No American sport has been given such a consistent musical soundtrack than baseball. Going back to 1908 when Take Me Out To the Ball Game was written, the game and its players have inspired music from generation to generation. Since we’ve started playing games out here, baseball season is in full swing. With that in mind, here’s my list of the ten best pieces of music for or about baseball.
Before you go all Earl Weaver on me, here’s a few caveats about some notable omissions: Take Me Out To the Ball Game is nice to sing at the park and all, but as far as songs go, it doesn’t crack the top 10. I mean, c’mon, are you really going to put a version (any version) of that on your iPod playlist? I didn’t think so. Also, Simon And Garfunkel’s classic Mrs. Robinson, with it’s famous ode to Joe DiMaggio was considered but scratched from the lineup because when you get down to it baseball has very little to do with the song. I also stayed away from the many team-centric fight songs. I grew up listening to (and loving) some of the Astros’ songs, including Stroke ‘em Stros and Go Go Astros and, after a quick re-listen to a bunch of them I can honestly report that most are dreadful. I even tried some of the Rangers’ songs from the past (recent and distant) and they didn’t make the cut, either. Sorry, Merle.
Okay, enough stalling, here are the Top 10 best pieces of music written for or about our great game:
1. The Natural, Randy Newman (1984)
No matter what you think of the film (I watched it recently and it’s shockingly lame) there’s no denying the genius of the music. I had the vinyl back in the 80s (still have it) and still get goose bumps. It will forever be linked to dramatic home runs (Kirk Gibson) and elicit swells of emotion. The best music sounds like the notes and melody were cosmically preordained and The Natural theme sounds like it was written when the game of baseball was being born. We can argue about the greatness (or not) of the film (and several colleagues are dumbfounded by my annoyance with the film) but when it comes to the music, it’s unassailable.
2. All the Way, Eddie Vedder (2008)
Forget for a second that I’m an unabashed Pearl Jam devotee and that I would give a kidney and spleen to hang with Vedder . Doesn’t matter. This song is powerful whether you don’t know Eddie Vedder from Eddie Munster. He nails the devotion of a diehard fan and what winning a title means. It’s sweet, spiritual, happy and sad all at once, just like the game, team and stadium it pays tribute to.
3. Centerfield, John Fogerty (1985)
The masterful songwriter encompasses the giddiness of playing the game as a kid. For sheer stadium-rocking music, there is none better than Centerfield, which was first released in March 1985. The video that accompanied the song paid tribute to the greats of the past and captures the song’s nostalgia perfectly. “Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play today,” indeed.
4. There Used To Be a Ballpark, Frank Sinatra (1973)
This one hits close to home because my beloved Astrodome has been in the crosshairs of demolition for a decade. That would make me sad, just as it made Ole Blue Eyes who was lamenting the loss of Ebbets Fields in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Dealing with death sucks, whether it’s a loved one or loved stadium.
5. Gathering Crowds, Mike Vickers (1977)
Fans of This Week in Baseball will immediately recognize this theme that played during the show’s closing credits. It was composed by Mike Vickers, a former member of the original Manfred Mann. He also composed the show’s opening song, which was first used on the 1974 game show Jackpot. Although you probably didn’t know the name, for a certain age group of baseball fans, this song conjures up baseball’s greatest moments from the 1970s and 80s like few others.
6. Glory Days, Bruce Springsteen (1984)
Don’t let the cheesy video (when MTV ruled the world) distract you from the greatness of this tribute to a former high school pitching star. Most of us never achieve much athletic success beyond Little League, much less high school. The single version was released on May 31, 1985 just in time to be the soundtrack for the boys of summer. When Springsteen played David Letterman’s final show for NBC in the summer of 1993, this is what he played.
7. A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request, Steve Goodman (1981)
It’s not fair, really. Why do the Cubs get two of the best tribute songs when most teams have none? I’m not a Cubs fan, although I did enjoy watching them on WGN in the 1980s. But it’s hard to resist the gallows humor and pathos in this song Goodman wrote about his beloved team. Goodman, who also wrote the classics City of New Orleans and David Allan Coe’s You Never Even Called Me By My Name, knew he was dying of leukemia so there’s serious gravity even with its humor. Goodman died at age 36 in September 1984. Four days later, the Cubs clinched a postseason berth for the first time since 1945. Years later, some of Goodman’s ashes were scattered in the grass at Wrigley Field, as he requested in the song.
8. Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey and the Duke), Terry Cashman (1981)
Before even knowing half the names namechecked in this tribute to the game’s endurance through turbulent times and strikes (it was released during the 1981 baseball strike), I was hooked. It pays tribute to not only the title characters: Mays, Mantle and Snyder, but to lesser-known stars and characters of the game from the ‘50s through the early ‘80s. In all, 30 names are mentioned with varying degrees of legend.
9. Catfish, Bob Dylan (1976)
This won’t be confused with a Dylan masterpiece, but is still has a bluesy charm and Dylan’s effective use of imagery. He’s singing about Yankees pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter and mentions manager Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson (when he was still with the Athletics) in a verse, “Reggie Jackson at the plate, Seein’ nothin’ but the curve, Swing too early or too late, Got to eat what Catfish serve.” Originally written in 1976, it wasn’t officially released until 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.
10. Right Field, Peter, Paul and Mary (1986)
The folk trio perfectly captures what many of us felt growing up playing Little League. Lost, confused and “watching the dandelions grow” in right field and “praying the ball never came out to me.” The song was written by Willy Welch, who apparently resides in Dallas, according to the interwebs. If Fogerty’s Centerfield extols the unbridled excitement of playing the game, Right Field shines a light on the fear (and boredom, for some) being all by your lonesome when a fly ball is headed your way. Remember this when Shin-Soo Choo has a bad day at Globe Life Park.