From walk-up songs to seventh-inning stretches, music and baseball are inextricably interwoven. The Spin Rate is a weekly look at the stories behind the bands and artists who share a love for the sport, and the songs that draw inspiration from the annals of baseball lore.
Dropkick Murphys – “Tessie”
Drummer Matt Kelly loves an underdog story, and for a long time, that story was best spun by the Red Sox. Snakebitten by a doomed trade of a titanic talent (a sultan of swat, even), historically cursed, enduring a championship drought that started in 1918. It was one of those winless World Series appearances that Kelly counts as a formative moment for a young baseball fan from Leominster.
“I think the moment that cemented me as a lifelong Sox fan was the ’86 World Series,” Kelly said in an email interview. “I was 10 and the whole neighborhood was abuzz, and the Red Sox getting knocked out sort of did it for me. I always liked an underdog.”
Despite the team’s preternatural allergy to championships that started when the Sox shipped the Bambino down to the Bronx, Boston baseball was a staple at Kelly’s grandparents’ Orchard Street house. Kelly would watch games with his dad and uncles, including his Uncle Richie, who’d played semi-pro before an injury curtailed his career.
“There was a bit of excitement over the good ballgame in the Kelly house,” Kelly said.
The 1919 season that ushered in a long, strange odyssey back to World Series glory for the Red Sox also bid farewell to the Royal Rooters, a collection of loyal Boston fans with an unlikely rallying song. Featured in the Broadway musical The Silver Slipper, the Rooters adopted “Tessie (You Are the Only, Only, Only)” as an anthem for the hometown side.
A show tune about a woman singing to her parakeet probably isn’t the obvious singalong choice to rouse a rally, but here’s the thing: The song worked. During the team’s 1903 World Series victory over Pittsburgh, Pirates batter Tommy Leach mused that “you could hardly play ball they would sing ‘Tessie’ so damn loud.” The Royal Rooters also took it upon themselves to revise the tune’s chorus to skewer Honus Wagner with a refrain of, “Honus, why do you hit so badly?”
When the Rooters disbanded, “Tessie” went with them, and might have been lost to time had it not been for the Dropkick Murphys, who dusted off the song in June of 2004 to “bring back the spirit of the Rooters and to put the Red Sox back on top.”
Actually, according to Kelly, it was more of a total sonic overhaul than a quick dusting-off.
“We basically had to strip the song down to its basic root notes/chords and rebuild it again,” Kelly said. “I mean, it was a song about a woman singing to her pet parrot, for Pete’s sake.”
Enlisting the help of Boston Herald scribe Jeff Horrigan, Dropkick Murphys sought to make the song not just for the Sox, but about the Sox, too.
“I think that, coupled with the music being rewritten with more of a Faces/Stones swagger, made it more specifically applicable to the Red Sox and their hallowed history,” Kelly said.
The revamped “Tessie” became an anthem for the Red Sox, about the Red Sox, and, to some degree, by the Red Sox. Outfielder Johnny Damon and pitchers Bronson Arroyo (no stranger to musical endeavors) and Lenny DiNardo each contributed backing vocals to the track.
“You know, those dudes were superstars,” Kelly said. “Having them take the time to come and sing on the song was pretty classy on their part, for sure.”
And, in the circuitous way history tends to rhyme with itself, “Tessie” worked.
Boston’s path to the 2004 World Series wasn’t without its perils. Kelly recalls freezing on the temporary rooftop bleachers after Game 3 of the ALCS left the Red Sox in the dire position of needing to run the table against the up-three-games Yankees, telling Dropkick Murphys guitarist James Lynch and his younger brother Mike, “not that that’ll happen.”
“Of course, that DID happen!” Kelly said. “It’s funny that them coming back and beating the Yankees in the ALCS almost felt like a bigger victory than defeating the Cardinals in the World Series. The whole thing was glorious and surreal.”
As far as shrugging off a historic curse is concerned, a sweep of St. Louis may have been an anticlimactic capstone (more likely, a long-held sigh of relief for the Red Sox faithful), but Boston hoisting the World Series trophy the same season as the Dropkick Murphys unearthed “Tessie” felt like a convergence of past and present.
Boston became a city synonymous with titles; “Tessie,” a team fixture. The song is played after victories at Fenway, appeared in Jimmy Fallon’s 2005 Red-Sox-love-letter Fever Pitch, and the Dropkick Murphys have been woven into the fabric of Beantown sports lore.
“I talked to my neighbor, whose youngest son is now in college, and we discussed how his sons never knew Boston as anything other than the ‘City of Champions,’ or the shame of the Sox blowing it again and again,” Kelly said.
With “Tessie” part of the storied baseball songbook, the Murphys have also played a litany of shows steeped in Boston lore: The band’s first time playing on the outfield in 2004 coincided with an infamous brawl sparked by Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez. They’ve also performed national anthems, played World Series parades, and rocked out to an empty ballpark during 2020’s virtual Straight Outta Fenway virtual concert.
“I guess I count myself and the band lucky that our music has been accepted and played in Fenway Park and the Boston Garden,” Kelly said. “It’s something that never even occurred to us to shoot for back when I joined the band in 1997.”
Photos by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire & Dorien Monnens on Unsplash | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter and Instagram.)
This song will forever bring me back to playing MVP baseball 2005 on my PS2. Classic.