SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
October 03, 1960
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October 03, 1960

The Music Of Baseball


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The next change came when the solemn patriotic songs were put out of business by the astounding popularity of Slide, Kelly, Slide! in 1889. There were two Kellys mixed up in this song. One was Mike Kelly, the first great base stealer, a lover of night life, show girls, race horses and liquor, and the hero of the Chicago Irish, who packed the stands to yell, "Slide, Kelly, slide!" until they made the phrase a catchword, used on any occasion to indicate an emergency. The other Kelly was John W. Kelly, a Philadelphia-born steelworker who had a vaudeville act in which he peered over his spectacles and improvised endlessly on Irish-American folkways, now and then pausing to sing good songs of his own composing. This Kelly professed to live in a state of constant bewilderment: Why was it that when the Germans held a picnic they marched straight for the picnic ground, while the Irish always began by marching around town for three hours? Could it only be because every man was determined to have the parade pass his own house?

The baseball feats of Mike Kelly were made to order for the genius of this other Kelly. In Slide, Kelly, Slide! he explained modestly that he too played a game of baseball ("I belong to Casey's Nine") and the crowd was jolly, and the weather it was fine. Sent to bat, he took three strikes, but the catcher dropped the ball, and he ran like the devil for first base, with the crowd roaring, "Slide, Kelly, slide!" Misfortunes multiplied: he was sent in to catch, as the catcher wanted to go out and get a drink, but the second pitch passed through his mask and broke his nose. The crowd roared with all its might, and he ran toward the clubhouse—"I thought there was a fight!" The difficulties become truly nightmarish in the third verse: it appears that on him depends victory or defeat, but the score is already 64-0, and the song ends as Kelly is carried home, his neighbors singing

Slide, Kelly, slide!
Your running's a disgrace!
Slide, Kelly, slide!
Stay there, hold your base

This became one of the most popular songs in American history. Maggie Cline, the leading vaudeville star of the period, sang it at Tony Pastor's in New York, and it swept the country. Maggie is ranked by authorities with the top half dozen stars in her field, along with Elsie Janis (whose father, incidentally, was a professional baseball player with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1891), Irene Bordoni, Fritzi Scheff and others as gifted. Maggie was herself as legendary in her own field as was Mike Kelly on the diamond. She always had the same hansom cab pick her up and drive her to the theater, and one night, irritated by the mock heroics of a Buffalo Bill show, she took the reins from the cab driver and drove through the stage entrance and up on the stage, where Buffalo Bill was shooting and dead Indians were lying around. The legends don't agree as to what happened when Maggie stepped out of the carriage, but it would have been in character for her to belt out Slide, Kelly, Slide! amid the yells of redskins and the sound of blank cartridges.

Two movies were made called Slide, Kelly, Slide. The first-was a baseball comedy produced in 1910 by Essanay; the second was a big production in 1927, starring William Haines as Kelly, with Harry Carey as an over-age catcher who is trying to finish one more season so he can buy a cigar store. Kelly pitches a no-hitter for the Yankees, gets the big head, drinks bootleg hooch and in a big scene tells Harry Carey he is all washed up. This queers him with Harry's daughter with whom he is in love. Kelly skids downhill fast, until finally little Mickey, the mascot, loses faith in him. The Yankees play the Cardinals in the World Series. (Real Yankees were used in this sequence.) The Series is tied three games to three. Harry Carey pleads for Kelly to be given another chance, even though he did call Carey a has-been. It is finally decided that Kelly shall pitch again. As little Mickey rides on his bicycle to tell Kelly the news, he is run over by a fire truck. The doctors decide that the only way to restore the boy's will to live is to let him watch the decisive game, so there he is, pretty well banged up, in a box seat. Kelly pitches like one inspired, but the score is 1-1 in the bottom half of the ninth, when Kelly himself comes to bat. He glances toward the box seats, and there he sees little Mickey, down on his knees, praying for a hit. Kelly hits a home run, and the movie ends with him marrying Harry Carey's daughter, and little Mickey dancing around as merrily as a kid who's been run over by a fire truck can be expected to.

How closely did the music of baseball reflect the game itself? In the period when the best of its music was written, bands played in the big league parks, and even small towns had bands that played for the big games. But whether big league or small town, the bands played standard band music, anything from Gilmore or Sousa marches to the thundering Battle of Prague . They never played anything remotely connected with baseball, unless it happened to be a piece written by a local musician for the local club, like the "Tyro Base Ball March, a haunting composition by Alice Rice for the Tyro Base Ball Club of Detroit, or The Temple Cup Two-Step, written by John Cavanagh to celebrate the Giants' winning the championship in 1894.

A good many musicians were conscious of the discrepancy between the scene and the music. Charles Ives, the modernist composer, was the son of a band leader in Danbury, Conn. and was also a player on the Yale nine. One of his most discordant and jangled works, a showpiece of modern atonal piano music full of dissonant chords, was a baseball composition called Some South-Paw Pitching. Virtually unplayable, a musical monstrosity, Some South-Paw Pitching could hardly be said to possess a more significant relation to the sport than did the Entry of the Gladiators or the other standard band favorites of the period when Ives's father led the Danbury band.

The question is whether there was not a distinct branch of a native American music coming into existence around the sport. Certainly there were exceptionally lively and unhackneyed compositions being written. And certainly the ties that link baseball and music have been close and significant. That eminent baritone, Bing Crosby, owns 10% of the Pirates, but lots of musicians before him owned ball clubs. Angelo's Base Ball Fever of 1867 was dedicated to Lew Simmons of Philadelphia, the Bing Crosby of his day, the leading minstrel, who owned the Philadelphia Athletics, a pioneer club that antedated Connie Mack's Athletics. Helen Traubel, the opera star, owned part of the St. Louis Browns. Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, sold Babe Ruth, Herb Pennock, Carl Mays and half a dozen lesser players in order to get money to back his musical comedies. Before the turn of the century the Phillies had a fine first baseman named Sydney Farrar, whose daughter Geraldine became the famous opera star.

It has always seemed to me a matter to be regretted that there was no American music to engage the talents of a singer like Geraldine Farrar. In the days when she was making her debut in Berlin as Marguerite in Faust, Victor Red Seal records were almost synonymous with culture, and a stately female wearing something shaped like a wigwam represented the epitome of highbrow musical joy. No one would wish anything of the sort on baseball; still, an opera of the game, or a musical version of the tragedy of the Black Sox scandal conceivably could have been nearer the springs of native inspiration for a singer like Geraldine Farrar than the dagger-wielding scenes of Carmen.

Part of the reason why nothing developed from the promising beginnings of the music of baseball was that much of it was local or topical, lacking connection with organized sport (or organized music) to freight it over years of transition. The musicians had only local reputations; the publishers were frequently only music store operators. But the more important reason was that, as Tin Pan Alley developed, the older music was buried under a flood of imitative works. In 1906 Fred Fisher published It's Great at the Baseball Game, an undistinguished but mildly agreeable work, far below his best (he also wrote Chicago and Dardanella) but historically important because it paved the way for Albert von Tilzer's Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Unlike Fisher, who really loved baseball, Von Tilzer had never seen a game in his life. His real name was Albert Gumm; he was the brother of Harry von Tilzer, an established songwriter, and he followed his brother's lead when Harry changed his name. Albert worked with Jack Norworth, the husband of Nora Bayes, composing Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and its combination of a genial tune and simple, singable words gave baseball a permanently popular favorite. Viewed objectively, there is a certain Alice in Wonderland illogic to some of the words.

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