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Take Me Out To The Ballgame: A Brief History

By Paulo Camacho

October 30, 2016. It’s Game 5 of the 2016 World Series, between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The game, held at Wrigley Field in Chicago, was a close one — the Cubbies held a slim 3 to 2 lead over the Tribe. It was do or die for Chicago, as the Northsiders were down three games to one in the best-of-seven series. For a franchise, and a fanbase, that hadn’t seen a World Series championship in 108 years, you could imagine that the times were tense in The Friendly Confines.

Then, came the seventh inning stretch, where Cubs fans would partake in one of its oldest rituals — singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” as one baseball crowd. It started with legendary broadcaster Harry Caray, and lived on with Cubs fans after his death in 1998. The song has become as big a part of Cubs lore as their infamous “Billy Goat Curse”.

Per custom, especially in the postseason, a well-known public figure or celebrity would lead the festivities. This time, it was Pearl Jam frontman, and longtime die-hard Cubs fan, Eddie Vedder:

It was the last time the Cubs would have a chance to listen to their home crowd sing the famous baseball song, but, maybe it was the good luck charm they needed — they would hold onto their one-run lead and win Game 5. They would proceed to win the World Series in seven games, for the team’s first title since 1908.

While the Cubs are the most well-known team for the tradition of singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, make no mistake — the song, and the tradition, has been a part of the sport of baseball as a whole, and American pop culture, for decades. And to think, a song so iconic to the game of baseball was, once upon a time, written by a man who had little interest in the sport, to begin with.

“Take Me Out To The Ballgame” is one of the most recognized songs in all of American sport. Considered an unofficial anthem for the sport of baseball, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” isn’t known as a musical masterpiece. In fact, the simple 6/8 tune is seen by most historians — both in music and in sports — as simplistic and crude, at best.

But, it is likely because of its simplicity that “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” has had such wide and sustained popularity. After all, the tune’s most well-known lyrics are so generic, that the song associated with our national pastime resonates with every baseball fan, no matter their team loyalty, age, or ethnicity. Combined with a memorable vaudevillian, waltz-like tune, the song is easily seen as the most recognizable in modern American history, save only for “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

For such a simple song, however, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” has had an interesting history, in its journey to the annals of Americana. After all, the song, at its genesis, was never intended to be a baseball anthem of any kind. In fact, the tune’s credited original writer — Vaudeville lyricist Jack Norworth — had reportedly never attended a baseball game.

As the story goes, back in 1908, Norworth was on the subway in New York, looking for inspiration for songs, as he was wont to do as a songwriter. It was there where he saw a billboard from his window that read:

“Baseball Today — Polo Grounds.”

The Polo Grounds referred to the home stadium of the then-New York Giants (best known today as the San Francisco Giants). Seeing that billboard sparked a bit of inspiration for a song. He penned it on an old envelope in fifteen minutes, and took the lyrics to his composer friend, Albert von Tilzer. Together, they came up with the song we all know and sing today in baseball parks all over the country.

However, what we know as “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” isn’t the entire song. In fact, the lyrics that everyone knows — ones depicting a day at the ballpark, with fans supporting their hometown squad — is simply the chorus to the original song. The entire 1908 tune depicts a young lady named Katie Casey who was obsessed with baseball. When her gentleman caller, in an effort to woo her, asked if she wanted to go to a show with him, she rebuffed his advances. But she countered with an offer to take her to a baseball game:

The hit song is possibly one of the lasting remnants of the Tin Pan Alley era in American music. After all, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” was originally penned as a Vaudeville song for the times. Norworth and his wife, Nora Bayes, regularly performed it for audiences at Vaudeville shows, and it was an instant hit. In fact, it was a commercial success long before it was considered a “baseball song.”

It wasn’t until 1934 that “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” was first played at an actual baseball game. It wasn’t at the Polo Grounds in New York, but some three time zones away — at a high school baseball game in Los Angeles. Later that year, it was played at Game 4 of the World Series. The practice wasn’t a regular occurrence, however, until 1971, when — you guessed it —Harry Caray started singing it when he was a sports announcer.

He started the practice when he worked with the Chicago White Sox, and brought the tradition to Chicago Cubs games when he became the Northsiders’ game announcer in 1982.**

Today, it has gone down in history as the №8 song on the “Songs of the 20th Century” list. In the words of Harry Caray, it is “a song that reflects the charisma of baseball,” and, ultimately, for what started out as an obscure vaudeville tune in the early 20th century, it has become a large part of the fabric of Americana.

** Thanks to Ryan Pesole for the pointing out the factual error that Harry Caray started “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” with the Chicago Cubs.