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Many have sung, and many continue to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The long roster does not, thank goodness, include Roseanne Barr. But it does have a robot named Johnny-Five, who once hit each note with technical if bloodless precision at Shea Stadium. At the other end of the spectrum (and the subway line) is Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert Merrill, who belts out the tune—in person or on Memorex—at Yankee Stadium.
It's safe to say that no one singing today, neither the mechanical nor the personal, renders the song quite as the supremely unmelodious Harry Caray does. From his perch behind and above Wrigley Field's home plate, the Chicago Cub broadcaster leans forth and croaks out the tune. He starts with a bellowed "Ohhhhhhhh!" and proceeds (a critic might say downhill) from there. The fans love it. Caray's seventh-inning serenade, with a capacity chorus of 38,000-plus Wrigley rooters joining in, was the single most riveting performance at last summer's All-Star Game.
Caray is so identified with Take Me Out to the Ball Game that many people think he wrote it. He did not. Jack Norworth, who also wrote Shine On Harvest Moon, penned the lyrics, and Albert Von Tilzer put the words to music.
When Take Me Out to the Ball Game was published in 1908 it really became that overused oxymoron, the instant classic. Norworth, who was a top vaudeville performer as well as a songwriter, introduced the tune in his act. One night not long afterward he was forced to drop it from his routine because too many performers at Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre in New York City had already used the song in the show.
There have been more than 100 recorded versions of the song. In the 1949 MGM musical Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the title song was triple-played by some true all-stars: Frank Sinatra sang it; Gene Kelly tap-danced to it; Esther Williams swam to it. In a 1950 rendition, Roy Campanella and Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Henrich of the Yankees joined Mitch Miller and the Sandpipers, a third team based in New York.
Andy Strasberg, vice-president for public relations with the San Diego Padres and a dedicated collector of baseball memorabilia, has more than 70 different recordings of TMOTTBG. Even his doorbell chimes the familiar strains. "Doesn't everyone's?" he asks. Strasberg's theory about the song's enduring popularity is simple—or, rather, simplicity. "A lot of times I'll find Take Me Out to the Ball Game on children's records," he says. "It's so easy to sing. Everyone knows the words to it." Caray agrees. "I would always sing it because I think it's the only song I knew the words to," he says.
The song is so embedded in the American consciousness that people who have never been to a baseball game know the words and music by heart. This is highly appropriate, since neither of the two men who wrote the song saw a game until years after they had composed their classic.
Norworth, who hailed from Philadelphia, was riding the New York subway one day when he looked up and saw a placard: BASEBALL TODAY—POLO GROUNDS. In an interview he gave on the 50th anniversary of the song's publication, he said that the advertisement set him to thinking and, soon, to writing. By the time he reached his destination half an hour later, Norworth had finished the lyrics of his two-stanza, one-chorus ditty. He took it to Von Tilzer, with whom he had collaborated before. Von Tilzer wrote the music, and the rest is sporting and show biz history.
Most of Norworth's inspired verses have long been forgotten; the remains are the crackerjack chorus. The song, as Norworth originally penned it, tells the story of a young lady—Katie Casey in earlier versions and, for reasons that are unclear, Nelly Kelly in later ones. She is crazy about the game of baseball. A beau who is unaware of her love for the sport calls upon Katie-Nelly and asks her for a date. She accedes, but with the proviso that he, yes, take her out to the ball game.
It was more than 20 years after the song came out that Von Tilzer made it to his first game. Norworth was in even less of a hurry to get to the ballpark. He finally did on June 27, 1940, when the Dodgers had a day for him at Ebbets Field.