The Screwball: The greatest baseball songs (n)ever written

Two weeks ago, Jim Caple at ESPN.com ranked the 10 greatest baseball songs ever written. Those songs included the familiar, like Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and the less familiar, like A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request. (Granted, I didn’t listen to the whole thing, but I imagine the last request was for somebody to call an ambulance.) You have to think, though, that for every song written about the Pastime, an infinite number remain unwritten.

So listen: Thanks to yours truly, you can now subtract five from infinity.


Tattlin’ Baseball

Back in the summer of 1981, around the time when Raiders of the Lost Ark made us believe in the magic of myth but also when the California Medfly Crisis made us remember the facts of life, the song Talkin’ Baseball began earworming its way from stadium loudspeakers and into brains across America. Dipped in powdered nostalgia and rolled in wistful sprinkles, the song would inspire a falsely constructed but genuinely experienced fondness for an era that really did happen but that really didn’t happen the way everybody really wanted it to have happened, with the Whiz Kids defining “aw shucks,” Yogi reading comic books and everyone just saying no to drugs, be they mind-altering, mood-altering or performance-altering.

The opening verse:

The Whiz Kids had won it.
Bobby Thomson had done it.
And Yogi read the comics all the while.
Rock ‘n roll was being born.
Marijuana, we would scorn.

So down on the corner
The national pastime went on trial.

In truth, despite the hagiographic halo-making of songwriter Terry Cashman, players from the ’50s through the ’80s were just as duplicitous as their ’90s-through-noughties counterparts. (Bobby Thomson had done it, all right—with the help of a stolen sign.) Rather than living up to their lyrical identities and serving all of humanity as the virtuous agents of latent sentiment, those players sought the same competitive edges that their successors would seek, albeit in different forms. Mays drank the Red Juice*. Aaron took the greenies. And Mantle subjected himself to painful injections of snake oil, all in efforts to inflate their legends in the collective conscience of baseball. But that didn’t stop Cashman from casting a sweet patina on an entire generation of players, a group he positioned as unimpeachable paragons of an innocent bygone age. In fact, not only does Talkin’ Baseball ignore the chicanery of Willie, Mickey and the Hank, it celebrates the likes of Pete Rose, Gaylord Perry and Steve Garvey, players who, in one fashion or another, cheated.

(*Let’s just cover our bases here by saying “allegedly.”)

And so in efforts to remove the mythos and replace it with something approaching truth, we hereby present the lyrics of a less maudlin and more candid baseball anthem, one that acknowledges the chemical bond involving the baseball eras. Set to the musical score of the original Talkin’ Baseball, it is a song, like the other four, that has never had an audience … until now.

The Say Hey Kid had done it,
McGwire wouldn’t shun it,
And Raffy wagged his finger all the while.
The cream was being born,
The clear they wouldn’t scorn,
So down on the corner
The national pastime went on trial.

We’re tattlin’ baseball!
Radomski, Fainaru-Wada.
Tattlin’ baseball!
José and M. Tejada.
The andro, the nandro, nGC.
They took ’em all from Coors to PNC.
Especially Sammy, A-Rod and BB.

Well, Barry was winning,
R. Braun was beginning,
One druggie going out, one coming in.
Colón and bigger Jesŭs,
The Hammer and Nelson Cruz,
A-Rod was the only one winning up in NYC.

We’re tattlin’ baseball!
Radomski, Fainaru-Wada.
Tattlin’ baseball!
Mo Vaughn and Estalella.
Ephedra, the greenies: PED.
They took ’em all from Coors to PNC.
Especially Sammy, A-Rod and BB.

Well, now it’s the noughties,
And ’roids are real naughty,
And Barry Bonds can’t play for anyone.
Tejada did the amphet…
I mean he won’t be a Met,
And A-Rod is pitchin’ his case to everyone.

We’re tattlin’ baseball!
Like Melky, Quintanilla.
Tattlin’ baseball!
Neifi, we won’t see ya.
Sheffield, Gagné, Zaun and Logan (Nook).
If Cooperstown is calling it’s a fluke.
They’ll be with Raffy, Giambi and Lo Duc.


Take Me Out Of The Ball Game

It’s safe to say—and as you’ll soon discover, “safe” is the operative word here—that June 14, 1876, was an exceptionally crummy day for any professional baseball team named the Red Stockings, so crummy that you’d be forgiven for thinking that at least one of those teams employed a defensive coordinator and that his name was Monte Kiffin. On that Wednesday afternoon in 1876—a day, coincidentally, that came less than two weeks prior to a one-sided contest known as Custer’s Last Stand—the Red Stockings of both Cincinnati and Boston surrendered 20 runs in their respective ballgames, with Cincinnati losing to the Philadelphia Athletics by 15 runs and Boston falling to the Brown Stockings of St. Louis by 14.

Of course it’s equally safe to say that at least some of St. Louis’s runs were of the unearned variety, as Boston second baseman Andy Leonard gave the baseball world a chilling preview of Chuck Knoblauch by committing nine—count ’em, nine—errors in that game, a mark that still survives in archival infamy as the worst individual defensive performance in big-league history.

To repeat: nine errors.

According to my handy abacus, that’s an average of one extra “safe” call per inning, courtesy of the pan-handed and/or noodle-armed second sacker of the helpless home team. Honestly, you have to wonder if Leonard actually inspired the 1880s advent of Vaudeville slapstick, or at least the later emergence of Yakety Sax. So inept was the 5-foot-7 Irishman that he likely wanted to vanish, perhaps by hiding behind 5-foot-9 shortstop George Wright or by more traditional means, such as vacating the premises entirely.

In keeping with Leonard’s presumed desire to disappear, a songwriter could have (and probably should have) penned a catchy tune that Jack Norworth would later refashion into the classic Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Written from Leonard’s point of view, it might have included these plaintive lyrics:

Take me out of the ballgame,
Take me out, please, right now.
Buy me a ticket to Hackensack,
I don’t care if I never get back.

Now it’s boot, boot, boot for the home team,
If we don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, three, nine errs you’re safe
At the old ballgame.


Center Stage

It’s no secret that the player formerly known as Alex Rodriguez has become the act known as A-Rod. The steroids, the starlets, the stance against baseball’s hunt for its great white whale—he is no longer merely a player.

He is the play.

In recognition, here’s a repurposed version of John Fogerty’s Centerfield.

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone,
The nun came out today!
She said I’m born again, I swear that’s she said.
I’m roundin’ Third*, and headed for home,
I’m a green-eyed handsome man.
Anyone can understand what’s in my head.

Oh, put me in, Joe. I’m ready for the play today.
Put me in, Joe. I’m ready for the play today.
Look at me, I can play
Center stage.

Well, I spent some time in the Texas Nine,
’Roidin’ it from offstage.
You know I took some lumps when the mighty tale came out.
But say, hey, Selig, tell Joe T. and Joe Girardi – oh!
Don’t say it ain’t so, you know the time is now.

(Chorus)

Got a Rawlings glove, an A-Rod bat and a talent for the news.
You know I think it’s time to give this man his role!
Just to hit the ball and touch ’em all,
A moment in all views.
It’s A-Rod, and you can tell this guy bravo!

*Third Avenue runs from Manhattan to the Bronx, home of Yankee Stadium. So you can’t tell me that these lyrics are completely, uh, baseless.


The Unnatural

Ever heard the saying “It’s like a (blank) on steroids”? Probably! After all, it’s gotten big so that it’s like a cliché on a strenuous weightlifting regimen.

Such is the theme song—well, technically it’s a composition, but “theme composition” just sounds pretentious, like a literature assignment at a 1950s New England prep school—of the movie The Natural. Oiled, flexed and boasting the unmistakable tones of the preening showboat, the iconic instrumental is still engaged in a decades-long pose-off against the Rocky theme to determine the most pump-you-up theme in sports-movie history.

On the off chance that you’re from the planet Zzzzzzzzzzzzz or simply don’t remember, the melody immortalized the very instant when Robert Redford stroked a pyrotechnic dinger off dramatic actor Ken Grassano, whose credits include … The Natural. (In fairness to Grassano, he also portrayed a fair-to-middling prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals system from 1974 to 1978, debuting in the Rookie League at age 17 before finishing his minor-league career with a record of 11-7 and an ERA of 3.96. So, yes, perhaps he could have benefited from the greenies, etc., of baseball’s innocent bygone age, and later from the intensive training at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio.)

Since the movie’s release in 1984, the theme has remained a musical counterpart of apple pie and Chevrolet. Home-team dingers are still celebrated with that familiar poco maestoso arrangement at ballparks throughout the country, despite the fact that not one of those moments ever resembles a Chinese New Year on stanozolol. (Thanks, Mr. Redford, for rendering all post-Natural homers comparatively dull, like the 4th of July during a prolonged burn ban.) But that doesn’t stop the theme itself from being a grandstanding showpiece, swollen on its own internal yearning.

The ironic thing, though, is that the tune that celebrates a naturally gifted player, the tune that celebrates a naturally gifted player who never took unnatural substances to gain an unnatural advantage, the tune that is colloquially known as The Natural is largely a collection of unnatural sounds from Randy Newman’s synthesizer. It’s akin to a composition called Acoustic Guitar being played entirely on oboes, trumpets and pan flutes.

And so we hereby introduce its musical obverse, a theme to be played whenever a suspected drug cheat slugs another 500-foot bomb. As opposed to The Natural, this tune is an orchestration of all-natural sounds, a sort of musique concréte of frat-boy belches, old-man snorts, kitty sneezes and puppy farts, with a chorus that comprises the snoring of Wilford Brimley, the droning of Ben Stein and the irksome exclamations of Gilbert Gottfried.

Listen for it this season at a ballpark near you. Failing that, call me and I will whistle it to you. Just don’t make me laugh. I can’t whistle when I laugh.


Did You See Jeffrey Maier Touch That Ball?

In baseball, the thinnest of margins can separate Puckettesque heroes from Merklesque goats, Bartmanesque villains from Maieresque stars. Indeed, in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series, 11-year-old Jeffrey Maier changed the course of a batted ball and thus the course of history when he reached over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium to steal what appeared to be a certain out and turn it into a game-tying homer.

Strangely, no one ever wrote a song about it. Herewith, set to Count Basie’s 1949 classic Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?, is the first such effort.

Did you see Jeffrey Maier touch that ball?
It went zoomin’ toward the right-field wall.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jeffrey touched that ball.

And when he touched that ball
The crowd went wild,
Because he knocked that ball into the aisle.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jeffrey touched that ball.

Tarasco wasn’t mellow,
Garcia was the fellow
Who made that big boo-boo.
But it’s a natural fact,
When Jeffrey did his act,
The other team was through.

Did you see Jeffrey Maier touch that ball?
Did he catch it? Yeah, (but on the bounce).
He was home.
Yes, yes, the O’s were gone.

See you at the Grammies!

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Comments

  1. Azure Texan said...

    @Tom

    Perhaps I’ve been too busy curing the common cold (not quite finished yet) and legalizing dank week in Colorado (done!), but until now I’ve never heard that song. Kudos to Coulton. Even apart from the groovy tune, those are some kick-ass lyrics.

    Plus, any artform that segues from Shoeless Joe to Declan MacManus, i.e., the great Elvis Costello, deserves a place of honor among “Guernica,” “Ulysses,” “Citizen Kane,” and “The Simpsons.” I never saw Shoeless Joe, of course, but I did see Mr. Costello at the Hi-Tone (great bar, check it out) in Memphis, Tennessee, a few years back and I can tell you that he did not misplay a single hit. His aim was true, is what I’m saying. So I really can’t see why the critics would confuse him with Shoeless Joe. My guess is that no one was watching their detectives.

  2. Azure Texan said...

    @Tom

    Dank weed, I mean. Not “dank week.”

    Somebody must have switched the ‘k’ and the ‘d’ on my keyboard.

    Of course, now that I think about it, there probably is a Dank Week, not to mention a Dank Month, in Colorado these kays.

    I mean these days.

  3. Azure Texan said...

    @ Dan

    “Bye Bye to the Montreal Nine,” i.e., “Canadian Pie,” eh?

    Seriously, that’s great stuff – “drove my Yugo to the Big O.” Love it.

    Thanks for posting.

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