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Five for Friday: Baseball Songs

For baseball diehards, the sport, which can dominate the calendar from spring training in March to the World Series in November, often becomes intertwined with life. See, for instance, Pearl Jam's new concert documentary, Let's Play Two! Pearl Jam Live at Wrigley. Sure, the film features plenty of footage of the band's concerts at the Chicago ballpark, but it really uses the setting to delve into singer Eddie Vedder's love of the Chicago Cubs and how the team's once-pitiful ways shaped his character. All this from a band that rose to fame during the early 90s' anti-consumerist alt-rock movement. But Pearl Jam has company. Over the last few decades, plenty of artists have sung about their love of America's National Pastime. With the playoffs beginning this week, we look at five of our favorite baseball-referencing songs. And just a head's up: You won't find John Fogerty's "Centerfield" or Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" here; we dug deeper.

Bob Dylan, "Catfish"
Something of a rarity in the Bob Dylan catalog, "Catfish" was recorded in 1975 and initially intended for 1976's Desire, only to sit unreleased until 1991, when it appeared on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1 – 3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961 – 1991. Others covered the tune – see versions by Joe Cocker and Kinky Friedman – but Dylan's bluesy original, which mourns as much as it mythologizes, remained known only to diehards. At the time of the song's writing, pitcher Joe "Catfish" Hunter was a legend in the making, having just come off four 20-plus-win seasons for the Oakland A's. While his arm could make a schoolkid dream of stardom, Hunter also ushered the game into the modern era of high-stakes financials. Awarded free agency in 1975, he signed with the New York Yankees for $3.35 million, then baseball's biggest-ever contract. Dylan's "Catfish" unfolds like an acoustic dirge, with rough and course guitar strumming. Even as it doesn't pass judgment on the subject, the song, with contrasting images of pitching on a farm to smoking designer cigars, captures a loss of innocence.

Woodrow "Buddy" Johnson, "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"
In the years immediately after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Library of Congress regularly received copyright requests for songs recorded in the player's honor. The one that became a hit – and would eventually be cemented as a baseball classic – is 1949's "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" by jazz bandleader Buddy Johnson. By beginning with a brief fanfare that nods to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," Johnson instantly acknowledges Robinson's historical importance. By the late 40s, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" had become baseball's go-to-anthem, but our National Pastime wasn't complete until it went colorblind. Enter Robinson, and "when he swung his bat, the crowd went wild." The swingin' tune comes complete with crowd noises. Most fans will likely recognize the Count Basie-led rendition, slightly slower than Johnson's brassy original but no less celebratory.

The Melvins, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"
Written in 1908, this ballpark staple originally had little direct connection to the game. There were no famous ballplayers mentioned, and the song didn't allude to that year's tensely fought race between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants. In fact, legend has it that composers Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer had never even attended a game. Instead, the Tin Pan Alley songwriters intended the tune as a lighthearted ditty that could be performed for Vaudeville acts. While largely lost to time, the attempt featured a tale about a young woman who was "baseball mad." It would be a few decades before a truncated version turned into a seventh-inning-stretch staple. Last year, hard-rock weirdos the Melvins included a rendition on its Bases Loaded album. In some ways, the Melvins take the song back to its roots. The band doesn't restore the story of Katie Casey and her baseball "fever," but gives the song a carnival-esque makeover. As the act barks the famous chorus over circus-ready keyboards, it's relatively easy to believe the song was once part of a traveling roadshow.

Peter, Paul and Mary, "Right Field"
For many children, playing in a local little league is a rite of passage. But what if you're not any good? Alone in our bedrooms, we can all be Hank Aaron or Bryce Harper. Yet those famous right fielders likely weren't stationed in the corner outfield spot when they were young. For that position is strictly reserved for the least-athletic among us. Rarely does anything but a grounder make its way to right field in little league, as most batters are right-handed and swing late. To drop the ball into right, one must get around much quicker. Enough about the physics. Peter, Paul and Mary knew exactly what it felt like to be a misfit. "You can be awkward and you can be slow, that's why I'm here in right field," sings Noel Paul Stookey on the casual strummer. It remains a song for all who love the game, but just can't play it.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, "My Oh My"
As Seattle rapper Macklemore – now with less Ryan Lewis – dominates the pop charts with his new album Gemini, the artist shouldn't have baseball to distract him from promoting it. Macklemore's beloved Seattle Mariners didn't punch a ticket to the postseason, but the always-earnest musician did manage to compose a sweet songs to his city's baseball team. He penned the 2010 effort as a dedication to late Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus. The song gets right to the core of the nostalgic glow understood by many a baseball fan. While buying tickets to a ballgame today requires a small fortune, the appeal of the sport often relies in how it brings family and friends together. Passed from generation to generation, baseball acts as a bonding agent. And since we follow players for half the year, their ups and downs become tales discussed around the dinner table. That's the world of "My Oh My," where a tearfully uplifting piano and rally handclaps find Macklemore reminiscing about sharing baseball with his pops.

October 6, 2017

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