The Curmudgeon: Baseball Songs

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Football has the ratings. Baseball has the writing.

Football has dominated TV for so long that two whole generations have grown up wondering why baseball is called the “national pastime.” Within those generations, though, is a modest minority of serious readers who know the answer: baseball has inspired far more good writing than football ever will.

There are novels such as Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly, Donald Hays’ The Dixie Association and Ring Lardner’s You Can Call Me Al. There are non-fiction books such as Roger Angell’s Five Seasons, Donald Hall’s Dock Ellis: In the Country of Baseball, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Bill James’ The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works.

Poems about baseball have been written by Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, May Swenson, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Pinsky and Robert Frost. Songs about baseball have been recorded by everyone from Chuck Berry to John Fogerty, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, from the Count Basie Orchestra to the Dropkick Murphys. An indie-rock supergroup (R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills, the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey and the Miracle 3’s Linda Pitmon) calls itself The Baseball Project and has just released its third album of original baseball songs.

Why does baseball inspire more good writing than any other sport? Well, there are two types of team athletics in the world: sports of continuous action and sports of punctuated action. Soccer (known as football everywhere but North America), rugby, hockey and basketball offer continuous action; except for penalties, injuries and timeouts, the clock keeps running and the play never stops. Baseball, American football and cricket, by contrast, offer punctuated action; a play begins and then a minute or so later it ends.

This latter approach has two results. First, the sharply defined segments of engagement make it easier to measure success and failure with specific numbers. This creates an information-rich environment for writers to draw from. Second, the pauses between bursts of action encourage contemplation of what just happened and anticipation of what might happen next. Private thoughts become conversation, and conversation becomes writing.

People who complain that baseball games are too slow are the kind of people who would rather watch cop shows on TV than read a good book. Perhaps that’s why football does better on the tube, while baseball does better at the library. The patient, burst-and-pause pace of baseball is not a drawback; it’s the sport’s greatest asset. No wonder that cricket has also inspired an disproportionate amount of good writing.

Moreover, baseball is more human-scaled. Unlike basketball and football, you don’t have to be abnormally tall or large to play professionally. Unlike football and hockey, your head isn’t hidden behind a helmet and face mask, nor is your torso distorted by shoulder pads. It’s easier to imagine ourselves on the field.

Songs written about baseball have a built-in advantage over books on the same subject. You’re never going to hear Bernard Malamud’s novel read over a stadium PA between innings, but you will hear John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” or Terry Cashman’s “Talking Baseball.”

On the other hand, you’re never going to hear The Baseball Project’s “Ted Fucking Williams” over the PA, not just because of this sing-along rock song’s profanity but also because of its scabrous portrait of a vain, unhappy hero. Poking at the all-too-human flaws of baseball players is the specialty of this supergroup, which has just released its third album, aptly titled 3rd.This is the band’s hardest rocking album, revealing Pitmon as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most muscular and underrated drummers.

The album’s best song is “From Nails to Thumbtacks,” a power-pop gem that details Lenny Dykstra’s descent from living in a mansion to living in his car. “You gotta fly high to fall this far,” the lyric goes, and that theme is pursued in songs about Alex Rodriguez (“13”) and an entire Hall of Shame (“They Played Baseball”). The song about Dock Ellis is not about the perfect game he threw while on LSD but about the game where he tried to hit the entire Cincinnati line-up in the head. Even the tributes to Hank Aaron (“They Don’t Know Henry”) and Luis Tiant (“Hola America”) are tinged by the bitterness of men who had to battle racism to establish themselves.

To celebrate the beginning of the 2014 season, here’s my list of my favorite baseball songs. I apologize in advance for leaving out yours.

1. John Fogerty: “Centerfield” (1985, from Centerfield) Now a staple at ballparks all over the country, this is the perfect baseball song, as energizing and catchy as a late-inning winning rally. Built atop a retooled Chuck Berry guitar riff, a ballpark organ and crack-of-the-bat percussion, the song is full of knowing references to Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Malamud’s The Natural and Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” and concludes with the fervent wish of every ballplayer who ever lived: “Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play!”

2. Bruce Springsteen: “Glory Days” (1984, from Born in the U.S.A.) The back cover of the Born in the U.S.A. album was a photo of Springsteen’s rear end with a red baseball cap hanging out of his jeans pocket. This is the song that justified the photo; it’s a simultaneously funny and touching, self-mocking confession about an old friend who was the star of the singer’s high-school baseball team, but who’s now just another aging jock in the bar with embroidered stories about his “glory days.”

3. Bruce Springstone: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1982, from Baseball’s Greatest Hits) There are dozens of recordings of this 1908 song by Jack Norworth & Al Von Tilzer, including wonderful bluegrass versions by Doc & Merle Watson and by Steve Goodman & Jethro Burns. My favorite version, though, is this one by a Baltimore group that started out to do a Springsteen parody and wound up with something much more memorable. Lead singer Tom Chalkley redid the verse lyrics to tell of his love for a tomboy/baseball fan, and he roars out the chorus.

4. Count Basie & his Orchestra: “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” (1949, from Baseball’s Greatest Hits) One of the greatest jazz orchestras in history recorded this song two years after Robinson broke the color line in major-league baseball. This all-black band celebrated that breakthrough with contagious exuberance, the horns blaring, the rhythm section strutting and Taps Miller leading the other musicians in catchy call-and-response.

5. Paul Simon: “Night Game” (1975, from Still Crazy After All These Years) In sharp contrast to most of these songs, this is a somber, quiet ballad about the other side of baseball: defeat. In his best melancholic voice and his best succinct lyrics, Simon sings of ending the season with a loss in a cold night game and watching the tarpaulins pulled over the field for the winter. Simon, of course, also added a verse about “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” to the big Simon & Garfunkel hit, “Mrs. Robinson.”

6. Chuck Berry: “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956, from The Great Twenty-Eight) Baseball is only mentioned in the very last verse of this song, but Berry’s description of Willie Mays circling the bases after a home run is the fitting climax to this anthem of ethnic pride. Originally titled “Brown Skinned Handsome Man,” it celebrates the singer’s race without denigrating anyone else’s. There’s another great baseball verse in Berry’s “Move It,” an obscure song from his 1979 album,Rockit.

7. Steve Goodman: “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” (1981, from Baseball’s Greatest Hits) The late Chicago folk singer captured the special devotion required of the fan of a perennial losing team in this live recording of a delightful talking blues. Alternately hilarious and poignant, Goodman relates how the Chicago Cubs led him into a dissolute life, “but what do you expect when you raise up a young boy’s hopes and then just crush them like so many paper beer cups year after year after year after…”

8. Danny Kaye: “D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song (Oh, Really? No, O’Malley)” (1962, from Baseball’s Greatest Hits) Kaye puts an entire 1962 Dodgers/Giants game to music in this ingenious song. This middle-of-the-road pop arrangement is an extended, seamless series of puns, bleacher commentary and pop-song parodies. The imaginative construction ends in an incredible ninth-inning rally featuring three bunt singles mishandled by the tongue-twisting trio of Miller, Hiller and Haller.

9. Sister Wynona Carr: “The Ball Game” (1953, from Baseball’s Greatest Hits) This rocking gospel number by Mahalia Jackson’s protégé draws this unusual analogy: “Jesus is standing at the home plate; he’s waiting for you there. Life is a ball game, but you got to play it fair. The first place is temptation; the second base is sin. Third base is tribulation; if you pass, you can make it in. Old man Solomon is the umpire, and Satan’s pitching the game. He’ll do his best to strike you out, but keep playing just the same.”

10. Sam Baker: “Baseball” (2004, from Mercy) While Baker’s narrator is watching little kids play baseball beneath a blue sky in a small Texas town, he has a premonition of those same kids being marched off to war in a few years. Baker doesn’t have to editorialize because both the present and future visions are so vividly evoked and juxtaposed in this understated ballad.

11. Dan Bern: “Seven Miles an Hour” (2012, from Doubleheader) Bern’s Doubleheader album contains 18 terrific baseball songs, but the best is this one, about the small difference in talent between the millionaire stars in the majors and the almost-stars rattling around in the minors.

12. The Baseball Project: “Ted Fucking Williams” (2008, from Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails) This indie-rock supergroup has released three full albums of edgy, rousing baseball songs. None is more catchy than this one about the Boston Red Sox slugger who wonders why the fans don’t like him as much as Mickey Mantle.

13. Dave Frishberg: “The Sports Page” (1985, from Live at Vine Street) Frishberg, a distinguished jazz/cabaret singer/pianist explains the satisfaction of reading the sports section, where the winners and losers are clearly labeled, as opposed to the rest of the paper, where everything is obscured in subjective shades of gray. Frishberg has another great baseball song, “Van Lingle Mungo,” a dizzying catalogue of strange baseball names.

14. The Dropkick Murphys: “Jimmy Collins’ Wake” (2013, from Signed and Sealed in Blood) Boston’s Celtic-punk band has supplied a theme song for each of the Red Sox’s past three world championships: “Tessie” in 2004, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” in 2007, and “Jimmy Collins’ Wake,” a song actually about baseball, in 2013.

15. The Treniers: “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” (1954, from Baseball’s Greatest Hits) This contagious jump-blues number actually features a guest appearance by Mays himself. The Treniers were a classy Southern vocal group, and the orchestra on this date was conducted by Quincy Jones.

16. The Intruders: ”(Love Is Just Like a) Baseball Game” (1968, from Baseball’s Greatest Hits) Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff wrote this Philly soul number for their male-harmony quartet, the Intruders. It became a number-four R&B hit.

17. Billy Bragg & Wilco: “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” (2000, from Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2) DiMaggio hits the ball where the eagles soar and slides into base like a cyclone. Billy Bragg set Woody Guthrie’s tall-tale lyrics about the New York Yankee outfielder to music and sang the results.

18. Bennie Wallace/Dr. John with Bonnie Raitt: “Love Ain’t No Triple Play” (1988, from Bull Durham: Original Soundtrack) A lot of songs use baseball as an analogy for love affairs, but this one, featuring an all-star roots-rock cast, is the best.

19. Kinky Friedman: “Catfish” (1976, from Lasso from El Paso) Bob Dylan wrote his only baseball song about Catfish Hunter of the Yankees, and Friedman, Dylan’s sidekick at the time, recorded the original version. It’s a blues-rock song about the pitching prowess of Hunter, who “ain’t working on Finley’s Farm no more.” There are also versions by Joe Cocker and Dylan himself. Dylan devoted one of his radio shows to baseball songs and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on it.

20. Warren Zevon: “Bill Lee” (1980, from Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School) Bill “Spaceman” Lee was a notorious non-conformist when he pitched for the Red Sox, and in this midtempo piano ballad, Zevon pays tribute to Lee’s refusal to mouth the usual jock clichés.
21. Meatloaf, Ellen Foley & Phil Rizzuto: “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” (1977, from Bat Out of Hell) Getting to first base, second base, etc. has long had a double entendre meaning for would-be high school lovers. Meatloaf’s song describes the competition between an eager teenage male and his reluctant date in the front seat of his car, with Yankee announcer Rizzuto doing the play-by-play.

22. Jonathan Richman: “Walter Johnson” (1986, from Rockin’ and Romance) Even for Richman, the savant naïf of garage-rock, this song is annoyingly off-pitch and out of tempo, but this tribute to the great Washington Senator pitcher is so heartfelt and appealing that you can forgive the singer almost anything.

23. Steve Wariner: “Somewhere Between Old and New York” (1988, from I Should Be With You) Wariner is a successful country singer, but this is an unusual urban pop song by Dave Loggins that draws an evocative portrait of a shoeshine man outside Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Between shines the old man daydreams of chasing down balls in the outfield and knocking it over the fence himself.

24. Stacy Phillips with the Roches: “Hey Mister Get the Ball” (1986, from Hey Mister Get the Ball) This is really a tribute to stickball, a New York City variation on baseball played on the narrow side streets with a broom stick and a small rubber ball. But anyone who has ever played a pick-up game will relate to the title’s plea for the retrieval of an errant ball. Phillips is a hot-shot new-acoustic dobro player, and the Roches are three sisters from New Jersey with sophisticated folk/jazz harmonies.

25. Nelly: “Batter Up” (2000, from Country Grammar) The best hip-hop song about baseball is this double-entendre-filled number from a Missouri kid who wanted to be Ozzie Smith before he wanted to be the Fresh Prince.