THE MUSIC OF BASEBALL

THE MELODIES INSPIRED BY THE GAME ARE RICH, RARE, SOMETIMES EVEN REVOLTING. WATCH OUT-PITTSBURGH MIGHT SING ITS WAY TO VICTORY
October 02, 1960

When the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee they took with them a fine new Hammond electric organ, which they perched in a makeshift organ loft in the mezzanine box seats behind first base in County Stadium. The organ sounded fine there, but the organist became a fanatical Braves supporter and soon was directing musical Bronx cheers, raspberries, moans, groans and advice to enemy players and managers. When he began playing Three Blind Mice every time he disagreed with the umpires he had to go. The task of replacing him fell to Joe Cairnes and John Quinn of the Braves' staff, who listened to everybody around Milwaukee and finally selected Jane Jarvis, who—though an accomplished musician—had seen only one baseball game in her life. "Just don't step on anybody's toes," said Joe. "And always remember to play Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh-inning stretch," added John.

Thus prepared, Jane took her place at the console, hoping to provide a sprightly and noncontroversial musical commentary on the happenings on the diamond. But baseball is a game of unexpected happenings, and the most unexpected of all are those having to do with music and musicians. Soon after Jane started playing for the Braves there was a shower. When the ground crew hurriedly covered the infield, one of the crew members accidentally was caught under the big tarpaulin and went crawling on his hands and knees around the pitcher's mound, trying to find his way out. Some suspicion has always persisted that Jane thought it was all part of the game; at any rate, she started the stands rocking by playing Where, O Where Has My Little Dog Gone?, and she has been the official musician of the Braves ever since, this fall playing for her 450th game in County Stadium.

For some reason, baseball and music have always gone together: if that inspired musical, Damn Yankees, had never been written, there would still be ample evidence in the ancient band pieces dedicated to the sport, the marches, quicksteps, schottisches and the innumerable Tin Pan Alley attempts to duplicate Albert von Tilzer's success with Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Every club in the majors has a musical background, an astounding number of big league stars have also been professional musicians and, even now, when high union rates and mechanical music have ended the oldtime bands, there is still music of some kind in every park. Occasionally there is an orchestra, most often an organist, or at least some dedicated disc jockey playing records over the public address system to keep alive the tradition of musical inspiration during games.

It is typical of the musical history of baseball that the Pirates have become the most musical club in the National League. Maybe having a chance at the pennant induces songs and jollity, but as a general rule the most rhythmical, rollicking, harmonizing, piano-playing and guitar-strumming aggregation wins it, or comes mighty close—like the miracle Braves of 1914, who rocketed up from last place late in July, borne upward by the singing of a group of infielders led by Rabbit Maranville, and the Cardinals in the great days of the Gashouse Gang, when Pepper Martin and his Mudcat Band were a nationwide radio feature. Not all the members of the Mudcat Band were classical musicians—Pepper himself played the guitar and the harmonica, William Henry McGee, known as Fiddler Bill, played the violin, Lefty Weiland the jugs and Frenchy Bordagaray the washboard and auto horns—but when the Mudcat Band was really wound up playing their favorite number, Over the Waves, they made it sound like a victory march.

The Pirates this season are not quite so uninhibited, but they have a trio consisting of El Roy Face, Harvey Haddix and Hal Smith, all playing guitars and singing homemade folksongs. Smith writes weird mountain music with long surrealistic titles, such as When You Kiss a Girl Underneath the Rose Don't Mind a Little Powder on Your Nose. (Baseball players have a liking for such works as I Got a Churn Full of Chitlins and a Belly Full of You or the reverie, A-sittin', A-spittin', an' A-whittlin'.) El Roy Face also has a hillbilly act, calling for a guitar and a twanging voice, in which he dons a beaver hat, removes his teeth and yodels romantic tunes; and all three improvise new words to old tunes:

Oh, how they hit me tonight,
Hit me a mile a blow.
Oh, how they hit me tonight,
More than you'll ever know.

Lest it be thought that any connection established between music and baseball is coincidental, musical compositions—and very good ones, too—appeared in the early years of the game. Twenty-five amateur clubs held a convention in 1858 to organize the first baseball league, and the first piece of music devoted to baseball dates from that same year: The Base Ball Polka, written by J. Randolph Blodgett, a player with the Niagara Baseball Club of Buffalo, N.Y.

How good it was as music is open to question, but it certainly was popular. It launched a lot of instrumental pieces on baseball themes in the next few years, and Blodgett gave up his job as organist at St. John's Church to become a prosperous Buffalo music store operator.

The first musical baseball classic appeared in 1860, written for the Live Oak Baseball Club of Rochester. There was an intense rivalry between the Buffalo and Rochester clubs, and Rochester backers plainly wanted to outdo Blodgett's The Base Ball Polka with something better of their own. They commissioned John Kalbfleisch, listed in the Rochester directory of 1860 as a "professor of music," to write The Live Oak Polka. Kalbfleisch did too good a job, producing a spirited, ingenious piece of music, characterized by rocketing right-hand runs, Opus No. 7 among his works. As the national anthem of the game, however, The Live Oak Polka required too great a technical proficiency: only highly trained pianists could master it, and not many of these were to be encountered at baseball games.

Live Oak players themselves, full of pride in their music, deepened its obscurity by publishing it in a magnificent edition with a brilliant lithograph for a cover—a green field, a diamond, top-hatted spectators, a Live Oak player in a natty uniform. The result was that The Live Oak Polka became a prime collector's item, bought by people who had no idea of the music it contained. The same fate overcame the next piece of music devoted to baseball, John Zebley's really extraordinary Home Run Quick Step, which was published in Philadelphia in 1861. At that time Zebley was a salesman in a hosiery and glove store on Chestnut Street, lived with his family in their Spruce Street home and played baseball with the team of the Mercantile Club. Home Run Quick Step is the most original and haunting of the early baseball classics, technically complex, with the rhythm carried in subtle and insistent harmonies by the right hand. Its cover made it, too, a collector's item, a copy fetching about $35 a decade or so ago.

The Civil War interrupted the development of this promising branch of American music, for the next composition, also called Base Ball Polka, by James Goodman, did not appear until 1867. But in that year at least seven more were published: The Base Ball Fever, Base Ball Quadrille, Base Ball Waltz, Home Run Galop, Home Run Polka, Union Base Ball Club March and the first baseball song, The Bat and the Ball, with words by a man named Johnson and music by someone identified only as Max. Whoever Max was, he wrote a simple and attractive tune which was scarcely more complicated than Sweet Betsy from Pike. There was a genuine folk-music simplicity about this primitive composition, the first chorus of which ran:

We come from the mountains,
We come from the plain,
We gather in numbers
On our field once again;
So stand to your bases,
And "field" it with care,
No "muffing" of balls
As they fly thro' the air.

Then hurrah boys, hurrah,
For the Ball and the Bat,
That nerves us for action,
With muscles compact,
'Tis the pride of our nation,
The glory of all,
Then hurrah boys, hurrah,
For the Bat and the Ball.

Unfortunately, these sturdy sentiments led to imitations, in which increasingly patriotic virtues were attributed to baseball. The same year an obscure poet named Bisco published Catch It on the Fly, claiming that baseball would benefit "clerks and all the indoor men" and proclaiming in sonorous tones, neatly arranged for male voices:

'Twill make the weak man strong again

And in 1868 Walter Neville, of the famous Olympic Baseball Club of New York, produced Hurrah for Our National Game the theme of which was that baseball

Lends new strength to our hardy race.

Twenty years later patriotic, spiritual and physical values were still being attributed to baseball by song writers, in works like Mullen's The Baseball Song, which disdainfully rejected all other games:

Let others talk of Cricket
Or gunning in the thicket,
But Base-ball's the game for me.

But in the meantime something had happened that made the high-flown or phony sentiments of the songs seem out of date. As all amateur historians of baseball know, the first professional team, the Red Stockings, was organized in Cincinnati in 1868. In 1869 they played all over the country, won 65 games and lost none and inspired The Red Stockings Schottische by Mrs. Hettie Shirley Austin. A marvelously gay and bouncy tune, it somehow communicated something of the spirit of the game itself. The amateur clubs were still in existence, and the junior champions were a club from a Boston suburb, called the Una Base Ball Club. When the Una nine won the championship again in 1873 it electrified a Boston dance music composer named M. J. Messer, of whom nothing is known except that he wrote the Una Schottische in honor of the victory. With this piece of music, baseball came very near winning a timeless composition in its honor. Perhaps the only barrier to its lasting popularity was its title. The Una Schottische was as vivid and lighthearted as the tunes of Oklahoma! almost a century later, and like that music possessed a charming country-dance or outdoor air; it was a work of happy enthusiasm that made it ideally suited for the band concerts that once accompanied ball games.

The next change came when the solemn patriotic songs were put out of business by the astounding popularity of Slide, Kelly, Slide! in 1889. There were two Kellys mixed up in this song. One was Mike Kelly, the first great base stealer, a lover of night life, show girls, race horses and liquor, and the hero of the Chicago Irish, who packed the stands to yell, "Slide, Kelly, slide!" until they made the phrase a catchword, used on any occasion to indicate an emergency. The other Kelly was John W. Kelly, a Philadelphia-born steelworker who had a vaudeville act in which he peered over his spectacles and improvised endlessly on Irish-American folkways, now and then pausing to sing good songs of his own composing. This Kelly professed to live in a state of constant bewilderment: Why was it that when the Germans held a picnic they marched straight for the picnic ground, while the Irish always began by marching around town for three hours? Could it only be because every man was determined to have the parade pass his own house?

The baseball feats of Mike Kelly were made to order for the genius of this other Kelly. In Slide, Kelly, Slide! he explained modestly that he too played a game of baseball ("I belong to Casey's Nine") and the crowd was jolly, and the weather it was fine. Sent to bat, he took three strikes, but the catcher dropped the ball, and he ran like the devil for first base, with the crowd roaring, "Slide, Kelly, slide!" Misfortunes multiplied: he was sent in to catch, as the catcher wanted to go out and get a drink, but the second pitch passed through his mask and broke his nose. The crowd roared with all its might, and he ran toward the clubhouse—"I thought there was a fight!" The difficulties become truly nightmarish in the third verse: it appears that on him depends victory or defeat, but the score is already 64-0, and the song ends as Kelly is carried home, his neighbors singing

Slide, Kelly, slide!
Your running's a disgrace!
Slide, Kelly, slide!
Stay there, hold your base

This became one of the most popular songs in American history. Maggie Cline, the leading vaudeville star of the period, sang it at Tony Pastor's in New York, and it swept the country. Maggie is ranked by authorities with the top half dozen stars in her field, along with Elsie Janis (whose father, incidentally, was a professional baseball player with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1891), Irene Bordoni, Fritzi Scheff and others as gifted. Maggie was herself as legendary in her own field as was Mike Kelly on the diamond. She always had the same hansom cab pick her up and drive her to the theater, and one night, irritated by the mock heroics of a Buffalo Bill show, she took the reins from the cab driver and drove through the stage entrance and up on the stage, where Buffalo Bill was shooting and dead Indians were lying around. The legends don't agree as to what happened when Maggie stepped out of the carriage, but it would have been in character for her to belt out Slide, Kelly, Slide! amid the yells of redskins and the sound of blank cartridges.

Two movies were made called Slide, Kelly, Slide. The first-was a baseball comedy produced in 1910 by Essanay; the second was a big production in 1927, starring William Haines as Kelly, with Harry Carey as an over-age catcher who is trying to finish one more season so he can buy a cigar store. Kelly pitches a no-hitter for the Yankees, gets the big head, drinks bootleg hooch and in a big scene tells Harry Carey he is all washed up. This queers him with Harry's daughter with whom he is in love. Kelly skids downhill fast, until finally little Mickey, the mascot, loses faith in him. The Yankees play the Cardinals in the World Series. (Real Yankees were used in this sequence.) The Series is tied three games to three. Harry Carey pleads for Kelly to be given another chance, even though he did call Carey a has-been. It is finally decided that Kelly shall pitch again. As little Mickey rides on his bicycle to tell Kelly the news, he is run over by a fire truck. The doctors decide that the only way to restore the boy's will to live is to let him watch the decisive game, so there he is, pretty well banged up, in a box seat. Kelly pitches like one inspired, but the score is 1-1 in the bottom half of the ninth, when Kelly himself comes to bat. He glances toward the box seats, and there he sees little Mickey, down on his knees, praying for a hit. Kelly hits a home run, and the movie ends with him marrying Harry Carey's daughter, and little Mickey dancing around as merrily as a kid who's been run over by a fire truck can be expected to.

How closely did the music of baseball reflect the game itself? In the period when the best of its music was written, bands played in the big league parks, and even small towns had bands that played for the big games. But whether big league or small town, the bands played standard band music, anything from Gilmore or Sousa marches to the thundering Battle of Prague. They never played anything remotely connected with baseball, unless it happened to be a piece written by a local musician for the local club, like the "Tyro Base Ball March, a haunting composition by Alice Rice for the Tyro Base Ball Club of Detroit, or The Temple Cup Two-Step, written by John Cavanagh to celebrate the Giants' winning the championship in 1894.

A good many musicians were conscious of the discrepancy between the scene and the music. Charles Ives, the modernist composer, was the son of a band leader in Danbury, Conn. and was also a player on the Yale nine. One of his most discordant and jangled works, a showpiece of modern atonal piano music full of dissonant chords, was a baseball composition called Some South-Paw Pitching. Virtually unplayable, a musical monstrosity, Some South-Paw Pitching could hardly be said to possess a more significant relation to the sport than did the Entry of the Gladiators or the other standard band favorites of the period when Ives's father led the Danbury band.

The question is whether there was not a distinct branch of a native American music coming into existence around the sport. Certainly there were exceptionally lively and unhackneyed compositions being written. And certainly the ties that link baseball and music have been close and significant. That eminent baritone, Bing Crosby, owns 10% of the Pirates, but lots of musicians before him owned ball clubs. Angelo's Base Ball Fever of 1867 was dedicated to Lew Simmons of Philadelphia, the Bing Crosby of his day, the leading minstrel, who owned the Philadelphia Athletics, a pioneer club that antedated Connie Mack's Athletics. Helen Traubel, the opera star, owned part of the St. Louis Browns. Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, sold Babe Ruth, Herb Pennock, Carl Mays and half a dozen lesser players in order to get money to back his musical comedies. Before the turn of the century the Phillies had a fine first baseman named Sydney Farrar, whose daughter Geraldine became the famous opera star.

It has always seemed to me a matter to be regretted that there was no American music to engage the talents of a singer like Geraldine Farrar. In the days when she was making her debut in Berlin as Marguerite in Faust, Victor Red Seal records were almost synonymous with culture, and a stately female wearing something shaped like a wigwam represented the epitome of highbrow musical joy. No one would wish anything of the sort on baseball; still, an opera of the game, or a musical version of the tragedy of the Black Sox scandal conceivably could have been nearer the springs of native inspiration for a singer like Geraldine Farrar than the dagger-wielding scenes of Carmen.

Part of the reason why nothing developed from the promising beginnings of the music of baseball was that much of it was local or topical, lacking connection with organized sport (or organized music) to freight it over years of transition. The musicians had only local reputations; the publishers were frequently only music store operators. But the more important reason was that, as Tin Pan Alley developed, the older music was buried under a flood of imitative works. In 1906 Fred Fisher published It's Great at the Baseball Game, an undistinguished but mildly agreeable work, far below his best (he also wrote Chicago and Dardanella) but historically important because it paved the way for Albert von Tilzer's Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Unlike Fisher, who really loved baseball, Von Tilzer had never seen a game in his life. His real name was Albert Gumm; he was the brother of Harry von Tilzer, an established songwriter, and he followed his brother's lead when Harry changed his name. Albert worked with Jack Norworth, the husband of Nora Bayes, composing Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and its combination of a genial tune and simple, singable words gave baseball a permanently popular favorite. Viewed objectively, there is a certain Alice in Wonderland illogic to some of the words.

Buy me some peanuts and cracker-jack
I don't care if I never get back!

Thus did irresponsibility and escape triumph over the noble and inspiring sentiments of the game's musical pioneers—and just as well, too. The colossal success of the song from the start inspired innumerable imitators. Those two great musicians, Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker—yes, the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance boys—published a song, Between You and Me. George M. Cohan wrote the words to Take Your Girl to the Ball Game, with music by Jean Schwartz (who wrote Chinatown, among many other masterpieces):

Get your seat in the shade,
Buy some cool lemonade...
Tell her each player's name
And all the points of the game,
And all her life she'll be thankful to you.

The blessings that would follow if one took one's girl to the ball game mounted in each new composition, until Arthur Longbrake and Edith Barbier reached the peak in the Baseball Game of Love, published during the first popularity of Take Me Out to the Ball Game:

I was on first
And you on second,
Cupid held the third base down.

This was a remarkable ball game, the composers having the erroneous idea that the base runners were racing against each other, the one on first trying to pass the one on second. Some ball game! Anyway, it provided a climax as exciting as the chariot race in Ben-Hur:

As we two reached third together,
Cupid gave us such a shove,
That we both slid for the home plate,
In our baseball game of love.

About the only tangible benefit that can be detected from these attempts to cash in on the popularity of Von Tilzer's classic is that they gave Ring Lardner confidence to write music of his own. He calculated that it would be impossible to do worse. In 1908, when Take Me Out to the Ball Game was sweeping the country (and when the imitations had passed beyond parody), Lardner was a sportswriter on the Chicago Inter-Ocean. He was spending his first season traveling with the White Sox. Guy Harris White, known as Doc, was a tireless banjo player. He was also, of course, a phenomenal pitcher who had won 27 and lost 13 the year before. Lardner played the piano, made arrangements, composed songs for amateur theatricals and had a deep desire to write popular music, but he lacked the confidence necessary to do it, or perhaps he possessed too keen a sense of humor to put up with its artificialities. Doc White soon took care of any lingering self-consciousness on Lardner's part, however, improvising idiotic parodies and topical songs on the long train journeys of the White Sox. Their first published work was a sentimental song, Little Puff of Smoke, Good Night, brought out by a Chicago firm, with words by "R. W. Lardner" and with White's music revealing a melodic gift of casual and innocent charm. Next they wrote their tribute to baseball, Gee! It's a Wonderful Game. The thought in this opus is that if Columbus could come back now and see the country he might not like some things about it, but if he watched Christopher Mathewson pitch,

He'd have said, "Boys, I'm glad
I discovered this land.
Gee! it's a wonderful game!"

ILLUSTRATION ILLUSTRATIONTHIS WAS COVER OF HIT TUNE IN 1869

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)