At most Major League ballparks, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" has been played and sung by fans almost as often as "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Yet Jack Norworth, the Broadway headliner who wrote the lyrics in 1908, knew as much about balls and strikes at the time as a rookie kitchen boy knows about crêpes suzette.
Ordinarily, Norworth's "hits" were doubles, written with Nora Bayes. Norworth and Bayes were probably Broadway's most popular husband-and-wife song-and-dance team of the era. Only "Shine On Harvest Moon," which Norworth co-wrote and later sang as a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies, has generated the same kind of staying power.
Interviewed in 1958 on the 50th anniversary of when "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was first performed, Norworth's version of how he happened to write the song sounds like a fairy tale.
Rushing to catch a crowded New York subway, Norworth was jostled enough to lose the newspaper he had tucked under his arm. Without anything to read, Jack began to scan the poster-size ads in the subway car.
Norworth's gaze stopped when he read: "Baseball Today - Giants at the Polo Grounds." Thirty minutes later, Norworth had written the words to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on an old envelope.
The lead-in to Norworth's lyrics, which are never heard today, concern an attractive young lady named Katie (later changed to Nelly) Casey whose new boyfriend wants to make an impression by taking her to a top Broadway musical. But the young man quickly discovers that his girlfriend much prefers the velvet geometry of the baseball diamond. "Take me out to the ball game," she insists.
A talented friend of Norworth's, Albert Von Tilzer, composed the music. Once Norworth made it part of his Broadway act, theatergoers couldn't stop humming it.
Years later, when the MGM musical "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was released in l949, the title song was already a part of American folklore. Frank Sinatra sang it. Gene Kelly's tap shoes caught the magic. And Esther Williams swam for extra bases in the MGM pool.
The song became such a part of American pop culture that reportedly even gangsters like Al Capone and crime busters like Elliot Ness knew the words by heart.
In fact, Norworth, scheduled to perform his song at an actors' benefit show on Broadway in 1910, had to switch to another tune when the first four performers sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." More recently, former vice president of the San Diego Padres Andy Strasberg had door chimes installed that play the song.
More than 20 years would pass before Albert Von Tilzer saw his first baseball game. Norworth might never have seen the inside of a Major League ballpark if the Brooklyn Dodgers hadn't honored him with his own "Day" at Ebbets Field in 1940.