Did you know that “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” was written by a guy who had almost no interest in the sport? In fact, after he came up with the idea for the song, it took Jack Norworth over thirty years to get around to taking in his first major league game.
At the turn of the last century, Norworth was a vaudeville entertainer, best known for his spirited hoofing and blackface routines. He also dabbled in songwriting. The story goes that in the summer of 1908, he was riding the New York subway when he saw a sign: “Baseball Today at the Polo Grounds!” The ad for the New York Giants home game got him thinking. Was there a better example of a nationally shared experience than a ball game? Always on the lookout for commercial ideas, he scribbled down a verse and a chorus with the title “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” (his original handwritten lyrics are now on display in the Baseball Hall of Fame).
Norworth took the words to composer Albert Von Tilzer, his collaborator on hits such as “Meet Me In Apple Blossom Time” and “Honey Boy.” Von Tilzer wasn’t much of a baseball fan either, but he recognized a potential hit and in less than an hour, dashed off a jaunty melody that fit the lyric like a well-oiled glove.
The first recording of “Ball Game,” by Edward Meeker, was a huge success. Sheet music and piano rolls of the song flew out of music stores. While there had been other baseball songs - “The Baseball Polka,” “It’s Great at a Baseball Game” and the similarly titled “Take Your Girl To The Ball Game” – they were only bloop singles. “Take Me Out” was a home run.
What really knocked the song out of the park, of course, was its almost instant ubiquity at baseball stadiums across the country.
Not all of the song was heard though.
Norworth and Von Tilzer had begun with a lengthy verse:
“Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev'ry sou [common slang at the time for low-denomination coin]
Katie blew. . .”
It’s interesting that the songwriters chose a woman as the subject of the verse, as baseball was traditionally a man’s sport. But as the verse progresses, the set-up unfolds with the gal telling her fella to forget the movie show because she wants to go to a ball game.
"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 time, fans would forget the verses in favor of the catchy refrain. That didn’t stop Norworth from writing new verses in 1927, trading Katie Casey for another Irish girl named Nelly Kelly, and plugging the popular beach resort Coney Island. Again, those words sat on the bench at games.
One of Norworth’s plugs had a huge effect, though. Decades before product placement kickbacks became the norm, Norworth did a favor for Fritz and Louis Rueckheim, who manufactured a popular mixture of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts called Cracker Jack. The mention in the lyric immortalized it as the snack of choice at ball games (though in the health conscious 21st century, it is falling out favor).
By the 1950s, the song was the anthem of baseball’s seventh-inning stretch. It had also appeared in movies such as A Night At The Opera, The Naughty Nineties and the Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly vehicle, Take Me Out To The Ball Game, as well as a famous episode of I Love Lucy, featuring Harpo Marx.
In 1971, legendary Chicago sportscaster Harry Caray lent his boundless enthusiasm and marginal musical talent to the song, establishing a sing-a-long tradition at both White Sox and Cubs games for three decades.
In 1994, the song got another boost with a sultry version by Carly Simon that was featured in Baseball, the award-winning Ken Burns documentary series. In 1996, the Goo Goo Dolls cut a rocked-out version of the song that continues to be featured on ESPN broadcasts of baseball games.
In 2008, a book called Baseball’s Greatest Hit: 100 Years of Take Me Out To The Ball Game detailed the history of the song.
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Albert Von Tilzer died in 1956, Jack Norworth in 1959 (the year before, upon the song’s 50th anniversary, he was honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers with “Jack Norworth Day”). “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” now forty-three years in the public domain, can be performed royalty-free - another reason why it continues to thrive at America’s stadiums, and probably will for as long as umpires cry, “Play ball!”
Of the song’s enduring appeal, the great sportswriter Harold Rosenthal once said: “Of the several hundred songs written for or about the National Game, ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ looms above them all - like Stan Musial coming to bat in the ninth inning. It was so good that the song is probably familiar to 999 out of every 1,000 persons in the United States.”