Name this tune: You sing 'Take Me Out,' it's 100 years old
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There are beloved tunes, and then there's "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
Chances are, whether you like baseball or not, you know the words to this rolling waltz song. Most Americans do. It's arguably the third most sung melody in the United States, trailing only "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Happy Birthday." Only "Jingle Bells" and nursery rhymes might make a claim over it.
But the song, which this summer celebrates 100 years of charming listeners and revving up fans during the seventh-inning stretch, didn't always have a place in America's pastime. In its early existence, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" wasn't even heard at baseball games.
Verse: Katie Casey was baseball mad
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the hometown crew
Ev'ry sou Katie blew.
On a Saturday, her young beau
Called to see if she'd like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said,
"No, I'll tell you what you can do."
Chorus: Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes you're out
At the old ball game
The story of how the song first captured the public's attention, later became a part of the game and then became an enduring hit, is as fascinating as a knuckleball is frustrating.
When "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" took its first at-bat in the marketplace of 1908, it was by no means the first song about baseball. "The Baseball Polka" appeared in 1858 and "Slide, Kelly, Slide!" was a hit in 1889.
But the game's popularity was growing at the turn of the 20th century and began to grab the attention of the nation's most talented songwriters, including Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer -- big-league collaborators based in New York.
The charismatic Norworth was already famous through the Ziegfeld Follies, for which he had written "Shine On Harvest Moon." Von Tilzer was the younger brother of a major music publisher, Harry, who had coined the phrase Tin Pan Alley.
"Jack Norworth was like Brad Pitt, married to the Angelina Jolie of her time in Nora Bayes," said Bob Thompson, one of three co-authors of a new history of the song, "Baseball's Greatest Hit." "They had the No. 1 vaudeville song. They were constantly in the gossip papers."
But in 1908, it was the boys of summer who had caught the public eye. The National League pennant race had been a wild ride, with the Chicago Cubs beating out the New York Giants and, yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The pennant was decided in part by an infamous game between the Cubs and Giants involving "Merkle's boner," a controversial base-running play.
The Cubs ended up beating the Detroit Tigers for the World Series (itself only a few years old) in what would be called "Crazy '08," the second and last time the Cubs have won the championship. Baseball was on the minds of Americans, and a tasty new snack, Cracker Jack, had just started making its push into ballparks.
So the scene was set for a song that could truly capture the sporting public's hearts, and Norworth, who wrote the lyrics, and Von Tilzer, who wrote the music, gave them a memorable one in spring of 1908 -- even though they both claimed to have never set foot in a Major League ballpark before writing it.
In fact, the song itself was about wanting to visit the ballgame, not about someone actually being there. And "Take Me Out" is only the chorus to the entire song, a verse that introduces a baseball-mad Katie Casey who, when asked "if she'd like/ to see a show," vociferously demands to go to the ballpark.
The song gained popularity in music halls and movie theaters, played during the lull as the projectionists changed reels, long before it was heard near a baseball diamond -- public address systems didn't exist at parks until 1929. It was heavily advertised in trade journals and recorded at least three times within a year of its publication. The most famous by far was a recording billed as by Billy Murray and the Haydn Quartet, although Murray didn't sing on it.
"Billy Murray was the Frank Sinatra of his time," said Mr. Thompson. "It was like having the Beatles record your tune." The song topped the charts for longer than any other in 1908, leading to a host of additional recordings, some on wax cylinders, but even more on the new-fangled discs.
While conditions were fortuitous for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" to make a splash, its popularity could only happen if it had engaging musical qualities -- which it did.
For one, the song is eminently singable. "The song is all contained within an octave and set in three-four [waltz time], not a march," said Mr. Thompson, a conductor and producer of the Baseball Music Project.
The era abounded in waltz songs. "This was the new thing and a big deal," said Deane Root, director of the Center for American Music and a music professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Root asserted that the song's triadic progression and the "masculine jumps" had a greater effect on its popularity than its subject. "American men weren't supposed to be fussy. Opening up with the octave [is] about as shoulder-square and face-forward as you can get."
Indeed, that opening leap from the note D to the D above it is uncommon in song. "The Christmas Song" and "Over the Rainbow" are some of the few that used it decades later. Add to this a simple and repetitious vocal line given subtle harmonic color, and you have a winner.
But the greatest success factor may be the chorus's rousing penultimate line: "For it's one, two, three strikes you're out."
"One of the really strong elements of the song was the way Norworth suspends the syllables," said Dr. Root. "It gives a shout-out."
This hook clearly is akin to the drinking songs of music halls and is a novelty that helped the song stand out from the slew of copycats being churned out at the time. "Very often, it was a phrase that catches on," Dr. Root explained.
Even the astounding early popularity of "Take Me Out" doesn't explain its immortality. After all, there were more famous, higher-charting songs about love that never made it out of the decade. "Most songs in Tin Pan Alley had a life cycle of five years," said Mr. Thompson. "Somehow this song stayed in the public consciousness."
Both big leagues reportedly adopted it as the "official" baseball song in 1933 and it was apparently first formally performed in a Major League ballpark during the 1934 World Series in St. Louis. The Marx Brothers break into it in a funny scene in "A Night at the Opera" of 1935.
Another reason the song "entered into oral culture," as Dr. Root put it, may lie in one publisher's efforts to maximize his return on it.
"In 1936, Jack Norworth sells the renewal rights to Jerry Vogel," Mr. Thompson said. "He was a relentless promoter of songs and started sending fliers to ballparks, one sheets, saying 'have your organist play this song, or put this song in your television show.' The song [starts] to be played in ballparks and has a resurgence."
By the 1930s and '40s, professional baseball had grown into a big business. In 1936, the Hall of Fame named its first class, with several players from the turn of the century (including Carnegie's Honus Wagner). And in 1939, MLB celebrated its (now contested) account of Abner Doubleday playing the first baseball game in Cooperstown in 1839.
The song's old-timey feel, even for that time, and uncommon waltz meter catered to a nostalgia for baseball's past. In 1945, the song began to be sung during the seventh-inning stretch in minor league games, and four years later, a film of the same name arrived with stars Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Mr. Sinatra.
It wasn't until 1976 that the ubiquity of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" began to hit the big leagues, and for that we have then Chicago White Sox announcer Harry Caray to thank. He became synonymous with the song when he was cajoled into singing it during the stretch by the notoriously creative owner Bill Veeck.
Now every Major League Baseball team uses the song -- inserting their team's name for the "home team" -- that has become as much a part of the game as, well, peanuts and Cracker Jack.
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 24, 2008) This article as originally published June 23, 2008 about the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" labeled the "Merkle's boner" game as the National League pennant clincher between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants in 1908. That regular-season game ended as a tie and was replayed after the season to decide the pennant.
First Published June 23, 2008 12:00 am