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Originally published Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" turns 100 years old

It has been called the happiest minute in sports, a nightly, nationwide sing-along in which paying fans, for one brief, shining interlude...

Seattle Times baseball reporter

It has been called the happiest minute in sports, a nightly, nationwide sing-along in which paying fans, for one brief, shining interlude, actually become the entertainment.

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" turns 100 this year, and it has a real bounce in its step for an old codger.

"How many things have lasted 100 years and are more popular than ever?" asked Andy Strasberg, a San Diego-based sports marketer and author who happily admits he's so "obsessed" with the song that his doorbell chimes out the tune.

If you were to serenade the sappy old song by singing "Happy Birthday to You," you'd have chosen the only ditty in American culture that matches "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in both participatory gusto and popularity.

Oh, technically, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" ranks third on the list of America's most-sung songs, behind "Happy Birthday" and that other ballpark staple, the national anthem.

But while "The Star-Spangled Banner" can't be properly sung by anyone not named Pavarotti, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is the province of every man and woman.

"If you could invite someone to a game, musically, that's the invitation," said Seattle radio personality "New York Vinnie" Richichi, who estimates he has 300 recorded versions of the song.

It can be — and is — belted out, warbled, screeched and crooned with unashamed glee during the seventh-inning stretch of virtually every baseball game at every level — the most enduring and endearing ritual in all of sports. And we won't even get into what it has done for the sale of Cracker Jack.

"This is the piece of music about baseball; all others are in second place or worse," said Tim Wiles, director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and co-author, along with Strasberg and Bob Thompson, of "Baseball's Greatest Hit: The Story of 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.' "

"No other sport has its own song," Wiles said. "I think the real reason the custom has stuck is that it's a perfect idea. It's just a fun thing to do."

A vaudevillian named Jack Norworth penned the words in 1908 — on a New York subway, inspired by a sign that said "Baseball Today: Polo Grounds" according to the legend — and composer Albert von Tilzer wrote the music.

Still unknown to many is the fact that the version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" sung today, with words known to every man, woman and child, is merely the song's chorus; there are two verses about a "baseball mad" woman named Katie Casey (or Nelly Kelly in a version written by Norworth in 1927 — probably because his copyright on the original was set to expire).

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In the song, Katie's (and later Nelly's) beau calls to ask her out to see a show. She accepts the date, but only if her date will take her out to the ballgame.

Norworth's wife, Nora Bayes, a musical-theater star, was the first to sing it. The song quickly became a huge hit, but not in ballparks. Instead, it was popularized at movie theaters, with patrons singing along as the song was played to the accompaniment of "lantern slides" while the reels were being changed.

It was played at a ballpark for the first known time in 1934, at a high-school game in Los Angeles, and researchers think it made its debut at a major-league park later that year.

But if anyone is the patron saint of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," almost single-handedly responsible for its surge in popularity in the modern era, it is the irrepressible Harry Caray.

Make that double-handedly, because an assist must go to Bill Veeck, the legendary impresario. Veeck, in the mid-1970s, during his second stint as owner of the Chicago White Sox, had the stroke of genius to put a mike on Caray (secretly, according to legend) while he belted "Take Me Out" each night in the broadcast booth.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's Harry's signature song," said Dutchie Caray, Harry's widow. "Everyone stayed until he sang, even if the Cubs were playing badly. They wouldn't leave until after he sang. I still get goose bumps thinking about Harry and that song."

She's not alone (except perhaps for the disco version Harry recorded in the late '70s).

"I don't know that he loved to sing it; he just mouthed it in the booth," Dutchie Caray said. "Bill Veeck saw him doing that, and one day he put a live microphone in the booth.

"After the game, Harry went up to Bill and said, 'What was that about? You know I can't sing.' Bill said, 'That's the idea. If you were good, everyone would be listening. But you're not, so everyone sings along.' "

Indeed, the nightly Caray renditions were an instant smash hit, but they didn't become a true phenomenon until Caray switched over to Wrigley Field in 1981. With the mighty signal of WGN beaming Cubs games nationwide, the Caray renditions became must-see TV.

While "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was already a ballpark staple, it had no defined role until Caray came along.

"Before then, you might have heard it at the game, but you might have heard it three times — as you walked in, during a pitching change, and as you walked out," Wiles said.

"They certainly played it at the ballparks a lot, and everyone knew it. What Caray and Veeck did is play it every day, at the same time, with a leader, and marry it to the stretch."

It wasn't long before the playing of the song during the seventh-inning stretch became de rigueur in every ballpark in the major leagues, as it is to this day.

The Mariners did away with their in-park organ player in the early 1990s while still at the Kingdome. They now play an organ version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" each night, recorded for them by Seattle musician Jerry Frank, and followed faithfully by the unofficial state song of Washington, "Louie Louie."

Frank is, in essence, the M's organist, having recorded, he estimates, 200 to 300 songs and riffs. There's even a 17-second bit for when the umpire dusts off home plate. But it's Frank's nightly version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at Safeco Field that makes him one of Seattle's most-played (though anonymous to most) artists.

"I think, 'Geez, I've heard that before,' " Frank said when asked his reaction to hearing his own rendition. "If you listen to your own music, you're pretty critical of it. I'd like to rerecord one every year."

Frank, in fact, says he has freshened up his version "two or three" times over the years as recording and instrument technology improved. He has another connection to the song, having written a 90-second arrangement that was used by NBC Sports during the 1987 playoffs.

"It was a full orchestral version of the darned thing," he said. "I brought in players from the Seattle Symphony. I took liberty with a few of the rhythms. I must say it's the best version I've heard."

There's a lot of competition, because more than 400 musicians have recorded "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and more than 10 million copies have been sold in sheet music or records.

It is an amazingly eclectic collection of interpretations, crossing all genres, from rock to country to soul to jazz to rap. It has been done by artists as varied as Harpo Marx, Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin.

You might think you've heard Bruce Springsteen perform it, but actually it was an imitator calling himself Bruce Springstone. He's an illustrator from Baltimore named Tom Chalkley who created the Springstone persona in 1984, in partnership with a Johns Hopkins music professor named Craig Hankin.

One sports-talk radio station in Akron, Ohio, played the Springstone recording thousands of times in succession during the baseball strike as a protest, earning "Springstone" a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The song is a cultural touchstone, with estimates that it has been used in more than 1,200 movies and television shows while being played publicly, somewhere, 365 days a year.

Still, it is a song that works best in a stadium, en masse. Just ask the Angels, who in 1990 made the mistake of replacing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with an Elvis Presley song, "Good Rockin' Tonight" for a few games. The outcry was instant and forceful. A poll in The Orange County Register registered more than 90 percent in favor of ditching The King.

"What people overlook is how difficult it is to write a song that 50,000 people can sing together at one time," said Thompson, co-writer of the "Greatest Hit" book and associate dean of the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, State University of New York.

Thompson said the key to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," musically, is that while the range of the national anthem is an octave and a half, which trips up most laymen, "this all fits in an octave."

He added, "I had a friend of mine who analyzes Beethoven for a living analyze "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." He came back to me and said, 'There's really some stuff in there!' "

Such as: "It's one of only three songs we know that starts with an octave jump, the others being "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and "The Christmas Song" — chestnuts roasting on an open fire. That's pretty good company. The act of starting the song with a big leap is analogous to an outfielder leaping to catch a ball."

Unlike most sports fight songs, which are marches, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is a waltz. So in addition to being eminently singable, it has the added bonus of being danceable.

"The beauty of it is that, during the seventh-inning stretch, people just start to sway back and forth," Thompson said. "And it offers something very few songs do, which is the chance to shout, when you get to the '1-2-3' part. You get to do little of everything in the song."

Pretty amazing for a song that Norworth is thought to have knocked off in short order.

"This was Tin Pan Alley, not fine art," Thompson said. "They would find a hot topic, write about it, and try to get people to buy as much of the sheet music as they could.

"For Norworth, it probably occupied an hour of his time. Our best estimate is that within weeks, he had written 20 other songs."

At Wrigley Field, the origin of the song hardly matters to the masses who fill the ballpark nightly and still eagerly await the seventh inning.

Since Caray died in 1998, it has been performed by celebrities and Cubs alumni, replete with famously bad renditions by the likes of Ozzie Osbourne, Mike Ditka and Kellie Pickler (who referred to popcorn instead of peanuts during a Cubs game against Seattle last year).

"We never said you had to be good," said Matthew Wszolek, the Cubs' director of sales and promotion.

Added Wszolek, "The first two questions I get every day are, one, who's pitching today? And, two, who's singing the stretch?"

In addition to being the centennial of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," 2008 also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series victory.

More than one observer has pointed out the symmetry of having the Cubs win it all in the year that Caray's signature song also turns 100.

"I can't even think about it," said Dutchie Caray. "That would be too much to ask."

In the meantime, fans will keep happily delivering the song, night after night, at the old ballgame. It's a moment so sublime, they don't care if they never get back.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

UPDATE - 10:00 PM
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