“Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game ‘”
New York: Hal Leonard Books
Review by Mike Foster in 2008, long ago and far away and in another galaxy
This year “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” celebrated its one hundredth birthday, and this sweet-swinging story traces it from its birth to its current status as the third-most-often sung tune in America.
“The experience of large masses of human beings singing together is predawn. We experience it in our religious ceremonies, at birthday parties and other rites of passage, in cultural and artistic celebrations, at mealtimes and other family gatherings, and of course, at the ballpark,” writes Bob Thompson, one of the three writers who assembled this tribute. Richly enhanced with vintage photos and postcards, sheet music replications, record sleeves, newspaper headlines, movie stills, and baseball cards, it also sports a 16-track CD with everything from the earliest recorded versions to performances by Bruce Springsteen, Dr. John, George Winston, a fellow playing a musical saw, and, of course, its most famous practitioner, the late Harry Caray recorded live at Wrigley Field.
The perfect Valentine’s Day stocking stuffer for folks with very wide, long, and flat feet, Baseball’s Greatest Hit is a delight from its foreword by Carly Simon, who recalls living with the Jackie Robinson family in 1955 and sitting on Pee Wee Reese’s lap in the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout, to its conclusion, a boggling 30-page discography of every known recording of the tune, from piano rolls and wax cylinders to CDs.
The illustrations, beginning with the scratchily revised original lyric holograph by Jack Norworth and a photograph of Harry’s last seventh-inning stretch singalong, are a pennant-winning pinnacle of pop culture. This book belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where co-author Tim Wiles was director of research.
Norworth wrote the lyric on New York’s 9th Avenue subway in 1908 after seeing an advertisement for a game at the Polo Grounds. Co-author Albert Von Tilzer added the melody. Heroine Katie Casey starred in two now-forgotten verses leading up to the famous chorus.
Its lilting waltz tempo and one-octave range makes it singer-friendly. The opening octave leap of “Take me” replicates two other beloved American songs, “The Christmas Song” and “Over the Rainbow.”
A singalong staple during the silent film era, the tune was featured in over 1,200 movies and television shows. But it wasn’t until 1976 that it became a seventh-inning-stretch ritual with Caray leading the White Sox faithful at Comiskey Park.
Lavish details include chapters on Cracker Jack, other now-forgotten baseball songs, 1908 baseball slang, parodies, and women in baseball (“Dame Yankees”). Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play it on a simplified seven-key piano. In 1949, the song lent its title to a movie starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams.
In the tedious months between the end of the season and the blessed entrance antiphon “Pitchers and catchers report,” this book is warmth and sunshine in the dread dead of winter. This reviewer received the book last April, just as the baseball season was opening, with its eternal spring promise of hope and happiness. As May blossomed and flowered and Chicago Cubs seized first place in the National League Central division, we sang along cheerily through the summer into September. When the season ended with Cubs atop the standings with their best record since their last World Series appearance in 1945, we dared think the unthinkable: that the hundred-year drought was over and that this was, at last, the year.
And, of course, in the first round, all the Chicago stallions turned into geldings, the ham-handed infield yielded four errors in the second game alone, and the pitching melted down like a cheap candle.
Oh, well. Wait till next century.