Baseball’s greatest songs: 27 perfect songs, from Springsteen, Dylan and more

In honor of Opening Day, and the new Baseball Project album, our favorite songs about the national pastime VIDEO

Topics: Video, Baseball, Major League Baseball, Baseball Project, R.E.M., Wilco, Billy Bragg, Frank Sinatra, Music, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Nat King Cole, Terry Cashman, Jackie Robinson, , , ,

Baseball's greatest songs: 27 perfect songs, from Springsteen, Dylan and moreThe Baseball Project (Credit: Yep Roc/Michael E. Anderson)

It was hardly the first and obviously not the last song written about baseball, but “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is far and away the most popular. In 1908, a sailor-turned-vaudevillian named Jack Norworth scribbled the lyrics down on a napkin during a train ride into New York City, then handed them over to his partner, a former shoe salesman from Indianapolis named Albert Van Tilzer, who composed the melody. The sheet music was an instant success; more impressively, the song has remained incredibly popular ever since: the most durable American tune after the National Anthem and “Happy Birthday.”

It’s been sung by generations of baseball fans, played by countless Wurlitzer organists and covered by the Andrews Sisters, Gene Kelly, King Curtis, Billy Joel, Carly Simon and Jimmy Buffett. Yet, the most famous version is by arguably the least talented singer of the lot. In the 1970s, White Sox announcer Harry Caray started leading fans in a sing-along during the seventh inning stretch, a tradition that continues nearly twenty years after his death. Who doesn’t know all the words? Who doesn’t love counting out one! two! three! strikes? Who doesn’t love hearing an entire stadium harmonizing so poorly yet so earnestly on those last notes?

Baseball and popular music are two distinctively American pastimes that have long and intertwined histories running back 150 years. The first published music about the game was a ditty called “Baseball Polka,” published in sheet music form in 1858. The most recent music was a full album by  power-pop outfit the Baseball Project, available in every format but sheet music. Innumerable songs have come in between to exalt wily pitchers and hard hitters, to daydream about younger days or to make a few salacious come-ons about bats and balls.

Below are 27 base hits that represent the breadth of American musical styles and a wealth of baseball players. (Why 27? Because that’s the number of outs each team has to win a game.)

 

1. Les Brown & His Band of Renown: “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” [1941]

Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak during the summer of ’41 remains one of baseball’s most impressive feats. Even before the season had ended, saxophonist/bandleader Les Brown had immortalized the accomplishment on the smash “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” a goofy, catchy call-and-response that ends with DiMaggio whiffing against the Cleveland Indians.  As vocalist Betty Bonney recounts the outfielder’s incredible run, the male chorus provides color commentary, cheering for hits and booing for strikes.

 

2. Count Basie: “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” [1949]

Just two years after Jackie Robison integrated the major leagues, blues pianist Buddy Johnson penned this fawning tribute to someone who was still a controversial figure in the game. Count Basie made it a hit with his orchestra, and his version exudes an excitable pride in African American achievement. “Did he hit it?” Basie asks rhetorically. “Yeah, and that ain’t all. He stole home!”

 

3. Mabel Scott: “Baseball Boogie” [1950]

Virginia-born, New York-based singer Mabel Scott made a career singing boogies and boogie-woogies, but her salacious 1950 hit may be the most enduring smash in her catalog. “Baseball Boogie” is one of the first songs to use the language of the game to create an elaborate sexual metaphor. If it sounds a bit tame at first, just wait till she gets to the last verse: “I got a drop that’ll make you swing down low / if you can pick it up baby, that means your stroke’s too slow.”

 

4. Jane Morgan: “Baseball, Baseball” [1954]

An American singer with a witty, expressive style, Jane Morgan achieved tremendous fame in France in the early 1950s, performing in nightclubs and cabarets around Paris. What did she do to appeal to audiences in her home country? She recorded this tongue-in-cheek single about dating a handsome, wealthy man whose only flaw is his obsession with the national pastime. Baseball widows across America could commiserate with her assertion that this sort of diamond isn’t a girl’s best friend, while, no doubt, male listeners dreamed of a woman who could distinguish Stan Musial from Ted Williams.

 

5. Treniers: “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” [1955]

September 29, 1954. Game 1 of the World Series, with the New York Giants battling the Cleveland Indians. In the top of the 8th inning, the Tribe’s Vic Wertz hits a dinger out to center. Giants outfielder Willie Mays — nicknamed the Say Hey Kid — is nowhere near it and has to run toward the wall, but he makes a impossible over-the-shoulder catch. The Giants win the game in the 10th and take the series. The next year, proto-rockers the Treniers, anchored by twin Claude and Cliff, extol Mays’ prowess in the field and at the plate: “He covers center like he’s got jet shoes / the other batters get the Willie blues.”

 

6. Nat King Cole: “The First Baseball Game” [1961]

Baseball proved a useful subject for pop musicians, as it allowed them to sing about such taboo topics as sex and race without being too literal. In 1961, Nat King Cole tried to use the language of the baseball game to tell Bible stories, yet strained to stretch the concept to two-and-a-half minutes. Not among his best efforts, “The First Baseball Game” does include some clever wordplay courtesy of songwriters Gene DePaul and Don Raye: “Goliath was struck out by David, a base hit was made on Abel by Cain, and the prodigal son made a great home run.”

 

7. Danny Kaye: “D-O-D-G-E-R-S (Oh, Really? No, O’Malley)” [1962?]

Danny Kaye was not only a huge theater and film star, but also a baseball fanatic who rooted for the Dodgers and co-owned the Mariners for a few years. In 1962, he notched a hit with this novelty song, a high-energy play-by-play of a nailbiter from that year’s pennant race. The Dodgers erase a four-run deficit in the ninth and win the game with a heroic play, which drives Kaye to seemingly impossible heights of exasperation and excitement. With all the puns and tongue twisters, Kaye turns this musical performance into an act of theatrical athleticism that rivals any of his beloved bums.

 

8. Dave Frishberg: “Van Lingle Mungo” [1969]

Despite playing thirteen seasons in the majors for the Brooklyn Robins and the New York Giants, three-time all-star righthander Van Lingle Mungo’s greatest claim to fame is this 1969 novelty hit by Dave Frishberg. The jazz pianist wrote the melody first, then wrote the lyrics using a baseball encyclopedia. Rather than recount the players’ stats, however, he simply savors the unlikely syllables in their names, turning Mungo’s name into a kind of dada chorus and singing
“Augie Bergamo” and “Pinky May” as though they mean something profound.

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9. Sam & Dave: “Knock It Out of the Park” [1970]

One of the final singles by the legendary Stax duo Sam & Dave, “Knock It Out the Park” isn’t quite a home run. Lyrically, it’s a confused love=baseball metaphor about how you can’t just hit a single or a double play because “your best friend might be her pinch hitter.” On the other hand, the legendary Muscle Shoals session group the Dixie Flyers churn an excitably swampy groove, and the duo’s combustible chemistry is evident as they trade verses and punctuate the song with “Good god!” and “Lord have mercy!”

 

10. Del Reeves: “Philadelphia Fillies” [1971]

“Well, I’m sitting here thinking about those Philadelphia Fillies, and some may think I’m talking ‘bout baseball,” Del Reeves sings on his lusty 1971 hit. Simply by changing the Ph- to an F-, the country star showed just how easily team names could be switched from masculine to feminine. In addition to those fine fillies, Reeves claims to have hooked up with “some nice looking twins up in Minnesota” and “cuddled a cubby in old Chicago.”

 

11. Albert Jones: “Vida Blue” [1971]

When people talk about the 1970s as baseball’s weirdest, wackiest and most colorful era, they’re talking about polyester uniforms, long hair spilling out of baseball caps and colorful characters like A’s southpaw Vida Blue. In 1971 — just his second season in the majors — he won both the MVP award and the Cy Young. Gary, Ind. soulman Albert Jones released this amiably funky tribute the same year, with its low bass groove, rowdy harmonica and loose-limbed vocals. “Baseball is still our national game, but the last few years were kinda tame,” Jones asserts, before crediting Blue with injecting the game with some excitement. “Now they’re buzzin’ from town to town, ‘cause ain’t hitter put Vida down.”

 

12. Frank Sinatra: “There Used to Be a Ballpark” [1973]

On his 1973 comeback album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, Frank Sinatra included this sentimental baseball reminiscence, which is less concerned with the game itself than with the experience of being in the ballpark: eating hot dogs, drinking beer, visiting with family and friends, watching the fireworks. This may be the first song to cast baseball in the rosy light of nostalgia, turning the game into a symbol of a great American past that has been presumably dismantled by the upheaval of the previous decade. “The sky has got so cloudy,” he muses, “when it used to be so clear.”

 

13. Meat Loaf: Paradise by the Dashboard Light [1977] 

If Meat Loaf is Springsteen for theater kids, then this hit from Bat Out of Hell is a short one-act about two horny teenagers at a lovers lane somewhere in America, with none other than Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto providing a play-by-play of their heavy petting. Believe it or not, “Paradise” is just as nostalgic as Sinatra’s “There Used to Be a Ballpark”: “It was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today,” Meat sings at the end, yet the punchline is that his narrator longs for the days before he got married.

 

14. Warren Zevon: “Bill Lee” (1980)

Warren Zevon’s ode to southpaw Bill “Spaceman” Lee is only a minute and a half long, but it contains volumes. Pontificating on the southpaw’s eccentricities more than his pitch counts, this short reverie celebrates his individualism and includes not one but two harmonica solos in quote marks, as though the only way to do the man justice is without words.

 

15. Terry Cashman: “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)” [1981]

Even as ballplayers went on strike in the middle of the 1981 season, former minor leaguer turned folkie Terry Cashman had a minor hit with this saccharine ode to heroes past and present. Doggedly avoiding any controversial statements and resolutely refusing to side with the owners or the players, he sounds like a guy who just found his old baseball cards in the attic and lost an afternoon chewing stale bubblegum. Over the years, Cashman has revised the song and updated the names, most famously for an episode of “The Simpsons.”

 

16. Steve Goodman: A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request [1983]

Steve Goodman made a career, such as it was, writing songs about baseball, which he understood to be a sport that romanticizes its losers as doggedly as it lionizes its heroes. He was, of course, a Cubs fan. Going to Wrigley Field was like going to church and being the butt of some cosmic joke, and “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” is his wiseacre ode to anyone who remembers the days before night games but still winced when Keith Moreland missed a routine fly.

 

17. Bruce Springsteen: “Glory Days” [1984]

“I had a friend, was a big baseball player, back in high school,” the Boss recalls at the start of his ’85 smash hit. That’s the only time the sport is mentioned, but it’s enough to qualify it as a baseball song. Springsteen closely identifies the sport with the same bittersweet yearning for the past that Sinatra did, but ultimately he gleefully satirizes that nostalgia by ribbing himself and anyone else who reminisces so wistfully about the golden age of anything. In the end, we all end up “telling boring stories of … glory days.”

 

18. John Fogerty: “Centerfield” [1985]

Nearly thirty years after its release, the title track from John Fogerty’s 1985 album remains the most famous baseball song of the rock era and a ballpark mainstay for nearly thirty years. Sure, he lists real-world players alongside the fictional Mudville slugger Casey, but Fogerty’s guitar expertly runs the bases and writes a simple, catchy chorus that can be sung even with a wad of tobacco in your lip.

 

19. Jerry Jeff Walker: “Nolan Ryan (He’s a Hero to Us All)” [1991]

Jerry Jeff Walker writes about Nolan Ryan like he’s a real Texas outlaw — a desperado waitin’ on a train, armed with a 100-mph fastball instead of a six-shooter. The hurler pitched nearly 30 years in the majors, with 5,714 strikeouts, seven no-hitters, and a revered spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In Walker’s telling, Ryan looms as large as Paul Bunyan, but these are no tall tales.

 

20. Bob Dylan: “Catfish” [1991]


catfish Bob DYLAN [rare] by mystralgagnant95300

Dylan and Jacques Levy co-wrote this ode to Jim “Catfish” Hunter in the mid-1970s, after the Oakland right-hander became baseball’s first big-money free agent and signed a lucrative deal with — who else? — the Yankees. The song wasn’t released until 1991, when it was boxed in the set “The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.” If Dylan disapproves of the Fish’s high pricetag, he never lets on. Instead, he plays it close to the chest: “Catfish, million-dollar-man / Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.”

 

21. Jean Grae [feat. Natural Resource]: “Negro Leagues” [1996]

Before she went solo, the South Africa-born, New York-bred rapper Jean Grae (a.k.a. Tsidi Ibrahim) was one third of the New York trio Natural Resource, who only recorded a handful of singles in the mid-1990s. Among them is “Negro Baseball League,” an incendiary exposé of the unscrupulous business practices that ran the Negro leagues as well as the music industry. Grae only gets a verse on the song, but she crams her lines with unforgettable imagery. “How come when black men hit the field, they were throwin’ bottles?” she asks. “Now they’re throwin’ million-dollar deals.”

 

22. Billy Bragg & Wilco: “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” [2000]

When he died in 1967, Woody Guthrie left behind thousands of unrecorded lyrics jotted down in notebooks or on stray scraps of paper, among them this undated ode to the Yankee Clipper himself. In 2000, just a year after DiMaggio died, Wilco and Billy Bragg set the words to a clattering banjo accompaniment and recorded it for “Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2.” The jittery banjo accompaniment and Jeff Tweedy’s aw-shucks vocals perfectly complement Guthrie’s rambunctious wordplay, which celebrates Joltin’ Joe as an American monument on par with the Grand Coulee Dam.

 

23. Ry Cooder: “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium” [2005]

The narrator of this poignant song off Ry Cooder’s concept album, “Chávez Ravine,” isn’t a baseball player, but one of so many displaced Mexican Americans whose community was destroyed when developers built Dodgers Stadium. He parks cars for a living and wistfully recalls his old home, which stood where third base is now. Rather than being bitter, the narrator — sung by the Hawaiian guitarist James “Bla” Pahinui — embraces the franchise that uprooted him.

 

24. Todd Snider: America’s Favorite Pasttime [2009]

In June 1970, Pirate righty Dock Ellis threw nine innings of no-hit baseball against the San Diego Padres. That in and of itself is impressive, but Ellis did it while tripping his brains out on LSD. In his celebration of the feat, Nashville raconteur Todd Snider recounts this bit of counterculture lore by describing the hallucinations (“the ball turned into a silver bullet, his arm into a gun”) as vividly as he does the game play (“His sinker looked like it was falling off a table, but nobody was hallucinating that”). In the end it’s impossible to tell which is America’s real favorite pastime: baseball or recreational drug use.

 

25. Merle Haggard: That’s the Way Baseball Go [2011]

Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington is a fount of pithily fatalistic, doggedly ungrammatical baseball quotes, including the classics “He do what he do” and “That’s the way baseball go.” The latter went viral in 2010, when Wash took the team to the World Series, inspiring bootleg t-shirts and a sweet, simple charity single by Merle Haggard. The song is about as breezy as a spring day in Surprise, Ariz., but it reveals something deep about the charms of the game, which is defined by its weird flukes as well as its athletic derring-do.

 

26. Waters: “Mickey Mantle” [2012]

During his rookie season, 19-year-old Mickey Mantle caught his cleat in a drain cover and twisted his knee. For the rest of his career, he had to wrap his legs tightly before each game; even with that precaution, he often limped on the field and swayed at the plate. Mantle battled alcoholism for years, yet despite these obstacles, he still became one of the game’s greatest players — a 20-time all-star who excelled during the postseason. When Van Pierszalowski says he’s “feelin’ Mickey Mantle,” the Waters frontman might be talking about knocking the ball over the fence or knocking back another drink. Either way, this song, from the California indie band’s debut album, “Out in the Light,” is a quietly moving statement about the nature of sacrifice and commitment.

 

27. Baseball Project: “To the Veterans’ Committee” [2014]

The Baseball Project is a power-pop all-star team — featuring members of R.E.M., the Dream Syndicate, and the Minus 5 — devoted to commemorating the national pastime with clever lyrics and super-catchy hooks. On their just-released third album, “3rd,” the band addresses this standout to the veterans’ committee, arguing for Dale Murphy’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to tell which is more persuasive: the former Atlanta outfielder’s impressive stats or the band’s sky-high chorus.

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