Sunday, April 2, 2017

Put Me In Coach

There are lots of songs intrinsically tied to the game of baseball.

Legend has it that the tradition of playing the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games began on September 6, 1918, during the first game of the World Series right here in Chicago. The National League Champs the Cubs, were playing the Red Sox in Comiskey Park rather than Wrigley Field because of the greater capacity of the home of the Cubs' crosstown rival the White Sox. Turned out they didn't need those extra seats as just under 20,000 fans showed up, the lowest turnout for the annual fall classic for as long as anybody could remember. The country was at war and there was a general consensus that the ballplayers were shirking their duty by not doing their part for the war effort. Nevertheless, the baseball season was shortened by about thirty games so that the players who were committed to the armed services could report for duty.

Unannounced during the seventh inning stretch, the band on hand broke into the strains of the Star Spangled Banner, which would not become the country's official national anthem for another thirteen years. Of course those were the days before public address systems so it took a little while before everyone in the ballpark recognized the tune the band was playing. By the time they got to the "rockets red glare", just about everyone in the ballpark was doffing their caps and singing along. As the band wrapped up the song, there was a huge ovation from the stands. (In case you're wondering, the Red Sox won that game on a brilliant shut-out from their young pitcher, Babe Ruth. The Red Sox won that World Series four games to two. They would not win another one for 86 years).

So impressive was the patriotic fervor that moment generated at Comiskey Park, theater impresario Harry Frazee who moonlighted as the owner of the Red Sox, "borrowed" the idea for his own ballpark as the series shifted to Boston. The only difference was in Boston, they played the song at the beginning of the game. The tradition of playing the National Anthem at every ballpark before every game didn't begin in earnest until World War II.

The late-great Comiskey Park, c. 1959, where no fewer than two long-standing traditions of singing songs at baseball games began.
Another tradition of playing a particular song at a particular moment during a ballgame also began in Comiskey Park when White Sox announcer Harry Caray who frequently bantered with fans within earshot of his broadcast booth at the old ballpark, started leading those fans in a cheerful, beer induced rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, during the seventh inning stretch. Bill Veeck went to his grave insisting that when he bought the team in 1976, he asked Caray to sing the song over the ballpark's PA system so everyone could hear, but Caray refused. So one day the puckish Veeck, unbeknownst to Caray, hooked him up to the system anyway and a tradition was born. Hard to believe that Caray would have shied away from the extra attention but it's a good story and I'm sticking to it.

There is probably not a single American who does not know all the words to Take Me Out to the Ballgame  or to be more exact, the words of the refrain, which is heard at the seventh inning stretch at virtually every ballgame coast to coast. The lesser known verses tell the story of a young lady named Katie Casey. Here's her story:
Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
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:

Refrain : Take me out to the ballgame...

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:
The story of the song goes something like this: Jack Norworth was a 28 year old Tin Pan Alley composer who was ever on the prowl for inspirations for new songs. One day he found his inspiration on a subway billboard. The billboard read simply: "Baseball Today - Polo Grounds". He scribbled the lyrics to the song you see above on a napkin and delivered them to his partner Albert von Tilzer who promptly put the words to music. Norworth gave his song to his wife, a singer on the Vaudeville circuit. It became an instant hit when Edward Meeker recorded the song, in fact, Take me out to the Ballgame was top of the charts for the year 1908. (That year their home town Giants lost the NL pennant to the Cubs largely on account of a baserunning mistake made at the Polo Grounds, by their rookie first baseman Fred Merkle which has gone down in history as Merkle's Boner. The Cubs won the World Series that year. It would be 108 years until they would win another).

It turned out that neither Norworth nor von Tilzer had ever attended a ballgame when they wrote the game's unofficial anthem.  

The same can't be said for John Fogerty, the former leader of the band Creedence Clearwater Revivalwho wrote what is perhaps the alternate unofficial anthem of baseball. Fogerty who grew up in California in the late forties and fifties didn't have a home town major league team to root for as a child, so he adopted the New York Yankees. That team's two great centerfielders, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were his personal heroes. Describing the inspiration of the song's title, he told the New York Times in a 2010 interview:
Basically, I was reconnecting with that very special feeling I had about center field as a kid. People didn’t know what it meant, but it was important to me. It took me a while to remember about center field and how I felt about it, but once it came into my mind, I thought: ‘Oh, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want to say.'
The song's title of course is Centerfield, and you are bound to hear it in one form or another, either before, during, or after any professional ballgame.

It's a catchy song, well suited to put people into a cheerful mood before or during a game. While the incessant, rhythmic hand-clapping in its refrain can be a little grating after numerous listenings,  Fogerty's lyrics manage to cover all the bases (so to speak) of our national pastime, especially the child-like exuberance that anybody who has ever played, dreamed of playing, or just intently watched the game has experienced in his or her life, most especially on days like today, opening day:


Practically every line of the song has special relevance for me, the father of a son, currently a high school ballplayer who is mad about the game. For better or worse, he got that love from his old man.

Here are some examples:
Well, a-beat the drum and hold the phone
The sun came out today...
My son's team's season hasn't gotten off to an auspicious start this year as the sun in fact has not come out on game days. In fact as of today, about ten games have been rained out, with the outlook not good for this week.
Well, I spent some time in the Mudville Nine
Watching it from the bench...
The Mudville Nine is the home team featured in the poem Casey at the Bat, which I often read to my son when he was a small child. Unfortunately today, he can well relate to watching the game from the bench, which leads to the following plea:
Oh, put me in coach, I'm ready to play today Put me in coach, I'm ready to play today Look at me, I can be, centerfield
Yes indeed, my son plays centerfield.

And finally, the last beautiful verse is one that anybody who has ever cared about the game can relate to:
Got a beat-up glove, a home-made bat
And a brand new pair of shoes
You know I think it's time to give this game a ride
Just to hit the ball, and touch 'em all
A moment in the sun
It's a-gone and you can tell that one good-bye.
Then there are the references to some of the great centerfielders of all time, Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, and of course, Joe DiMaggio. In the wonderful accompanying video, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snyder, Henry Aaron, (as a Milwaukee Brave) and Stan Musial (an occasional centerfielder) are also featured.

There's even a pointed reference to the late Chuck Berry, lifting a line from one of his songs:
A-roundin' third and headed for home
It's a brown-eyed handsome man...
Which is followed by a Berryesque guitar riff.

Fogerty has said the image in his mind when he sang about the "Brown eyed handsome man" was none other than Jackie Robinson.

Every human emotion can be found in the game of baseball, usually magnified ten times. It's a game designed to break your heart as A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote. But not today. It's all hope and optimism on Opening Day.

As we saw last year, anything can happen in baseball, heck, the Chicago Cubs could even win the World Series.

On this day, there is no better song to play than the alternate/unofficial anthem of baseball, John Fogerty's Centerfield, because its sums up the game to a tee, except for the sad, melancholy stuff. That will come later.

Unless you consider the official National Anthem of the country AND the game of baseball, whose unofficial last words every red blooded American knows are the happiest words in the English language. No they're not "the land of the free and the home of the brave", they come just after that.

The words are "play ball".

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