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Baseball’s Greatest Song

July 2024
2min read

… illuminated by the hand-tinted slides that helped make it a hit

ONE NIGHT in 1888, from the stage of a Broadway theater, the actor DeWolf Hopper recited for the first time a poem about a ballplayer, known only as the Mighty Casey, who struck out. Though Hopper had added the epic to his show as a one-time performance honoring the presence of the baseball great “Cap” Anson, the ovation that followed should have warned him he would be stuck with Casey for the rest of his life.

But there is another Casey in the realm of baseball lore who has been completely overlooked. Well, nearly so. Perhaps one person in ten thousand who knows the verses to the game’s most famous song will remember a thoroughly dedicated baseball groupie named Katie Casey.

Ironically, the song that featured her was the collaborative product of two men who had never seen a game of professional baseball. The idea for the lyrics came to a vaudeville headliner named Jack Norworth when he noticed an advertising card in a New York City subway car that read BASEBALL TODAY—POLO GROUNDS . Before he reached his destination, Norworth had transformed the spare announcement into sixteen lines of verse describing the exploits of Katie, who was wildly eager to be taken out to the ball game. The task of composing the score went to Norworth’s longtime friend, Albert von Tilzer, manager of the local York Music Company, which published the song in 1908.

Von Tilzer’s score was tuneful and, even more important, singable. The delighted Norworth confidently introduced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at Brooklyn’s Amphion Theater and was shocked and puzzled when his “sensational baseball song” fell flat. Some three months later Norworth again appeared at the Amphion. He had planned to give his baseball tune another outing. But to his astonishment, he learned that three acts ahead of his had included different arrangements of the song.

The overnight popularity of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” had been spurred by the publisher’s decision to plug the tune nationwide with song slides. The thriving nickelodeons had added illustrated song acts to their one- or two-reelers, and the song-slide treatment had boosted several tunes into hits, among them “Schooldays” and “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie,” the latter composed by Albert von Tilzer’s brother, Harry.

York Music Company commissioned DeWitt C. Wheeler, a prominent New York slidemaker, to produce slides depicting one afternoon in the life of Miss Katie Casey. Selecting the old Polo Grounds as an authentic backdrop, Wheeler engaged two models, at five dollars each for one day’s work. He photographed the scenes on 4- x 5-inch glass plate negatives, which were printed on 3 1/4- x 4-inch positive lantern slides and tinted by pieceworkers, copying a master set of slides painted by a professional colorist. Added to the series of sixteen pictures was a title slide showing the sheet-music cover and a final but immensely important slide: the words of the chorus, usually headed by the invitation ALL JOIN IN .

The customary edition of fifty sets of slides cost the sponsoring publisher about five dollars per set; nickelodeons and vaudeville houses rented them for one to two dollars a week. Given a simple melody with interesting slides, the vocalist, who preferred to be billed as a “song illustrator,” could get his audience to join him in as many as half-a-dozen encores. Leaving the theater with the tune ringing in their ears, many could hardly wait to buy a copy of the song for the parlor piano.

The technique made “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” a nationwide hit. Sensing the beginning of a trend, Tin Pan Alley naturally unleashed a spate of imitators. But the trend never materialized; few sold enough copies to cover the cost of publication. So on its seventy-fifth anniversary, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” retains its solitary prominence as the ballad of our national game.


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