Baseball’s Anthem for All Ages

In 1908, an improbable pair of music men hit a tuneful home run without ever having seen a game

Northworth and Von Tilzer's song was recorded some 100 times by artists such as Frank Sinatra and today's Dr. John. Theatrical Poster Collection / Library of Congress

On the eve of the 1956 World Series, a sickly, 78-year-old man lay in his Beverly Hills apartment watching television. The year had produced a “subway series”—the Brooklyn Dodgers versus the New York Yankees—and now, on his Sunday night TV show, Ed Sullivan introduced some stars of the game: Yogi Berra, Sal Maglie and Hank Aaron.

As the studio audience applauded, the band played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—no words, just the disarmingly simple, soft-shoe waltz in the cheerful key of D major that the man in the bed, Albert Von Tilzer, had composed 48 years earlier. After Sullivan bid his audience good night, Tilzer’s nurse turned off the TV and tucked him in for the evening. Sometime before morning, Von Tilzer died. It is nice to think that the final melody the old man heard was his own.

One of Von Tilzer’s favorite lyricists was a vaudevillian named Jack Norworth. The pair collaborated on the 1907 hit song “Honey Boy,” and in 1908 they produced “Smarty,” “Good Evening, Caroline” and a home run: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” A handwritten draft of Norworth’s lyrics for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (with crossed out words, misspellings and the double negative “I don’t care if I never get back...”) is part of the traveling exhibit “Baseball as America,” which opens April 3 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and runs through September 30, 2004.

Northworth and Von Tilzer's song was recorded some 100 times by artists such as Frank Sinatra and today's Dr. John. Theatrical Poster Collection / Library of Congress
Jack Norworth Music Division / Library of Congress
Norworth's manuscript shows a forgotten first verse as well as the double negative: "I don't care if I never get back." National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

Former Brooklyn Dodger pitching ace Carl Erskine (like Von Tilzer, an Indiana native) has pointed out that—with its “one, two, three strikes you’re out” lyric—this is a pitcher’s song. That was the ur-phrase of the song, Von Tilzer once said, the one he and Norworth began working with. “It had sock,” Von Tilzer added. “I finally worked it into a song and Jack wrote the lyric.”

Norworth always said he got the idea for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” from an advertisement he saw while riding a New York City subway. Neither man, the story goes, had ever seen a baseball game, so it’s possible they didn’t even know that the quarter-rest pause between “take” and “me” in the first measure of the chorus would be the perfect spot for the “thwack” sound of ball hitting bat.

Albert Von Tilzer was one of five musical brothers, who fancied up their names from the family’s original “Gumbinsky.” Older brother Harry (“Wait ’till the Sun Shines, Nellie”) Von Tilzer claimed he inspired the nickname Tin Pan Alley for the colorful, cacophonous area on New York’s Lower West Side where many turn-of-the-century music-publishing houses were located.

Von Tilzer finally saw an actual baseball game in the 1920s. Norworth didn’t see one until 1940, but the experience made such an impression that the lyricist helped start Little League Baseball in Laguna Beach, California, his home in later years. Having once rhymed “...never get back” with the name of the caramel popcorn confection first introduced at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893, Norworth saw to it that on the first day of practice each of his young players received a box of, you guessed it—Cracker Jack.

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