WASHINGTON, May 22, 2013 — Baseball’s anthem, “Take Me Out To the Ball Game,” turns 105 years old this week. Did you notice? Probably not. Because it doesn’t sound a day over 99.
OK, now the bad news, but truth must be told. Ready? “Take Me Out To the Ball Game” was not written for the love of baseball. Wait a minute before crying “heresy.” It happens to be true.
The year was 1907. A spectacular show lit up the stage of the Jardin De Paris atop the New York Theatre in Manhattan. It was the new Ziegfeld Follies, a spectacular revue, which featured beautiful dancing women and a vast variety of versatile performers.
The Follies would run for many years and, in its course, feature such stellar talents as Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, and many others. Its appropriate theme song, written by composer Irving Berlin, was the immortal “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.”
A dazzling young soprano in this show of shows was pretty, diminutive Nora Bayes. During that year, Nora met a handsome Philadelphia tenor named Jack Norworth. The silver tenor and the lilting soprano soon began making beautiful music together both on- and off-stage. Later that same year the two were married.
The following year, the couple teamed up to compose a song that Nora then introduced in the “Follies of 1908,” “Shine On Harvest Moon.” It became an instant hit and perennial favorite.
Later that same year, “Gentleman Jack” Norworth was riding the rails below Manhattan. For a few weeks he had been mulling ideas, hoping to come up with another song for his bride to introduce in the “Follies.”
At a station stop a wall poster caught his eye. It read: BASE BALL TODAY — POLO GROUNDS. An idea struck him like a line drive: a song about a woman who wants to be taken out to — of all places — a baseball game.
On a few scraps of yellow paper (now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame), Norworth scribbled the lyrics as smoothly as one might take dictation. Two verses and a chorus written in about 25 minutes before the subway got to the end of the line.
He then rushed his fresh lyrics to his friend Albert Von Tilzer and challenged the mustachioed tunesmith to come up with a melody that would rival “Shine On Harvest Moon.”
With an ease comparable to his counterpart, Von Tilzer was soon playing the simple melody, which would ring out in ballparks across American as people sang:
“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 us 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.”
For the Love of the Game?
Bayes and Norworth showcased their song in the “Follies of 1908.” and it sparkled as one of the jewels of the revue. Outside of the theater, however, the song met with a tepid response. Slowly, it began to grow in popularity as a result of nickelodeon renditions, song-slides, sing-alongs, sales of York sheet music, and RCA Victor single-face record #5510. And soon it seemed people couldn’t get enough of “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.”
By the time the 1910 baseball season opened, the song rang ritualistically throughout the ballparks of the land. Fans gleefully sang the song that would become a staple of the game itself. That same season, coincidentally, a couple of other baseball staples entered the game: the sale of hot dogs at ballparks and the president of the United States tossing out an Opening Day pitch to inaugurate a new baseball season.
The song has been recorded by a widely divergent range of performers. In 1994, when Ken Burns was putting together his nine-part series, “Baseball,” for PBS, the documentarian recorded 249 versions of this song.
How strange, then, that this song which made baseball the only sport to have its own anthem, this song which would carve its way into baseball history with the precision of a Louisville Slugger, was not written for love of the game. It was, in fact, written for the love of a woman.
“Gentleman Jack” was not a baseball fan. At the time he scribbled those immortal lyrics, he had not even seen a ballgame. Virtually all he knew about the game was that there was a batsman who tried to hit a ball and after three strikes he was called “out.” Norworth used his limited knowledge to good advantage in the song.
For the Love of A Woman
Despite the popularity of his song and the fact that it made him famous and rich, Jack Norworth never got around to attending a baseball game. That is, he never attended a ballgame until 1942 when he stepped inside Ebbets Field, 33 years after he penned baseball’s premier song.
Because this song would not be part of America’s vast musical lexicon today were it not for Norworth’s devotion to his bride, wouldn’t it be nice if, once in a while, during the traditional 7th-inning stretch, when the stadium organ plays and the fans caterwaul in the stands, if the scoreboard displayed a picture of the woman who introduced and helped popularize “Take Me Out To the Ball Game,” America’s sweetheart singer, Nora Bayes?
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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