"Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the most popular baseball song ever written, was actually co-composed by two guys who had almost no interest in baseball whatsoever. (Kind of like Ryan Seacrest hosting the Miss America pageant.)
In 1908, a 29-year-old vaudeville performer named Jack Norworth (he was famous for his spirited hoofing and blackface routines) was riding the New York subway. During his subway ride, he saw a sign that said "Baseball today at the Polo Grounds."
The song struck a chord and Norworth was immediately inspired. He thought, was there a better example of a nationally shared experience than going to see a baseball game? Always on the lookout for a commercial idea, he quickly scribbled down a verse and chorus. He titled his song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." (His original handwritten lyrics sheet is now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)
Norworth took his lyrics to a composer named Albert Von Tilzer. Von Tilzer wasn't much of a baseball fan either. Nevertheless, he knocked off a jaunty melody that fit Norworth's lyrics like a well-oiled glove.
Interestingly, at the time, neither Norworth or Von Tilzer had ever even been to a baseball game. Norworth was not to witness his first baseball game until 32 years later, in 1940. Von Tilzer saw his initial ball game 20 years later
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was first performed by Norworth's wife and fellow vaudeville performer Nora Bayes. Also in 1908, the first recording of the song was recorded by Edward Meeker (this version is still available and can be listened to on various websites).
The song became a smash hit. It wasn't the first baseball song; others including "The Baseball Polka," "It's Great to Be at a Baseball Game," and the similarly-titled "Take Your Girl to the Ball Game" had already appeared on the scene, but none had the immediate or lasting impact of Norworth's song.
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" had slightly unusual lyrics, in that it was actually about a guy asking his girl to the show, and her turning him down, asking him to take her to a baseball game instead. It was unusual, in that at this time, baseball was a customarily man's sport and going to games was very much a male-dominated activity.
The original opening lyrics to the song are now almost entirely forgotten and not cared about today. The original first verse to the song was:
Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev'ry sou (a sou was a then-popular term for a cheap coin)
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:"
Refrain: Take Me Out to the Ball Game...
A rarity, almost the entire song is thrown aside and forgotten, but the refrain is held on to and becomes an immortal song in itself. Norworth added new lyrics in 1927, almost 20 years after the original song, changing "Katie Casey" to "Nelly Kelly" and putting in a plug for the popular amusement park Coney Island. Same story; no one really cared to sing or even remember the song, just the refrain.
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was first sung at a real baseball game in 1934, at a high school game in Los Angeles. Reputedly, its first appearance at a Major League game occurred the following year. By the 1950's, the song was routinely played during the seventh inning stretch of most big league games.
The song was also performed in the 1949 Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly film Take Me Out to the Ball Game, as well as the Marx Brothers legendary A Night at the Opera (1935) and Abbott and Costello's The Naughty Nineties (1945).
Harpo Marx plays a nice version of the song on his harp in his I Love Lucy guest spot in 1955 (Harpo was a huge baseball fan in real life, he loved the New York Giants).
Albert Von Tilzer died in 1956. Jack Norworth was to pass on in 1959 at the ripe old age of 80, but not before he was honored at the L.A. Coliseum by the L.A. Dodgers, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his immortal song. On that special occasion, "Jack Norworth Day," the makers of Cracker Jack presented him with a trophy. He was also given a golden lifetime baseball pass.
The excellent sportswriter Harold Rosenthal was to say about Jack Norworth's beloved song: "Of the several hundred songs written for and about the national game, 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' looms above them all. It was so good that the song is probably familiar to 999 out of every 1,000 persons in the United States."
With the song now 43 years in the public domain (that means anyone can play it with no residual or royalty payments), "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" would seem to be as much a permanent part of baseball as eating hot dogs, drinking beer, and booing the umps.