Baseball’s Greatest Hit (Book Review)

Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, by Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, and Tim Wiles. New York: Hal Leonard, 2008. 210 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

At first glance, Baseball’s Greatest Hit appears to be a coffee table book. Published in 2008, coinciding with the one hundredth anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” it is heavy, oversized, and filled with photographs and illustrations. Yet, unlike most books of that sort, its contents are not limited to captions and text blocks, and its approach to the subject, while thoroughly entertaining, is hardly superficial. The authors, along with the graphic design staff at Hal Leonard, have artfully balanced visual appeal with meticulous research.

Covering all the bases (cheap pun intended), Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson and Tim Wiles trace the evolution of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” from Tin Pan Alley to the seventh-inning stretch. The song came from the songwriting team of Jack Norworth (1879-1959) and Albert Von Tilzer (1878-1956). Norworth, the lyricist and gregarious one of the pair, was the son of an Episcopal choirmaster. He was drawn to the theater from an early age and had a penchant for marketing his work and himself. Von Tilzer, the more reserved composer, was born into a large Jewish family in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was one of five brothers, all involved in the music business. The family name was Gumm, likely shortened from Gumbinski or Guminski. Albert’s older brother Harry, a prolific music publisher and kingpin of Tin Pan Alley, changed his name to Tilzer (their mother’s maiden name) and added “Von” for an extra touch of class. Albert and the other brothers followed suit.

As with many well-known songs, there is much mythology and intrigue surrounding the origins of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The book examines the range of theories and stories, including the oft-repeated (though difficult to substantiate) claim that neither Norworth nor Von Tilzer attended a baseball game before or in the decades after writing the song. They also contrast Norworth’s insistence that he wrote the lyrics while in a subway car with Von Tilzer’s assertion that he composed the tune around the words “One, two, three strikes you’re out . . .” and handed it to Norworth to fill out the rest of the lyrics. Whatever the case, the authors conclude: “The best estimate is that, in less than an hour, in the spring of 1908, Jack and Albert composed an immortal hit” (p. 22). Within a few months, it became a Top Ten hit of 1908, and today is the third most frequently sung song in the United States, after “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The book offers far too many interesting tidbits to be listed in a short review, but here are a few highlights. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was first introduced to the public as part of a short-lived phenomenon known as the “illustrated song play,” in which a movie theater audience would sing along with the house vocalist and pianist as slides illustrating a song were projected on the screen. The song’s popularity spread quickly, and it sold some six million copies of sheet music. However, it was not until the 1970s, with the efforts of the late Cubs announcer Harry Caray, that the tune was integrated into the seventh-inning stretch. The song has been published in 160 arrangements, has appeared in over 1,200 films and television shows, and is performed at about 2,500 baseball games per year. It is also a little-known fact that what is sung today is only the chorus of the song, which, in its original form, began with this verse: “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…’” (from the 1908 version; Norworth rewrote the verse in 1927).

The chapters flow quickly from one to the next and touch upon seemingly all aspects of the song. Among the book’s many outstanding features are a timeline beginning with the earliest known reference to the seventh-inning stretch (1886), an ode to ballpark organists, a listing of over one thousand commercially published songs about baseball, a brief history of the Cracker Jack, interviews with collectors of the song, a detailed musical analysis by Dave Headlam of the Eastman School of Music, and a CD with sixteen varied renditions of the song. With all of this and more, Baseball’s Greatest Hit is sure to please fans of the song and the game it represents. As a case study in American popular music, the book is a home run (another cheap pun intended).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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