Like most people, I enjoy good music. I was fortunate to come of age in the ‘60s and ’70s, which were arguably two of the greatest decades for music. The other day I got to thinking about music that was written about baseball. Seems like a niche genre, right? After all, probably 90% of all music is written about love, drugs and sex or some combination of those three. How many songs could there be about baseball? Doing a quick internet search, I was shocked to find that the remaining 10% of music seems to have been written about the national pastime. Who would have thought?
My storyline quickly went from the ten best baseball-inspired songs to four different categories of baseball songs. It also gave me a good opportunity to listen to some songs I hadn’t heard before.
Understand, this is not a definitive list of all baseball songs or even a ranking of what might be the best. Music, like a lot of things, is not a zero-sum game. A song that I might find shallow and irritating, like say Glory days or Centerfield, might be beautiful music to another’s ears. And more power to you. It’d be a boring world if we all liked the same things. That said, here are the four main categories we’ll look at today: Baseball staples. Walk up music. Songs about baseball. Royal songs.
This is a short and sweet category. All games start with the National Anthem. Why is that? Good question. I love the song and I stand and place my hand over my heart when it’s played. But I can’t tell you why we play it at the beginning of sporting events. To me, it signals to the players, coaches, and fans that the game is about to begin. It gives us a chance to honor our country and those who have fought for our freedom. When I was a pup, I used to raise the flag prior to the local American Legion games. A man from the local VFW would accompany me, carrying the flag. He handled it with care, instructing me not to let it hit the ground and to raise it slowly, so that it peaked as the anthem ended. He was very serious about this job. I might have been serious too if I had spent four long years in Europe or the Pacific, fighting fascists. The big problem was the anthem is about two minutes long. Our flagpole might have been 16 feet tall. I was pulling that flag up about an inch a second under his watchful eye while our ballparks tinny speakers blared away.
I even like Canada’s anthem: O Canada. Every time I hear it, I make a vow to learn all the words.
During the seventh inning stretch, nearly all ballparks break into another classic, Take me out to the ballgame. Interesting choice, since we are already at the game. Either way, nothing beats sitting in Wrigley on a sunny, summer afternoon and hearing Harry Carey, leaning out the press box, full throat, “gimme a one, a two…take me out to the ballgame”. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, many ballparks started to play God Bless America. I like it. A lot of people despise it. As long as teams play it, I’ll enjoy it. Ronan Tynan sings a brilliant version of the song, primarily at Yankee Stadium until they moved on from him.
A few ballparks play America the Beautiful. Listen to the Ray Charles version. Perfection. James Taylor sang this at Fenway, reportedly because he was too ashamed of his country to sing God Bless America.
Other songs have started to creep into the baseball consciousness. The Boston Red Sox started playing Sweet Caroline in 1997 and it’s now a staple. In the games I’ve attended at Fenway, you can feel the excitement building prior to the song. Then the place blows up. Red Sox fans love to have a good time, and this is their closing the bar song. My father was a big Neal Diamond fan, and that’s carried over to me. The guy has a great voice.
The San Francisco Giants have been known to play two of Journey’s hits: Lights and Don’t Stop Believing. Their rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers counter with Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer. The Pittsburgh Pirates rode Sister Sledges disco hit, We Are Family all the way to the 1979 World Series Championship. I’m not crazy about that song, but hey, whatever gets you through the night, right? Cleveland? They have a song too. Cleveland Rocks by Ian Hunter.
Walk-up music is an interesting phenomenon. I have to admit, I miss the days when the only music you heard at the ballpark was the stadium organist. The Royals always had a great organist and it seemed more interactive than hearing some canned music blaring at 120 decibels.
That said, there have been some great walk-up songs. Welcome to the Jungle was used by Randy Johnson and former Royal Joakim Soria and is a fantastic song. Chase Utley would walk up with Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Kyle Hendricks chose Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion. I know what you’re thinking. Kyle Hendricks has a walk-up song? John Smoltz music of choice was the AC DC classic, Thunderstruck. Jonathan Papelbon, when he pitched for the Red Sox used to enter to, I’m Shipping Up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphy’s. Is there a better band name than the Dropkick Murphy’s? I think not.
If you’re a serious baseball fan you already know the all-time greatest walk-up songs:
Enter Sandman. Mariano Rivera coming in to close out the win. And when you heard the initial guitar licks of Hell’s Bells, it only meant one thing – Trevor Hoffman. To me, the greatest walk-up song of all time wasn’t even for a real player. Give me Wild Thing by X any day. When I hear that song, I see Ricky Vaughn walking out of the bullpen wearing those dorky glasses.
This is where things get interesting. And complicated. It seems as though everyone has written and performed a song with some reference to baseball. There are some older classics, such as Frank Sinatra’s There Used to be a Ballpark and Chuck Berry’s ode to race relations and Jackie Robinson, Brown Eyed Handsome Man. Simon and Garfunkel got into the baseball business with their 1968 megahit Mrs. Robinson, which asked the question, where have you gone Joe DiMaggio. Upon meeting Paul Simon, DiMaggio stated that he hadn’t gone anywhere, in fact, he’d just done a commercial for Mr. Coffee. In 1973, Joe Walsh scored a huge hit with Rocky Mountain Way. His virtuoso guitar work and the lines Bases are loaded, and Casey’s at-bat, playing it play by play, turned the song into a top US rock hit.
Albert Jones, properly inspired by Vida Blue, wrote and performed a jazz-soul fusion piece in 1971 simply titled Vida Blue. Jazz pianist Dave Frishberg, who wrote the children’s classic I’m Just a Bill, wrote an eccentric boogie woogie song using just the names of ballplayers and titled it Van Lingle Mungo after the former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher, who was a bit of an eccentric himself.
Somewhat surprisingly, the King himself, Elvis, never had a baseball song. This got me wondering: today we have Elvis impersonators. Are there Priscilla impersonators chasing after the Elvis impersonators?
One of my teenage favorites was a song by Marvin Aday, better known as Meatloaf. Paradise by the Dashboard Light was an 8 ½ minute power ballad about two horny teenagers making out in a car spiced with a play-by-play call by Phil Rizzuto as the guy makes his move.
Everyone wanted a baseball song in the 1980s. Warren Zevon got it started in 1980, as only Zevon could do, writing a song about the banality of baseball’s clubhouse culture, entitled Bill Lee, after the former Red Sox pitcher whose nickname was Spaceman.
Terry Cashman scored a minor hit in 1981 with Talkin’ Baseball. Longtime Chicago Cub fan and Chicago native, Steve Goodman, had two modest hits with Go Cubs Go and A Dying Cub’s Fan’s Last Request, also in 1981. Goodman, a prolific songwriter who penned the hit City of New Orleans. Sadly, Goodman passed away September 20, 1984, at the age of 36 after a battle with leukemia, just four days before the Cubs clinched the National League East title, securing their first playoff appearance in 39 years.
1984 brought the Bruce Springsteen hit Glory Days. If you were to list the top ten or even top twenty Springsteen hits, Glory days probably wouldn’t make the cut, but it was a commercial success. I always wondered what the heck was a speedball? Is the Boss talking about baseball or drugs?
John Fogerty went back to his CCR roots for the 1985 hit Centerfield. Both of those songs grate my nerves, but I’m sure they have plenty of fans.
Folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary penned a minor hit in 1986 about the last kid picked for the team, called Rightfield.
Country stars started getting into the act in the 1990’s. Jerry Jeff Walker, often called the Jimmy Buffet of Texas, penned Nolan Ryan, He’s a Hero to All of Us. Walker passed away in October of 2020, was well known in music circles for writing the hit Mr. Bojangles and one of my favorites, Pissin’ in the Wind.
The country hits then came in a flurry: Cheap Seats a fine song by the group Alabama about the enjoyment of minor league baseball. The Oak Ridge Boys got into the Nolan Ryan business with their song, Ryan Express, which is worth a listen if only to hear the four Oakies trading vocals. Especially Richard Sterban, who might have the deepest voice known to man.
Bob Dylan wrote the fine Catfish, about Catfish Hunter signing with the Yankees. Joe Cocker did a cover of this as well. Not to be outdone, Kenny Rogers wrote and performed a baseball-inspired tune called, The Greatest. Even country legend Merle Haggard got into the act with his 2011 song, That’s the Way Baseball Go. The title makes me think of former Royal Jarrod Dyson and his famous quote, that what speed do.
Most recent baseball songs have gone back to the rockers. Ry Cooder penned the 2005 song, Third Base, Dodger Stadium about the homeowners who were displaced by the building of the ballpark. Woody Guthrie wrote Joe DiMaggio Done it Again, which was recorded by Wilco.
The Dropkick Murphy’s got into it again in 2004 with the release of Tessie.
I’ll close this section with a song by Kid Rock, called Paid, which pays homage to “Le Grand Orange”, the late, great Rusty Staub. The lyrics are NSFW and probably gave Tipper Gore an apoplexy. I’ve always liked the Kid. I call him the Kevin Costner of movies. My kids give me endless grief about liking Costner movies. My argument is this: along with Tom Hanks, Costner is one of this generation’s most versatile actors. He’s done westerns (Silverado, Dances with Wolves, Wyatt Earp). He’s done the bad guy (A perfect world, Mr. Brooks, 3000 miles to Graceland). He’s done sci-fi (The Postman, Waterworld). He’s shown up in a smattering of other hits (Hidden Figures, Molly’s Game, Yellowstone). He’s done sports (Tin Cup, Draft Day, American Flyers) and he’s done a boatload of baseball (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game). Most of his movies have some subtle comedy. Waterworld has been universally panned as one of the worst movies of all time. I’m one of only thirteen people in the world who will admit to liking the movie. I’ve taken untold derision for that admission.
Kid Rock, as my argument goes, is the most versatile musician of this generation. The Kevin Costner of music if you will. He writes most his own lyrics and music, which is a rarity today. He’s had hits in four genres of music: rap, rock, pop and country. He knows and can play every Hank Williams Jr. song by heart. Hank Jr. has over 700 songs in case you’re wondering. He does excellent covers, such as Fat Bottomed Girls, by Queen. A few years ago, my wife won tickets to a Kid Rock concert. Never one to turn down a freebie, we went. Every meth user in the state was also there. The state patrol was in the business of keeping things under control and business was good. I lost count after about the tenth arrest. Despite all the extracurricular activity, the concert was great. The Kid played two plus hours of high-energy music and closed with a patriotic flourish. I was surprised to see him play four different instruments and play them well. Kid Rock = Kevin Costner?
For years, the Royals had a great organist, who kept the breaks between innings entertaining. Prior to games, the PA system used to blast current hits. I recall sitting in the lower bowl on the third base side, one sweltering day in 1977 watching batting practice, while Afternoon Delight blared from the speakers. Every time I hear the song now, I think of that 100-degree day in the stadium. Crazy right? I’m probably the only person in the world who doesn’t think of, well, you know what, when they hear that song.
In 2013, New Zealand pop diva Lourde, inspired by a 1976 photo of George Brett in a National Geographic magazine, wrote the hit song, Royals.
The 2015 Royals took Fetty Wap’s hit, Trap Queen, to another level. Players would insert number 1738 (part of the lyrics, also NSFW) into interviews in random places. Those who did not adhere, were fined. Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star went as far as saying, “KC players are fining each other is they don’t use 1738 in postgame interviews. I have no idea what it means. Success has driven them mad”.
Most recently, there’s been some debate if the Royals should revive their sixth inning song, Garth Brooks’ Friends in Low Places. I’m not a huge Garth fan, but his songs are high energy and easy to sing along to, even for a vocally challenged individual like me. Plus, he spent a spring training with the Royals. In a year like 2021, when the team is playing another summer of .400 ball, I could get into it. Where the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases my blues away.