Two-Seam Tunes

The shared history of baseball and music

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Baseball has been getting drilled a lot lately, as if the sport itself had too demonstrably celebrated a home run and now had to deal with a pitcher dealing out comeuppance in the form of some chin music.

The game is chastised for being too slow, for being out of stride with our most pacey digital age where even the two line text is thought too long. The NFL is what Americans want: big, brutal, and fast, words you’d never associate with our former national pastime.

But baseball still has a way of stepping out on our cultural expectations. It has history on its side, for one thing, for those who enjoy going back in time into one rich world after another. And it has literature on its side, too; no sport can touch baseball in terms of shelf-buckling classics.

But then we have something too-little considered in conjunction with any sport, and that’s the relationship between athletics and music. Not, in this instance, that aforesaid chin music, but music proper. And it is here, too, that baseball remains king.

There really isn’t any music we associate with football, save what is played to get a crowd going at a stadium. In other words, fare like the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” which has nothing to do with the sport. Songs aren’t really written about football, unless they’re local numbers wishing, say, the Dallas Cowboys well in the playoffs. Novelty stuff.

Know any hockey songs? There’s Stompin’ Tom Connors’s “The Hockey Song,” a Hank Williams-style boot-tapper, but more often than not, hockey tracks like Warren Zevon’s “Hit Somebody” have little of the ring of the truth of the rink. Zevon has the character in his song commence his career at nine, an age virtually no one starts playing at.

And basketball songs? Boston Celtics fans used to chant “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by the immortal — and fictitious — band Steam, when a playoff opponent was eliminated, but that hardly counts. With baseball, everyone knows John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,” Terry Cashman’s “Talking Baseball,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” but what delights we find when we go back into the past to see that baseball and music were always excellent battery mates.

Why, though? Did the would-be songwriter, sitting in the stands, find himself with more time at his disposal, more freedom for his imagination to roam as manager, pitcher, and catcher had their latest meeting on the mound? Is it the sport’s inherent romance that summons the songsmith’s muse? That idea that there is no clock in the game, and a game could, in theory, last forever.

A poetic conceit. Proust would have liked baseball, and there is much music in Proust. Is it simply that baseball was at its most popular when TV was just starting out or didn’t exist, and the focus was on music and cinema, with cinema having gotten a late start? A tradition grew. More musicians felt the tug to write themselves into it. The game itself has a geometry much like the workings of a song. The base paths are symmetrical, like verses of a song. The outfield: rangy, joyous, less predictable with potential caroms, different-sized walls, an emerald-green chorus of activity, extreme emotion, payoff.

The insider language of baseball doesn’t hurt either, especially because everyone who follows the sport knows it.

This isn’t interpreting Finnegans Wake, but if you’re at a game and there’s a high popup, someone right next to you could well sigh, “ah, can of corn,” and maybe tell you, too, as if you didn’t know, that the phrase dates back to grocery store boys pulling canned goods down from the highest shelves where they were frequently stacked.

A private patois that all fans come to know. That’s what you want in a song: the feeling of making the personal public, viewable, and understandable for all.

Baseball music has been awfully good at that for well over a century now. So just as Ernie Banks enjoyed playing two games on a fine summer day, let’s have us a look at five songs as we find ourselves at Opening Day.

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”

Baseball’s staple of staple, but though you know it, even if you’ve never so much as watched a Little League game, you probably don’t know the full version. The ode is almost always truncated so that the in-game crowd can have a giant sing-along. Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer wrote the song in 1908, which feels appropriate — it was the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and no ballpark is more associated with belting out “Ball Game” than the ivy-strung confines of Wrigley Field. But note this remarkable Edison cylinder recording, with Edwin Meeker singing, from that same year. It is essentially proto-jazz, never mind that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band won’t get started until 1916. (By which time the odyssey of suffering for Cubs fans had commenced, and Babe Ruth and the Red Sox were doing their thing before starting a different many-decade run of pain). The word “blue” is accentuated with blue notes from the cornet. The chorus comes from a guy asking his girl to a show. She declines, saying there’s something else she’d prefer instead, and away we go. Take her to see the local nine, son. You may find it strange that here in 1908 we have lyrics referencing how old the sport is. The sport, though, had existed for the bulk of the 19th century. Were you a Civil War soldier, you could have known it your entire life by the time you got to Shiloh. Hearing this song, at the end of your life, would have taken you back to being a kid: something else baseball does better than any sport, especially with a song like this to help turn that Proustian double play.

“Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball?”

Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is retired across the whole of Major League Baseball — as it should be, given that the man broke the color barrier. That singular achievement — which is more of a human than a baseball one — also tends to overshadow the second sacker’s prowess on the field. For Jackie was as mercurial a player as there ever was: slick fielder, super potent stick, gap power, and a combo of locomotive and ballerina while running the bases. No one was better at stealing home — no one ever will be. Robinson was a guy who could make off with your house in the middle of the day and you wouldn’t be the wiser. Count Basie, big band master of the mighty riff, had a touch of Jackie Robinson’s flash and power about him, too. More than a touch. The query asked in the title of this 1949 song is answered with the careening surge of the rhythm section after the words, “Jackie is real gone.” This is the sound of a ball in the gap, Robinson, head down, legs churning until he dives head first into third. Triple, baby. After which, naturally, he steals home. Wasn’t like he was going to wait around for a sacrifice fly. 

“The Carl Yastrzemski Song”

Baseball, more than any sport, is about moments. It’s the rare sport, too, where you can finish second — which is to say, win the Pennant, lose the World Series — and have your spot in history and hearts. The 1959 Go Go Chicago White Sox were like that — also the 1950 Whiz Kids edition of the Philadelphia Phillies — but no team better exemplified this idea than the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox. Carl Yastrzemski had one of the greatest seasons in the in the sport’s history, winning the Triple Crown and willing the Sox into the postseason. This sporty brand of heroism didn’t inspire any musical masterpieces, but it did produce one of the best examples you’ll find of a totally annoying piece of music that is much beloved. And why would something like DJ Jess Cain’s blast of audio shrapnel be beloved? It’s soaked in the defiant regional pride of the New Englander and the pride in a team that bonds fathers to sons and sons to sons they don’t even know they’re going to have yet. And it’s so quirky, like so many rules of the game itself. A Charlie Brown of a song — and who loved baseball more than the hapless Chuck? Apologies for putting it in your head, though, where it will probably be lodged until the All-Star game or so.

“Van Lingle Mungo”

Baseball’s poetic allure stretches beyond the field, to the names of the men on it, even. If you are a fan, names have stayed with you, even of players who weren’t very good, by dint of the sheer musicality of their nomenclature. That beautiful oddness, issuing forth in syllabic flow. Storm Davis. Razor Shines. Johnnie Lemaster. Average ballplayers at best, but Hall of Fame-worthy handles. Van Lingle Mungo was a Brooklyn pitcher in the 1930s and 40s who was as mediocre as they come, finishing with a lifetime record of 120-115, with a couple of excellent seasons mixed in. Ah, but that name. That name might as well be a 105 mph fastball. Jazz pianist Dave Frishberg took Mungo’s greatest asset and used it as the jumping off point for a song in which the lyrics are baseball names, rhapsodized as thoroughly, as deeply, as lovingly, as John Clare writing about his beloved birds. Frenchy Bordagaray (14 home runs in 11 seasons). Frankie Crosseti (.245 lifetime batter). Johnny Gee (7-12 career record). Here they are, members of the All-Name Dream Team alongside Hall of Famers Early Wynn, Roy Campanella, Lou Boudreau. A phonetically blessed line-up.

“Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)”

Do you know which ballplayer was more exciting than Willie Mays in his prime? How often can you ask a question like that and know that the answer pretty much has to be “no one”? Mays was a player who was all groove, so it makes pleasing sense that there is this rocking rhythm and blues song to do him right. Mays had been in “The Show” for three and a half years when this cut was recorded by the Treniers in July 1954. They were a jump blues band from Mobile, a unit who seemed to exist mostly to get you moving. Mays himself turns up in the intro with his trademark phrase, “Say hey” — his preferred conversational method of getting someone’s attention. The details are awesome: the cap flying off during a frantic dash, Monte Irvin fielding a fly way out in left, the rare drive out of the centerfielder’s range. The sax solo explodes out of the ensemble break as if it had come off of Mays’s bat. And that idea of hitters getting the “Willie blues” on account of another would-be double getting turned into another putout has the ring of dugout genius. “Would have gone 3 for 4 today, but instead I got the Willie blues.” Then again, the sound of baseball is the sound of the experiences of many people in one en masse memory collective. From which come songs like moon shots into the upper decks. •

 

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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