By Jessica Barbour
What is it about the sounds of baseball that make them musical, and so easily romanticized? In Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball, George Plimpton says that “Baseball has these absolutely unique sounds. The sounds of spring and summer….The sound of the ball against the bat is absolutely extraordinary. I don’t know any American male that doesn’t hear that in the springtime and get called back to some moment in the past.” These sounds are especially vivid in a game that’s often so quiet.
It’s been made the subject of numerous songs, many of which are collected and fully digitized in the Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia. Each song is freely available to the public to peruse and parody, including one of the most iconic American songs ever written, “Take me out to the ballgame,” written by Albert Von Tilzer, with lyrics by Jack Norworth. (I’ve been wondering lately if all of Norworth’s lyrics make him sound like a freeloader. He doesn’t pay for the game; he doesn’t pay for the concessions. Maybe the fact that he’d never been out to a ballgame when he wrote the song can be explained by the fact that no one wanted to take him.)
Baseball even gave us the first documented use of the word “jazz.” According to the OED, in 1912 a professional pitcher describing his curve ball was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.”
Despite its connections with the musical world, I have to admit now to a long-standing personal indifference towards the sport. My first-hand experience is limited to a third grade T-ball championship and some horrifying moments in co-ed little league. Baseball was never on TV at home when I grew up, and I’d become immediately bored if I even glanced at a game.
I’ve slowly come around to it (thanks in part to my boyfriend, who wrote the article on baseball songs linked above) to the point where I was comforting myself the day after the Boston Marathon bombing by watching the New York Yankees’ home game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on TV. As Plimpton said, the sounds of the game do bring me back to old memories of summer days (though I’m actually an American female, I think it still counts), and watching the game was having a calming effect on me.
After two and a half innings, the commentators told the audience at home that the song “Sweet Caroline” was going to be played in the stadium, and that they’d broadcast it for those watching at home.
I was moved: “Sweet Caroline” is a Boston song. I know next to nothing about baseball culture, but I learned that much from my two years living in Massachusetts. It’s been played at Red Sox games for years, despite the lyrics having no obvious connections to either sports or Boston.
A 2005 story in the Boston Globe traced the origins of the song’s use there to Amy Tobey, who was in charge of picking the music that would play at Fenway Park from 1998–2004. She’d heard the song at other sporting events and decided to play it in Boston. It was very well-received. The song has been played in the eighth inning of every home game there since 2002; that’s more than 800 eighth-inning sing-alongs over the last decade.
Experience has taught me that, prior to the game on the 16th of April, singing “Sweet Caroline” in Yankee Stadium would probably earn you a few dirty looks, which must be difficult for all those Yankees fans who also happen to be Neil Diamond enthusiasts. So, taking advantage both of an opportunity to show that they were thinking of Boston’s residents and of the only chance they might ever have to yell “So good! So good!” in the stands at Yankee Stadium, the crowd looked like this.
I found the gesture incredibly touching. When I described it to other people the next day, I remembered it being exclusively full of joyful, smiling singers-along. When I watch that video now, almost a month later, it feels a little more staid. Maybe a lot of people felt too sad about the attack to express support that way; maybe a lot of people just didn’t like singing. Maybe in my excitement at recognizing this sports-culture event as it was happening, I remembered it being a little more dramatic.
The crowd looked smaller than the reported attendance of 34,107, but there were still thousands of people for the camera operators to focus on. I wonder why they chose the ones they did, the fans who were in turn waving at the camera, leaning on each other, talking, slowly eating an ice cream bar without getting any on their beards, swaying, belting out the refrain, and then, quickly, getting back to the game. They didn’t even play the whole song. In short, it looked like any other baseball sing-along. But the good will coming out of my TV that night was palpable.
The soundtrack of baseball includes an outside score as well as the rhythms created by the game itself, and musical touchstones like “Sweet Caroline” are fascinating. The opening lyrics (“Where it began/I can’t begin to knowing/But then I know it’s growing strong”) might as well be pulled from quotes from the fans in the Boston Globe article about why they sing the song—as far as they knew, Boston fans sing it because they’ve always sung it, despite the fact that the tradition was only a few years old when that article was written.
But the message from the Yankees as they blared their rival’s anthem at home that night was clear to anyone tuned in to the game. And in a situation like the one that week, where it was easy to feel useless and helpless, that simple musical gesture was very deeply felt. The music of baseball is a part of it that even I can appreciate.
Jessica Barbour is the Associate Editor for Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. You can read her previous blog posts, including “Glissandos and glissandon’ts” and “Wedding Music”. You can read more about Albert Von Tilzer, Jack Norworth, and popular music in Grove Music Online.
Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.