the perfect combination of flamboyant character and achievement to maintain legendary stature – and why he still gets referenced in modern songs.

 

The “Golden” Age 1930 – 1949

 

The Ruth Era and Golden Age overlap seamlessly, blending from idolizing the Babe to trying to find the next anointed one. And try they did.

1935 saw Elenor Gehrig work with composer Fred Fisher to try and make her husband, Mr. Pride of the Yankees himself, the next big thing with the very 1930s title, I Can’t Get to First Base with You.

Fans today have both the gift and the curse of having hindsight, meaning we fully understand what Lou Gehrig would accomplish and what he means to baseball as a whole, but his image is one of the closest things to Sainthood baseball has to offer.

Seeing Lou Gehrig, the Lou Gehrig, put on a sleazy Bing Crosby impersonation doesn’t land with the timeless suave they’d imagined. He honestly looks a little uncomfortable. Like seeing Mr. Rogers with a beer in his hand. I’m sure if I could track down an audio recording of the song, I’d probably feel a little uncomfortable (though grateful) not getting to first base with Lou, as well.

The search continued.

On the brink of the country’s entrance into World War II in 1941, the anointed one was found. Joe DiMaggio. Not only did he win his second Most Valuable Player that year, but from May 15th to July 16th DiMaggio went on his famous 56 game hit streak (one more and it was rumored Heinz 57 would’ve given him a bonus). Four months later and Betty Bonney debuted the song shown above, Joltin Joe DiMaggio. That song exploded and helped push DiMaggio into superstardom.

When the Second World War did hit the country’s shores, a new baseball league was founded in 1943: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Some of the teams, famously the Rockford Peaches had team lyrics for songs written by their players, and the league as a whole had The Victory Song as their anthem. Written by pitcher Nalda (Bird) Phillips and catcher Lavonne “Pepper” Paire Davis, it’s a classic even if you somehow haven’t watched A League of their Own.

 

The Slap Hitting Eon 1949 – 1970

 

Major League Baseball undoubtedly improved after integration, and like Jackie Robinson and the incoming Negro Leaguers, a new wave of music dominated the scene.

When Jackie won his MVP in 1949, Buddy Johnson and Count Basie had their hit Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball? (above) reach number 13 on the charts. Let’s be honest, this song is probably the best baseball-inspired music up to this point. Especially during the musical solos where it becomes a great song extending beyond “only” a baseball tune. These songs absolutely slap.

Shortly after Buddy Johnson and Count Basie, Mabel Scott released Baseball Boogie. Every word of Mabel’s song is about baseball, but I’m not sold that she’s actually talking about the duel between a pitcher and batter.

As she asks, “I mean, baby, do you know the game? I’m a big-league pitcher, can you catch the hairline?” Yup. Definitely about baseball. Chance Halladay’s 1961 Homerun sounds like a baseball song as well, but it’s a little more transparent in its intentions.

The Treniers Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song) orchestrated by Quincy Jones hit the scene in 1954. It’s only fitting the Hall of Famer gets a Hall of Fame tune – plus you can hear two measures of Take Me out to the Ballgame at the 2:04 mark.

In 1957, Sister Wynona Carr belted out Life is a Ballgame that beautifully mixes the messaging of the good-willed gospel and the ultimate batter-pitcher duel between Biblical figures.

If the Slap Hitting Age is an Eon, to borrow from geology, there has to be an era of Ruth Roberts within it. She was responsible for three baseball hits, two of which are still in wide use today. The first I Love Mickey in 1957 is an extension of the Golden Age, fawning over The Mick with lyrics like “I’d sacrifice most anything to win his many charmsI’d like to be a fly ball and pop into his arms.”

That same year Roberts wrote the classic It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ball Game. This song was used for decades as a lead into Dodger broadcasts always ending with Vin Scully. It was also featured as an intro to Cubs games on WGN for a number of years, as well.

This mini-era ends in 1961, when she wrote the song Meet the Mets for their inaugural season. Like a Beautiful Day, Meet the Mets is tight-lipped on mentioning specific players, having been written an entire year before the club ever took the field.

At the tail end of the Slap Hitting Era is 1969’s Van Lingle Mungle by Jazz Pianist Dave Frishberg. It runs with a relaxing classic jazz tune whose only lyrics are reciting the names of baseball players. I demand this song to be the official elevator music of Major League Baseball.

Shout-put to 1955’s Damn Yankees with, um, gems like You Gotta Have Heart, and 1957’s Let’s Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn recorded by Phil Foster that’s another worth-while listen for baseball fans.

 

The Modern Nostalgic Era 1970 – 1990

 

If you’re looking for a hero exciting and new
There’s a boy in Oakland named of Vida Blue
He throws a fastball like it was shot from a gun
Everybody’s talking that he’s number one
That’s Vida Blue

A new kind of song emerges in the 1970s where lyrics begin yearning for memories of baseball. Right off the bat in 1973 Frank Sinatra releases There Used to Be a Ballpark.

It’s every bit as melancholy as you’d imagine a nostalgic song by Old Blue Eyes would be. Have a camera pan across forgotten catcher’s mitts, broken bats cast aside, and empty bags of peanuts blowing in the breeze and you’ll have a proper telethon.

Now the children try to find it,
And they can’t believe their eyes
‘Cause the old team just isn’t playing,
And the new team hardly tries.

Now I love a good nostalgia trip as much as anyone but come on Sinatra. The only teams he could be referring to are the long lost Brooklyn Dodgers and the new kids on the block, the Mets. Just the year before this song was released, the Mets went to the World Series for the second time in four seasons.

Who’s not trying here? I’m not mad, just disappointed in you, Sinatra. On the peppier side of nostalgia, and likely the poster child for this type of song is Terry Cashman’s Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey, and the Duke)  released in 1981.

The first half celebrates the prior generation of ballplayers, talkin’ about the birth of rock and roll, Bobby Thompson and Campanella, and the second half finishes strong as an ode to the great players of the 1980s – fulfilling the prophecy of Modern Nostalgia.

In fact, there should be an entire Cashman epoch. The songwriter has created 70 songs specifically about baseball. After Talkin’ Baseball became a hit, the rest of the major leagues wanted a version of that song celebrating their own history.

From there Cashman released songs like A Baseball Life: Third Base Coach, One Stop Along The Way (The Ballad Of Johnny Bench), and about thirty more. Prolific would be the right word. If Mr. Rose is the all-time hit-leader, Cashman is the other leader in hits – he was honored by Cooperstown in 2011 for his contributions.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, the 1984 film The Natural easily has one of the greatest baseball musical cues of all time. Composed by Randy Newman, The Natural theme song is another defining moment in Modern Nostalgic, the movie is practically all about the “glory days” of yesteryear. Plus, it’s Randy Newman. Come one.

The best-known baseball song of this era is the third and final song in currently Cooperstown, and it starkly divides fans. You love it and think it’s one of the greatest sports songs in existence, or you deride the day it was ever made: John Fogerty’s 1985, Centerfield.

The opening guitar riff is iconic, it’s the rest of the song that gives people pause. It’s hard to walk the fine line between the cheesiness that comes with a song about baseball and trying to appease people who love the rebellious image of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Considering the song can be heard at stadiums across the country still today, its impact can’t be overlooked. Besides, when I was in second grade my wonderful mother had me and my sister (my sister and I, she’ll remind me later) perform in a talent show to this song. Just another fabulous event in a line of great moments for John Fogerty, I’m sure.

Up next is the demigod of modern nostalgia, Bob Dylan. His song Catfish, a tribute to Jim “Catfish” Hunter, has DNA of the Golden Age, familiarly looking for the next anointed one, only the pedestal Dylan puts the pitcher on keeps him at the same height as us commoners.

Carolina born and bred,
Love to hunt the little quail.
Got a hundred-acre spread,
Got some huntin’ dogs for sale.
Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Catfish was meant to be released on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire but ultimately wasn’t released until 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.

Jutting out from this nostalgia trip like a peacock in a hen-house is one glorious man that inspired multiple songs following his 1971 MVP campaign: Vida Blue.

Albert Jones provided the first song, showcased above, and comes in hot delivering over three minutes of rolling beats. Jimmy Bee then released Vida Blue Part 2 and it’s every bit as great and a welcomed change from old Sinatra.

So you tell me, who ya dig?

Special shout-out to 1986 song by Darryl Strawberry Featuring UTFO, Chocolate Strawberry where the all-star rhymes “Playa” with “Say-a.”

 

The Expansion Era 1990 – 2020

 

Why the Expansion Era? Because the decades leading up to this point more or less had a homogeneous sound – though it’s hard to get more different than UTFO and Old Blue Eyes from the previous Era – the last thirty years baseball has flourished in all sorts of genres.

True, I can’t point to a single song that’s reverberated in our culture like Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio does for the 1950s, but like baseball itself, it’s grown in local bubbles not necessarily in the national spotlight it enjoyed during the Golden Age. But let me tell you, there are some absolute gems to be found.

Take Ultramagnetic MC’s 1993 single Saga Of Dandy, The Devil, And Day. This song chronicles the black baseball players that paved the way for today’s players. I’ve never heard of it before this research, and it absolutely grooves.

Poppa Bell was Cool, broke any catcher’s rule
On the base, at night, total speed rip the light
Comin’ past flick flash he was so fast
Scouts watchin’ in awe at what they saw
The best in the game, it’s a shame, you don’t know
Alex and Double Duty, and don’t forget Judy
Talent was there, and it was black

One of the few baseball songs in the 90s that rose to national prominence was, as shown above, Kenny Roger’s The Greatest. Rogers captures the magic and self-deprecating humor baseball is so great at. The Greatest presents itself as a timeless classic about a boy and baseball where the happy ending is flipped upside down – very relatable if I say so myself.

The 90s also start a wave of alternative music, from the hair-flipping Goo-Goo Dolls giving their take on Take Me Out to the Ballgame for the 1996 All-Star Game, to the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard, releasing Ichiro’s Theme over a decade later that honestly deserves a listen, to the Belle & Sebastian song Piazza, New York Catcher that doesn’t technically qualify as a baseball song but my inner hipster requires to give it a mention.

In the rock genre, we have Eddie Vedder’s 2007 All the Way which manages to walk that line between the cheesiness of baseball teams and being a solid anthem for Cubs fans everywhere (if Cubs fans need a reason to take solace this off-season). Then there’s the indescribable 2010 Marlins Will Soar by Creed frontman Scott Stapp. It is indeed a song about baseball.

We can’t quite call them an epoch, as the band hasn’t made a significant impact the way Ruth Roberts or Terry Cashman did, but The Baseball Project deserves a moment in the sun.

The band – including members from R.E.M. – has produced three albums with songs like Ted F***ing Williams, To The Veterans Committee, and my personal favorite, Don’t Look Back (Tribute to Satchel Paige)

The final home stretch of the last five years decade (ouch) starts with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in 2011. Anytime you can lace in legendary Seattle announcer Dave Niehaus into a song you’ll have my full support, and these guys nail My Oh My as an ode to growing up a Seattle Mariners fan which, really, almost any fan can see themselves in.

We end this 163-year journey (and what a ride it’s been) with a song fantasy baseball players – or anyone who managed to get through 2020 – can relate to: John K. Samson’s Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World (featuring a perfectly placed curse word for any family folk out there). Samson’s song grabs hold of the nostalgic tune with exceedingly modern lyrics, giving all of us baseball fans something to come together around after last year.

 

My Hall of Fame Ballot

 

Wait! I didn’t even mention Go Get ’em Tigers or Carly Simon’s take on Take Me Out to the Ballgame! Yeah, and a dozen other worthy songs including an entire band called Babe Ruth. But any longer and we’ll have a novelette going.

Let me tell you I’ve listened to a lot of amazing music these last few days, unearthed some true gems that are now etched in my playlists, and solidified my polka and big band enthusiasm.

My Hall of Fame selection is based on cultural impact and overall how the song hits me, definitely objective. Like any Baseball Hall of Fame voter agonizing over their 2020 ballot, I had to make painful cuts and surprising, yet defensible, inclusions. It’s a selection to be proud of.

Without further ado, my inaugural Baseball Music Hall of Fame ballot:

10. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, 2011 – My Oh My

9. Les Brown, 1951 – Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio

8. J.R. Blodgett, 1860 – Live Oak Polka

7. Ultramagnetic MC’s, 1993 – Saga Of Dandy, The Devil, And Day Remix

6. Kelly, J. W. 1898 – Slide! Kelly! Slide!

5. Kenny Rogers, 1999 – The Greatest

4. Treniers, 1955 – Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)

3. Jack Northworth and Albert Von Tilzer, 1908 – Take Me Out to the Ballgame

2. Buddy Johnson and Count Basie, 1948 –  Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?

1. Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, 2014 – The Dbacks Swing!!!

There’s always one bozo who makes a homer pick in their ballot. Why not me? Here’s to hearing the Diamondbacks winning anthem plenty in 2021 and beyond – and that’s a fact, Jack.

What would your ballot look like?

Graphic by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)

Lou Gehrig sheet music art: Fred Fisher and Mrs. Lou Gehrig, “I Can’t Get to First Base with You.” Sheet music. New York: Fred Fisher Music Co., 1935. Music Division, Library of Congress (049.00.00)

Brandon Riddle

Brandon is a former Little League All-Star whose child-like mind still believes Steve Finley is the greatest centerfielder of all time. Catch him on twitter talking into the void about outer space, adult beverages, and baseball.

One response to “Catchiest Hits of Baseball”

  1. Avatar tom says:

    Just listened to the number one and I’m a fan, but their soft pronunciation of D-backs sometimes sounds like ‘D-bags’.

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