Baseball’s anthem reaches its centennial

By Joe Milicia

CLEVELAND – It’s the third most frequently sung song in the United States, yet few know all its lyrics.

It’s been recorded by more than 400 artists, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. It’s been performed live by Mike Ditka and Ozzy Osbourne – with varying skill levels.

Six year olds and 96 year olds know its chorus by heart, and it rises into the summer air each night at ballparks around the country, as thousands of joyous voices sing as one.

Hastily written on a New York subway 100 years ago – or so the story goes – “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has made it from Tin Pan Alley to, and with help from Harry Caray, baseball’s anthem has never been more popular.

“I like the song. It’s about baseball, so what’s not to like?” said Hall of Famer Bob Feller.

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    A sign advertising a game at the Polo Grounds inspired singer Jack Norworth to write a tune about America’s favorite pastime. Or so he claims.

    In about the time it takes to play an inning, Norworth had some lyrics about a baseball fan named Katie Casey whose boyfriend called to see if she’d like to go to a show.

    Her emphatic response is the chorus “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which trails only “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the most frequently performed songs, according to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

    Composer Albert Von Tilzer, who wrote songs with Norworth, didn’t take much longer to write the music.

    “It’s not that complex of a song,” said Jim Henke, chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s got a relatively simple melody and the words are pretty easy to memorize, so people can really connect with it.”

    A copy of Norworth’s handwritten lyrics and the original sheet music are among the artifacts under a glass case at the Rock Hall’s “Take Me Out: Baseball Rocks!” exhibit, which celebrates the sport’s relationship with popular music.

    The handwriting may be just a little too neat to have been penned on a rickety subway. That’s just one of the reasons that Tim Wiles, director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, questions the veracity of Norworth’s story.

    It’s also odd that Norworth didn’t mention the subway ride until the song turned 50, notes Wiles, co-author of “Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

    Whatever the case, the song was a top 10 hit for three recording artists in 1908, Wiles said, but wasn’t performed at a ballpark until Pepper Martin and his teammates played it before Game Four of the 1934 World Series at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. The Cardinals went on to win the game and the series.

    Feller, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians from 1936 until 1956, recalls fans would spontaneously sing the tune back then.

    “They didn’t need somebody on the P.A. system to tell ’em to do it, either,” said Feller, 89. “They didn’t need a sign on the scoreboard to tell ’em. They just did it.

    “They didn’t do it every day, probably when the home team was winning and they were feeling good.”

    The song was often played on an organ during pitching changes or as fans were entering the park, but it didn’t become part of the seventh-inning stretch until much later.

    “It’s a relatively young tradition. It surprises people that they think, ‘Gosh, we weren’t doing it prior to 1976?” Wiles said.

    That was the year Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck, known for his stunts and promotions, got Caray, then a Chicago White Sox broadcaster, to lead the crowd at Comiskey Park.

    Caray, who would privately sing it during the commercial break, was against the idea, said Bill Veeck’s son, Mike.

    “My dad understood that what would really make this wonderful is that everyone in the stadium knew they could sing it better than Harry could, and that was the charm,” Mike Veeck said.

    Caray continued the tradition when he became WGN’s announcer for the Cubs in 1982. The whole country got to hear him on cable TV and other teams soon adopted the custom, Wiles said.

    The song is probably the most cherished at Wrigley Field where Larry Andretich of suburban Chicago attended a game last week his three daughters – Reese, Morgan and Brooke, ages 4 to 10 – all clutching dolls dressed in Cubs gear.

    “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” links three generations of Andretich’s family. He said his father passed his passion for the Cubs, and the song, down to his children.

    “He kind of infected the rest of the grandkids with the same sickness, so they’ve known it since they probably could talk,” Andretich, 39, said. “Every time they sing it, the girls stand up whether we’re at home or at the ballpark.”

    In Chicago, Caray’s legacy means substituting “Root, root, root for the Cubbies,” a line he altered. Fans in many other cities do the same with their club’s nickname.

    “We go to the Nationals’ games,” said 47-year-old Mark Husband, a Cubs fan visiting Wrigley from Alexandria, Va., near Washington. “And so no matter who the Nationals are playing, even if it’s not against the Cubs, we still say, ‘Root, root, root for the Cubbies’ and everyone looks around.”

    After Caray died in 1998, the Cubs started bringing in guest conductors, resulting in some of the memorably bad performances by Ditka and Osbourne, which have been preserved on YouTube along with many others, including some backward renditions. In addition, there are more than 600 recorded versions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

    “There’s a version that’s played on the musical saw,” Wiles said. “That song is very interesting the first couple times you hear it, and then after that I think the novelty wears off.”

    The best version might still be the live one, sung on a warm summer night with the home team due up and the heart of the order coming to the plate.

    “To me it’s always just been like a good family thing,” Cleveland Indians first baseman Ryan Garko said. “That’s what baseball should be – just come to the ballpark and bring your family and just enjoy the summer. That to me is what that song kind of represents.”

    Associated Press Writer Jenny Song in Chicago contributed to this report.