Who is the most famous songwriting team? Lennon and McCartney? Bacharach and David? George and Ira Gershwin? Wait…did you forget about Norworth and von Tilzer?
Jack Norworth and Albert von Tilzer are a virtually unknown duo that wrote a song that has been sung by millions of people in dozens of cities across the United States. In fact, it is the third-most frequently sung tune that Americans sing, behind only “Happy Birthday” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”
That song is “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and as everyone knows, it’s sung at every Major League Baseball game during the seventh-inning stretch. But just where did the song come from?
If you think it was written by an avid fan for his favorite team... and that in no time at all it became an everyday event at Major League Baseball games…you’re completely wrong. In fact, the man credited with writing the song had never been to a baseball game.
Here’s how one of our country’s most famous songs came about.
A sign of the times.
Inspiration for a song can be an important event, a romantic interest or something personally meaningful in the songwriter’s life. For 29-year-old songwriter Jack Norworth it was none of those—inspiration came from a billboard.
The year was 1908 and Jack Norworth was riding a subway in New York. Being a songwriter, he was always looking for ideas for his next tune. Glancing out the window as the subway rolled along, he saw a billboard announcing an upcoming event. The ad wasn’t for Cracker Jack. It wasn’t an ad for peanuts. It didn’t say, “Take someone out to a ballgame!”
It simply said, “Baseball Today—Polo Grounds.”
The Polo Grounds was the baseball park where the National League’s New York Giants played. Maybe on that day Jack Norworth imagined riding the subway all the way to the Polo Grounds and catching the game. Maybe he imagined the peanuts and blue sky and the good time he’d have rooting for the home team.
Inspired, Jack took out a scrap of paper and wrote out the lyrics for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Here are the complete lyrics to the song. (Notice that when you’re at a baseball game, you’re singing just eight lines of the song, the ones that make up the chorus):
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:
“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Just buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”
Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:
“Take me out to the ball game….”
Lyrics need a tune to go with them.
Jack Norworth didn’t go to the Polo Grounds that day to catch a game. Excited and with fresh lyrics in hand, he now needed a melody to go with his words. For that, he reached out to a composer friend named Albert von Tilzer…who also had never attended a baseball game. Both Norworth and von Tilzer were part of the Tin Pan Alley musicians of the time in New York. When the music was completed, Jack had his wife, Nora Bayes, learn the lyrics and perform the song for vaudeville audiences.
It was an instant hit in 1908. Audiences loved it. Later that year, a man named Edward Meeker recorded the song for the Edison Phonograph Company. It became hit record and was the top song in the country for seven weeks. In fact, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” turned out to be the most popular song of the year.
When did the song go to the old ball game?
According to historians, it wasn’t until 1934 that “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was played at a baseball game. It didn’t take place at the Polo Grounds or even New York, but in Los Angeles…at a high school baseball game. It wasn’t until later that year that it made its debut at a Major League Baseball game.
That’s a long time, but the song still managed to beat Jack Norworth to the old ball game. He never did make it to the Polo Grounds in 1908. In fact, Jack Norworth attended his very first baseball game in 1940, some 32 years after he had written the song.
But by then, history had been made. In 2001, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was named the number eight song on the “Songs of the Century”* list.
Turns out, you don’t need to be a baseball fan to create its biggest hit.