Baseball’s Greatest Hit: More than Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

The following is a guest post by Senior Music Specialist Susan Clermont.

Lyricist Jack Norworth once claimed that he and composer/publisher Albert von Tilzer created the very first baseball song – “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” – in 1908.  Little did he know that there already had been at least 135 baseball songs written in the 19thcentury alone and at least another 45 were published between 1900 and 1907.  I have to give Norworth credit, however; this self-proclaimed ‘sensational’ song was the grand slam of all baseball songs – baseball’s greatest hit.

Albert (Gumbinski/Gumm) von Tilzer (1878 – 1956)

Recognizing the song’s potential as a chart-topper, von Tilzer promptly submitted the piece for copyright protection in April of 1908 and commissioned master lantern-slide maker DeWitt Wheeler in New York City to manufacture a set of illustrated song slides – or ‘lantern’ slides to accompany the song. Since the baseball season was already underway, time was of the essence;  the slides were completed within a week of the song’s release. Just a few days later they would be used to accompany audience singalongs during the countless performances of the song in nickelodeons, dime museums, music halls and vaudeville theaters across America.

The timing of the creation of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the spring of 1908 was extremely serendipitous as an epidemic of baseball fever had struck the country by late that summer. This baseball season has been singled out by many baseball historians as one of the most dramatic ever, with contentious pennant races in both leagues (NL: Pirates, Cubs, Giants; AL:  Naps, White Sox, Tigers) that weren’t decided until the final day of play.  Baseball madness even overshadowed the ongoing presidential campaign!  Examples of the accompanying drama during the playoffs include:

  • An angered Christy Mathewson vowed to never pitch in the majors again!
  • Fred Merkle committed one of the game’s most notorious blunders that resulted in a forfeit of the final match-up with the Cubs and destroyed the World Series dreams for the Giants;
  • The Naps Addie Joss pitched a perfect game, outdueling White Sox Hall-of-Fame pitcher Ed Walsh in one of baseball’s most noteworthy match-ups.
  • Cubs manager Frank Chance suffered a severe facial laceration after being deliberately hit by a broken bottle that was thrown by a rival fan.
  • New Yorkers reportedly blared their car horns outside the Cubs’ hotel for the entire night before their final game with the Giants in an attempt to sleep deprive the team.

Jack (Knauff) Norworth (1879 – 1959)

Several sports writers claim that the 1908 Cubs’ World Series win over the Tigers was anti-climactic after the drama that had preceded it – drama that also translated into shattered attendance records with upwards of 30K fans per game. It also translated into record sheet music sales for baseball’s greatest song.  “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” charted # 1 for seven weeks beginning in late October through Christmas – longer than any other song produced that year.

On Saturday June 29th at 2pm, the Library of Congress will sponsor a special presentation/performance titled: Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Katie Casey, Suffrage, and Our National Pastime. George Boziwick, music historian, composer, performer and retired Chief of the Music Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center will talk about little known, fascinating connections among baseball, music, suffrage, social activism and vaudeville.

Katie Casey and her beau at the Polo Grounds rooting for the Giants as they defeated the Boston team on May 9, 1908. Song Slide by DeWitt Wheeler.

 

 

We know from the many baseball songs in our collections that women figured prominently in early 20th century baseball song lyrics and that there was a wide range of female personae presented with varying perspectives that all shed light on the National Game’s sometimes uneasy relationship with larger social tensions. There is no doubt, however, that lyricist Jack Norworth’s perspective on women – as depicted by this tune’s true heroine, Katie Casey, in the two verses of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” was extremely progressive. How he came to embrace this perspective is, in my opinion, the best part of this song’s story!

Please join us as George Boziwick traces and animates the social and musical interactions by which the song’s chorus grew into one of America’s most popular refrains.   For more information on this free event, visit Eventbrite.

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