On June 27, 1940, the Brooklyn Dodgers and their fans celebrated the men who had written baseball’s “National Anthem.” As with all good baseball stories, however, there is more to it than a mere song.
Most people, I think, have at least a vague idea of how Francis Scott Key came to write “The Star Spangled Banner,” in no small part because the vague idea is contained right there in the song. (What so proudly we hail…battle…banner yet wave…and so on.)
I don’t know if this is true of other countries’ national songs, but I imagine it must be. National anthems tend to be fairly self-explanatory. The United Kingdom has “God Save the Queen,” while Ghana features “God Bless our Homeland Ghana.” Even those whose anthems are not quite as clear on first reading can be explained with even a perfunctory history lesson on the country. Haiti’s La Dessalinienne honors Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the Haitian Revolution.
That brings us to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” as close to a National anthem as Major League Baseball (or the game itself) has. The song was written in 1908, meaning it actually predates every active major league stadium. Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis was the last stadium built before the song’s writing to host a major league game.
As evidenced by the celebration of its creators—about whom more in a moment—in 1940, the song was engrained in baseball culture relatively speedily. (That’s 32 years from creation to celebration; for sake of comparison it took 102 before Key’s work was officially made the National Anthem.) Like most baseball fans, I’m also a fan of the song, generally having fond associations with it. That being said, there are a few things about it that I find curious.
For one, although the song is sung (almost always) at ballgames, it is—as the title says—about wanting to go to a game, rather than being at one. As people may not know, the bit generally sung at games is actually just the chorus to a slightly longer song. It’s easy enough to find online, but the gist of it is that Katie Casey is a baseball fan and sings the chorus to illustrate to “her young beau” how she would like to spend her Saturday.
Of course, even the song’s creators were a little hazy on whether the song had to do with wanting to see the game or actually watching one, since in the second verse Katie is at the game and repeats the chorus. It’s all a little confusing.
This confusion might be because neither the writer of the song’s words, Jack Norworth, nor the man who put it to music, Albert von Tilzer, had ever seen a baseball game. Norworth was riding the subway, saw an ad for a game at the Polo Grounds and was thusly inspired. This has always struck me as the most peculiar element of this whole story. The equivalent would be imagining Francis Scott Key lived in Canada, saw an ad encouraging tourism in America, and then wrote his would-be anthem.
Both men had stories beyond their involvement in one song, but Norworth’s is the more memorable. At one time a blackface performer, he wrote a huge number of Tin Pan Alley hits, but would almost certainly be forgotten today if not for “Take Me Out.” At the time, however, that was only his second most popular song, behind “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”
Norworth co-wrote “Shine On” with his wife, Nora Bayes, (or, more sinisterly, stole the credit from another author who had co-written the song with Norworth’s wife) and they performed together for a number of years. Bayes is a historical footnote in her own right, as the original singer of the wartime hit “Over There.” After her death, Norworth would later have a brief marriage to an Academy Award-nominated actress, and after that ended in divorce, another marriage to a non-celebrity which apparently stuck.
Between new wives, Norworth found time for other interests. Despite not seeing the subject of his most famous work for some time, Norworth apparently later became quite a fan. In 1952 he helped found the Laguna Beach Little League, which is generally credited as the beginning of California Little League.
Norworth died in 1959, his impact on our National Pastime secure. His composing partner, Albert Von Tilzer, lacks the glamour of Norworth’s showbiz star wives and later contributions to baseball, but his early career was selling shoes rather than wearing blackface, so he’s got that going for him.
Von Tilzer was a stage name, one Albert adopted from his older brother, Harry, who was also a composer. After briefly working for Harry, Von Tilzer (whose given name was Gumm, which goes a long way to explaining the desire for a nom de plume) branched out on his own and founded a publishing company with yet another newly christened Von Tilzer, Jack.
As with Norworth, “Take Me Out” is Von Tilzer’s far and away most remembered work, although he also composed hundreds of other songs. Von Tilzer, no fool, recognized this and in 1910 joined with a lyricist named Harry Breen and produced a sequel: “Back to the Bleachers for Mine.”
The song is obviously inspired by “Take Me Out,” telling the tale of Mamie McShane and featuring a chorus that includes such lyrics as “back, back, back to the bleachers for mine, for mine/back, back, back where the rooters root all the time/I want to sit where the crowd comes in/I want to root for our team to win.” The attempt to cash in was obvious and the song is (rightly) relegated to obscurity.
Von Tilzer spent much of his remaining career writing issue songs, first in support of the United States in World War I, later in favor of prohibition. He made contributions to minor Broadway works but the beginning of prohibition also marked the end of the popularity of Tin Pan Alley. (A cynic might say one’s consumption of alcohol and tolerance of Tin Pan Alley-type music were related, but that’s a judgment call.) Von Tilzer died in 1956.
The Dodgers’ celebration at Ebbets Field might have been just one small gesture to the remarkable contribution Norworth and Von Tilzer made to baseball. Although Norworth, with his later involvement in Little League baseball, can hold claim to being the true baseball fan of the pair, ultimately their legacy as the writers of baseball’s National Anthem is well-deserved.