By Mary Giorgio
“I would always sing it ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’, because I think it’s the only song I knew the words to!”
When you think of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” you might associate it with the Chicago Cubs and Harry Carey’s famous slurred singing of the tune during the seventh-inning stretch. Baseball historians might associate it with New York City’s famed Tin Pan Alley, where the song was first recorded. You might even mention its first appearance at a baseball game: Game 4 of the 1934 World Series in St. Louis.
Few people associate “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with Indiana. It’s safe to say the Hoosier state can claim some credit for the famed tune, since the song’s composer was born in Indianapolis.
Born in 1878, Albert Gumm (later Albert Von Tilzer) grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a bustling household with four brothers. Von Tilzer’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father ran a shoe store in the city.
When Albert was a young boy, his older brother Harry left home at 14 to join the Col Bros. Circus. Harry soon changed his last name from Gumm to the showier Von Tilzer (Tilzer was his mother’s maiden name). Harry tacked on the Von to sound aristocratic—if that sounds arrogant, remember that Ludwig VON Beethoven did the exact same thing in his 20s (eventually returning to van Beethoven). Eventually, all the Gumm boys became Von Tilzers.
Albert spent the next several years working as a comic and balladeer for a traveling repertory company. He desperately wanted to follow his brother to New York City, but he quit high school to help his father run the family shoe store. After several years, Albert decided to join his brother in New York. He left Indy as Albert Gumm, but arrived in NYC as Albert Von Tilzer. He found work as a shoe salesman during the day and pursued a musical career at night.
By this time, his brother Harry had become a popular songwriter. He started his own publishing house, the Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company. Albert wrote a number of songs that were recorded by his brother’s studio. In 1900, he published his first tune, titled “The Absent-Minded Beggar Waltz.” In 1902, Von Tilzer published two songs that would become small hits: “Tell Me the Beautiful Story,” and “That’s What the Daisy Said.”
In 1903, Albert Von Tilzer opened his own publishing house with another brother, Jack. Over the next several years, he produced more hit songs, including “O by Jingle” and “Roll Along Prairie Moon.” It was in 1908, however, that the biggest song of his career would be recorded.
While sitting on a New York City subway train one day, vaudeville comedian Jack Norworth was inspired by a baseball ad. He pulled out a pen and composed the words to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” After writing lyrics on an envelope, Norworth took the lyrics to Von Tilzer and asked for his assistance in putting the words to music. Von Tilzer agreed, and the hit song was born.
Today, most baseball fans are only familiar with the song’s chorus. However, the original 1908 song featured two additional narrative sections describing a baseball-mad young woman who asked her date to take her to a ball game rather than the theater.
Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do…
~First verse of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”
(sou is French for a coin)
Despite the deep resonance that baseball fans felt with the tune’s narrative, neither Norworth nor Von Tilzer were baseball fans. In fact, neither had actually watched an entire game. The song was registered at the United States Copyright Office on May 2, 1908, and subsequently recorded in Tin Pan Alley by the York Music Company, a firm was owned by Von Tilzer’s brothers, Harry and Jack.
Von Tilzer would go on to have a career on Broadway, writing music for a number of mildly popular shows including The Gingham Girl (1922) and Bye Bye Bonnie (1927). In 1930, he moved to Hollywood to work on motion pictures. Von Tilzer’s popularity had waned significantly by the time of his death in 1956. In fact, when he died, his obituaries were little more than blurbs. Today, with the exception of his association with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Von Tilzer’s work has been all but forgotten.
While Americans today associate the popular song with Major League Baseball stadiums, the tune was originally popularized in movie theaters. It debuted in 1908 in the Amphion Theater in Brooklyn were the owners used it as musical entertainment during intermission. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” soon became a favorite sing-a-long while reels changed and Von Tilzer sold millions of copies (although royalties then were nearly nonexistent).
In the decades to come, the song would be recorded by a slew of famous musicians and Hollywood stars. Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly performed a vaudeville routine featuring the song in their 1949 film Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Bing Crosby and Harpo Marx all recorded the tune. More recent stars to record versions of the song include the Goo Goo Dolls, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Frank Zappa.
The song’s true place in American culture, however, is on the same baseball fields that it portrays. The tune debuted at its first Major League Baseball game in 1934. It was performed by Pepper Martin and the St. Louis Cardinals Band during the fourth game of the World Series.
The iconic popularity of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as entertainment during the seventh-inning stretch didn’t really take hold, however, until the 1970s. It was during that decade that an announcer for the Chicago White Sox, who would himself become the stuff of legends, began singing the tune during the seventh-inning stretch. Harry Carey’s off-key renditions soon became a fan favorite. When Carey started announcing for the Chicago Cubs in 1982, he began the tradition at Wrigley Field. Soon, the song was being sung in Major League Baseball stadiums across the country.
Today, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” remains the most popular baseball songs of all time. The original lyrics, written on an envelope, are now on display at the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown, New York.