It's the roaring wave of noise, the crack of the bat, the dazzling flow of the grass across the field, the throat-killing cheers and boos, the willing suspension of disbelief that this is just a game. This is baseball. And what would baseball be without its anthem?
It was in 1908 that the songwriter and performer Jack Norworth was on the subway. There in front of him was a sign that read "Baseball Today--Polo Grounds." Norworth wished he could be there, but, unlike the untold numbers of people who had the same longing but who were without a way to express it, he could at least write a song. Norworth found an envelope and wrote the lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." (That piece of paper is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)
It should be noted that while Norworth loved the Giants, he had never attended a baseball game in his life and wouldn't for another 32 years. (He must not have been happy later that year; the Cubs beat the Giants in the league championship and went on to win the World Series. It was the last time the Cubs won a World Series. Maybe it's because of the unrecognized Norworth Curse).
Norworth took the lyrics to Albert Von Tilzer, the younger brother of Harry Von Tilzer, a popular songwriter and publisher on Tin Pan Alley. The original family name was Gumbinsky (or some variant). Aaron Gumbinsky changed his name first to Harry Gumm and then to Harry Von Tilzer--Tilzer being his mother's maiden name and Von literally meaning "from" because it was a sign of German nobility. However odd a choice that might have been for Jewish songwriters, Albert adopted it as well. (If the name "Gumm" sounds familiar, it was Judy Garland's birth name.)
Albert was no more a visitor to ball parks than Jack Norworth. It took Albert two more decades before he attended a game. But Albert liked the lyrics, wrote the music, and on May 2, 1908 the pair sent two copies to the Copyright Office. One of America's favorite songs was born. Nora Bayes, a popular vaudeville star and Norworth's wife, introduced the song and helped make it popular.
While all baseball fans join in the rendition of the song during the seventh-inning stretch, they really are only singing the song's chorus. The complete song is about Katie Casey (or, as the 1927 re-working of the song has it, Nelly Kelly). Katie tells her boyfriend she prefers a ball game to a show. This romantic element, crucial to its vaudeville success, has been completely removed leaving the baseball game as some kind of utopia for fans who never want to leave. That is, the brilliance of the song (beyond its being both rousing and easy to sing) is that it isn't really about baseball but about a feeling of being away from the troubles of the world, happy, and in a community with thousands of temporary friends. This joyful mental place releases people from worries and responsibilities, from concerns about diets and debts. People eat and spend with abandon at games because of that feeling.
Indeed, the song's (that is Katie's) plea to buy Cracker Jacks caused sales of the product to soar. It had been introduced at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago by a popcorn company and first offered in ballparks in 1907.
The song continued to grow in popularity. The newly-emerging nickelodeons used the song during intermissions. The lyrics were reproduced on painted-up lantern slides so the audience could sing it. Today crowds no longer need any lyric prompts. Everyone knows the words, and everyone knows the tune. Not bad for two all-but-forgotten songwriters.