King Kaufman's Sports Daily

In "The Baseball Songbook," musicologist and singer Jerry Silverman explores a musical golden age of sport.


Salon Staff
June 19, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Ever heard of Katie Casey? Even if you haven't, you've probably sung a song about her dozens if not hundreds of times. In fact, you probably know the lyrics of that song by heart, or at least the chorus of it.

"Katie Casey was baseball mad/Had the fever and had it bad/Just to root for the hometown crew/Every sou Katie blew," it begins.

Advertisement:

Familiar? No? Here's the rest of the verse: "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.'"

In "The Baseball Songbook," musicologist and folk singer Jerry Silverman collects Katie's tale and 40 others from the first half-century or so of baseball history. The book features sheet music from songs written between 1867 and 1922, as well as an introduction to each song by Silverman and a CD of him singing unadorned versions of the first verse and chorus of each, accompanying himself on the guitar.

It's a fascinating look at a time when baseball songs were a staple of mainstream popular music, none more popular than that one about Katie Casey. And what is it that Katie wanted her beau to do? Let's go to the chorus:

"Take me out to the ballgame ..."

Silverman, 76, is the author of many books of music instruction and song collections. He says he did most of his research for "The Baseball Songbook" at the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University. The book stops at 1922 because after that there are copyright issues, and Silverman says venerable music publishing house Alfred Publishing "didn't want to get involved in permissions and royalties and all that stuff."

Advertisement:

But there's plenty here. The popular styles of the times are represented, from the martial-sounding "The Bat and the Ball," published two years after the end of the Civil War, through the comic vaudeville numbers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many featuring standard characters of the day such as the buffoonish Irishman, and on to songs about the Federal League and Babe Ruth.

There's even one co-written by -- and about -- Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Marquard, who was involved in show business through his wife, singing star Blossom Seeley.

Almost all of the songs will be new to almost everyone, though one title, "Slide, Kelly, Slide," might ring a bell even if the song itself doesn't.

Some of the big songwriters of the era are here, including George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin, both represented by work that would have to be classified as not their best.

Advertisement:

Silverman grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in, oddly enough, the Bronx. He says he's now, "by default," a New York Yankees fan. I spoke to him Monday by phone from his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Why a baseball songbook? Why baseball songs?

My most recent book before the baseball book was a collection of songs of the Holocaust called "The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust," which follows the line of what a musicologist does, digs up songs which used to be sung, perhaps, and should be at least remembered, and certainly there are no songs that need to be remembered more than songs of the Holocaust.

Advertisement:

The baseball stuff, in a much lighter vein of course, follows the same path. Through other books that I've done I've come across two or three songs with baseball subjects, and my curiosity was whetted. I thought if there were two or three maybe there was more. And sure enough, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of baseball songs dating back to the Civil War period and up to the present day.

Within that 60-year period from the 1860s to the 1920s, there are hundreds and hundreds of songs which were part of the mainstream of what composers wrote about in those days. There were the usual love songs and songs of parting and sentimental songs and funny songs, but within that, they used baseball as a metaphor for other things that were going on.

So there are songs about taking my girl to the ballgame and proposing to her in the bleachers and kill the umpire, but the people who were writing these songs were mainstream songwriters. Irving Berlin didn't write many, but he wrote that one, "Jake, Jake, the Yiddisha Ball Player." There were composers like George M. Cohan, who wrote "Give My Regards to Broadway," who tried to compete with, tried to write a sequel to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" called "Take Your Girl to the Ball Game." It sounds almost exactly like "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," but it just somehow never made the grade.

Advertisement:

Once I got into the archives, the problem was not what songs to pick but what songs to eliminate. It never ended.

What is it about baseball? You've mentioned that you're not going to find this treasure-trove of songs about basketball, say.

I don't know. It's really strange. Baseball from its earliest days somehow was already called our national game, our national sport. There was something about maybe the outdoorsness of it, the infectiousness of the crowds roaring, I don't know. It's hard to say why something wasn't written.

Baseball has this great literary tradition, of course, but then so does boxing, and there isn't this trove of boxing songs.

Advertisement:

Well, no. There couldn't really be. There are songs about famous prizefights. They do date back to the John L. Sullivan era and beyond. [There are] kind of folksy ballads which exist in odd collections here and there, but there isn't a popular literature of boxing songs.

The baseball players were the heroes of their day, as many of them still are today. The composers of the day, like any pop composer or contemporary composer, look for what people are buying or people are singing and try to fill the gap.

Why don't we sing about sports anymore? Why don't popular songwriters write about sports now?

It's almost a fad. During the 1930s there was this Hawaiian ukulele fad. Everybody was singing songs about going back to the beautiful islands. Before that there was the birth of the jazz era. Baseball songs, they had their day, and they just went someplace else. Popular tastes changed. Again, it's almost impossible to say why things don't happen.

Advertisement:

Let's talk about the king of all baseball songs. Listening to the CD and trying to hear it as though I've never heard any of these songs before -- which is true for almost all of them except that one -- it strikes me that if you don't know anything about the last 100 years and you don't know anything about baseball, I'm not sure that that song would leap out at me as the greatest of them all. Maybe it does to you, but why do you think "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" became the "Happy Birthday" of baseball?

Another tough question. Again, it's impossible to say. Why didn't "Take Your Girl to the Ball Game" achieve that status? It just clicked somehow. It also may have had something to do with who performed it originally, because by the time "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was written in 1908, recordings were already on the scene, so popular vaudeville performers performed them, and you had to be a pop star of the day to get your wares before the public.

The composer, Jack Norworth, his wife was Nora Bayes. She was a big star, a big, big star in her day. A vaudeville and musical star. She sang it, and if Nora Bayes sang it, then it was bound to catch people's attention.

You could ask the same question today. Why does any rock song become an anthem? Why does "We Will Rock You" get sung at every ballgame and another doesn't. Public taste is a fickle thing and fads come and go. What was last year's wonderful song is never heard from again.

Advertisement:

Of all the other songs written around 1908, which you never heard of and I'd never heard of, it must have really caught on almost immediately to have captured the imagination of the baseball world. It is, I mean, I don't know if it's the greatest song of all time, but it is easy to sing, it does have a nice melody, and it's very evocative of going out and having a good time.

[Note: In the 20 hours or so since conducting this interview and listing to Silverman's version of the song twice, the melody of the verse, not the familiar chorus, has become stuck in my head. Maybe there really was something to it. -- KK]

You said the book stops at 1922 because of copyright considerations. If not for that, what would the next book look like?

Well, there was a song that I really wanted to include which was published in 1925, and it was about Bucky Harris. He was at that time the manager of the Washington Senators. They won the World Series in 1924. He lived in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and he had a kind of a triumphant parade welcoming him back after the World Series. The governor was there and the whole business, a banquet and fireworks and whatever. Somebody wrote a song about Bucky saying something to the effect of "Do for us in '25 what you did in '24." I thought that would have been a very nice song to include.

Advertisement:

And then of course I could have gone on and on. To overcome the lack of songs of the Negro Leagues, I would have certainly liked to include a Jackie Robinson song. But obviously it didn't happen, so you just have to stop there. There were a couple of others. There were songs about Connie Mack and the Athletics from the late '20s and early '30s. There were a lot of good songs. They didn't just stop in 1922.

You start to get into movie songs like "O'Brian to Ryan to Goldberg" [from a movie called "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," of course].

And there's certainly "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," which I would have loved to put in, and other ones like that. But it couldn't be done.

Why is it that there were no Negro Leagues songs?

Advertisement:

That's another impossible question. When I called the guy at the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame, he was mystified. He'd never thought of it --

Oh, you just mean you weren't able to find any.

Well, you would think that if there were any he would know about it. In view of the tremendous repertoire of songs of the black American experience in every facet of life, you would have certainly thought that the heroes of the Negro Leagues would have songs written about them. And maybe they did but they were never published, and if they were never published, we don't have records of them. It's too bad.

I mean, the only song that has this pseudo-black thing is "Brother Noah Gave Out Checks for Rain," but that was written by a white man, and it's written in this horrible dialect, and the cover is a disgrace. The only reason I put it in there is because it's typical of the era, so with baited breath and apologies in the introduction, I included it.

And that was the only song that the guy at the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame had heard of that had "something to do" -- in quotes, because it didn't -- with the black experience.

Now, paradoxically, "McGuffin's Home Run," that was written by a black composer, Gussie Lord Davis, who wrote this pseudo-Irish song. Why didn't he write something else? He was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter and he had to make a living like everybody else. He wrote "McGuffin's Home Run" because everybody was writing funny Irish songs in those days.

To hear Jerry Silverman singing the first verse and chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," as well as the chorus in Yiddish, click here.

Previous column: Pacman Jones, Kobe Bryant, Vin Scully

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

  • Bookmark http://www.salon.com/sports to get the new Kaufman column every day.
  • Get a Salon Sports RSS feed.
  • Discuss this column and the sports news of the day in Table Talk.
  • To receive the Sports Daily Newsletter, send an e-mail to kingnewsletter@salon.com.


  • Salon Staff

    MORE FROM Salon Staff

    BROWSE SALON.COM
    COMPLETELY AD FREE,
    FOR THE NEXT HOUR

    Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
    registration for 1-Hour Access

    Click Here
    7-Day Access and Monthly
    Subscriptions also available
    No tracking or personal data collection
    beyond name and email address

    •••





    Fearless journalism
    in your inbox every day

    Sign up for our free newsletter

    • • •