Baseball’s hit parade
The history of baseball songs is almost as nutty as the history of the sport itself
Baseball is a parochial 19th century game played professionally in 21st century America by grown men making millions of dollars a year. Bilbo catching and chuck-farthing didn’t take. But baseball fused into our cultural genome. Football may be more exciting. Basketball: more athletic. Curling: arguably more stimulating. Year after year, through war and recession, the fans fill the seats. Baseball is a history rich with stories, not just statistics, making it perfect for that other American storytelling tradition: music.
Baseball unwinds subtly, like a Henry James novel or a sedative under the tongue. Every game has a narrative arc. Other sports linger in the frivolous and inspire novelty tunes like The Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle,” featuring some of the worst rapping since Will Smith spit verse about how “wack” it is when his parents buy the wrong kind of Pop-Tarts.
In addition to standards like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball has inspired songs from Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” the lyrically apocryphal “Cubs in Five” by the Mountain Goats,” Bob Dylan’s tune “Catfish” about the Yankee catcher, Terry Cashman’s “Talking Baseball,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Greatest.” Alabama, Warren Zevon, Natalie Cole, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Belle & Sebastian and an obscure Italian kid named Frances Albert Sinatra have all recorded baseball tunes. Wilco recorded an old Woody Guthrie song about Joe DiMaggio. The musical Damn Yankees was inspired by the ball club. The band Damn Yankees was inspired by the musical. The Damn Yankees song “High Enough” could have been inspired by the 1980s Mets, home of the purest cocaine in America. More likely, it’s about Ted Nugent’s endorphin rush after shooting something in the face.
A group called The Baseball Project, with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, write only baseball songs. One is about Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the former pitcher who died in 2009 in a dump truck mishap.
Perplexingly, the most popular baseball song remains “Centerfield,” by former CCR singer John Fogerty. The album has sold more than 2 million copies since its 1985 release and last year was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. The song shits the bed—softball dad-rock and synth-pop. It’s spun at every ballpark in the country, seemingly on repeat at Atlanta’s Turner Field. Personally, I’d rather listen to Garrison Keillor sing the dirty version of Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” than listen to Fogerty beg the damned coach to put him in one more time. “I can be centerfield,” he sings. No, John. You just fucking can’t.
Baseball is a symphony played by an orchestra of uniquely American mythos. It’s a melting pot of meritocracy. Spitting. Ball tugging. Bench-clearing brawls. But insulting baseball as an institution is equivalent to burning the flag while it’s wrapped around your mom’s waist as she bakes apple pies.
It’s an invitation for torrents of abuse. You’re either with us or against us, to quote former Texas Rangers part-owner George W. Bush, whose favorite song?
If you don’t like baseball you hate freedom.
When Jack Norworth wrote “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in 1908, he had never even seen one. It’s the musical equivalent of writing the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” without knowing about LSD.
Baseball season rides in on the high tides of spring, renewal, youth.
But three hours cramped in a seat watching grown men play grab ass for 162 games? Is that a season or a siege?
The baseball drama where Babe Ruth promises to hit a homerun at the sick child’s bedside is a classic baseball story. Often shitfaced, Ruth spent more time in whorehouses. The Runaways did a song about the Babe.
If Pete Rose—subject of a disco song and name-checked in a Jimmy Buffet tune—were to wager on how that child got in the hospital in the first place, it’s a good bet Ty Cobb slugged him with scrap metal. The “Georgia Peach” was a sadist, an unrepentant racist whose mother shot and killed his father. Cobb probably had no business owning a baseball bat at all, and tried to injure people while on the field. He famously charged into the stands and beat the hell out of a fan with no arms. Soundgarden wrote a song called “Ty Cobb.”
Two-time MVP Rogers Hornsby was a proud KKK member. More recently, Hitler-apologist and long-time “highly astringent bag of vinegar and water” Reds owner Marge Schott loved to throw around the “n” word almost as much as she enjoyed letting her dogs shit all over the infield. There is a song about Marge Schott.
Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD in 1970. At times, he said, he thought Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire. A few years later, to prove a point, he decided to try to bean every batter in the Cincinatti Reds lineup. Ellis nailed the first three, walked one, and then threw at Johnny Bench’s noggin. His manager pulled him. There are at least as many songs about Dock Ellis.
Sparks songwriter Eric Elmore had a good job at a San Francisco publishing company. The last thing he expected was to get a call like that. It was 2001. His dad’s girlfriend was on the line. He’d suffered a major stroke and was in the hospital.
“That’s a call you never think about getting,” he says. Elmore was 34 years old. He drove to Sparks the next day. His father, “Pops,” was in a coma. “For some reason, he felt me or heard me come in the room, and he woke up and started crying, and I started crying … At that point I knew my life was going to change. I decided to become his full-time caregiver.”
Elmore moved to Sparks. “It’s a great deal of sacrifice to do this full time,” he says. But he loves his father.
“He took me to a lot of games as a kid,” he says. “The A’s and Giants—I got my first whupping at an A’s game,” he says.
His baseball song, “Pop’s Song” is about the excitement of being a kid on your way to a game. The anticipation. “It reminds you of how much fun it was.”
Elmore grew up on baseball. He had two cousins playing minor league ball. His uncle played in the Pacific Coast League. “They told lots of stories.”
“In 2004, Pops went back in the hospital. His roommate was watching baseball. Pops’ friend Willie Stargell had passed away that week. We were watching the A’s play the Orioles. It was 3-2 in the ninth inning. Two outs. Miguel Tejada was up. The count was 3-2. Dad was upset thinking, we lost this one. The next thing you know, Tejada gets a pitch and jacks a homerun.”
So moved was Pops that he gave his life to Jesus the next day.
Elmore says he’s met a lot of great musicians since he’s lived here. He put together an all-star team called The Home Team Band to record “Pop’s Song” and an alternate version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at Inspired Amateur Productions in Sparks.
“Tom Gordon is an amazing producer, and he introduced me to some other amazing arrangers, artists, and musicians and singers. It all just came together.”
“Each baseball game has so much history in it,” he says. “Baseball tells a story. Music tells a story. … Once baseball is in your blood—and if you’re American it is … it’s more than a game. It puts people to work. It inspires. …We all just hope people enjoy the song as much as we did recording the track. I’m honored that these cats, pro musicians, really got into it. If you’re a baseball fan you really need to have this song in your music library. It’s the perfect song to play on the way to a Reno Aces game.”