Dear seventh-inning stretchers,
With President Obama’s high and wide pitch, baseball season is officially upon us. So I turned to Matthew Mugmon to dig into the archive for signs of the pastime’s past. Matthew is a graduate student in music at Harvard, whose dissertation looks at the relationship between American modernism and the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. And when you’re done reading his musings about baseball, check out his recent guest post on Gershwin at Amusicology.
Warm weather, the smell of hot dogs and stale beer, the sound of summer songs blasting from car radios, and the sight of too many Jonathan Papelbon jerseys all make me think about one thing: baseball. I’m the first to admit that it’s not a perfect sport. Actually, let’s face it — baseball is about as interesting as NASCAR. Nothing happens for 10 minutes, then the batter calls a timeout, then the infielders meet on the mound, then the manager calls the bullpen, then a kid runs out to get the relief pitcher’s jacket, then… Maybe this is why baseball has so much ephemera. We need a real way to pass the time while consuming America’s painfully boring “pastime.”
There’s no better way to get into the baseball mood than to think about what music you might hum to yourself while you’re at the game waiting for something to happen. And so to get ready for the new season, I browsed the Baseball Sheet Music Archive, one of the digital collections of the Library of Congress’ online Performing Arts Encyclopedia. Among other things, these scans from the late-19th and early-20th centuries shed light on an innocent time, an era when baseball moves hadn’t yet developed into a kind of crude code for specific kinds of sexual activity. Take the song “Base Ball Game of Love” by Edith Barbier and Arthur Longbrake, whose cover is pictured. After some corny lines that we might imagine A-Rod telling Cameron Diaz (“When first I gaz’d into your eyes, Your image made a home run to my heart,/ I tried to tag the feeling which into my heart was stealing,…”), things get racier to modern ears, especially with the chorus:
I was on first and you on second,
Cupid held the third base down,
He coax’d me to lead off and catch you,
But you saw me start I found;
And as we two reach’d third together,
Cupid gave me such a shove,
That we both slid for the home plate,
In our baseball game of love.
And from the cover, Monroe Rosenfeld’s “I’m on the right side of the right girl at the right time and place,” would seem to have nothing to do with baseball. But only a few seconds in, it starts to sound like a high-school cafeteria conversation:
I have been as far as Third Base,
That’s as far as I ever got;
It’s a Home Run this trip,
I’ll take care not to slip,
It means winning or losing a lot!
And that’s all before the chorus.
If music isn’t your thing, you can always chew gum during the next string of 30 foul balls. And if you’re like I was as a young Baltimore Orioles fan, you got some of that sugar-coated, rock-hard gum in packs of baseball cards that you bought to make you forget that your heroes made absurd salaries for standing around spitting and doing other unsightly things with their bodies for three or more hours a day (except for Cal Ripken, Jr., the greatest player of all time). As a kid, Senator Richard B. Russell had a similar idea, but his cards seem to have gotten him into smoking, not gum-chewing. The late Georgia politician’s collection of American Tobacco Company cards from 1909-1911, “Forgotten Heroes of the Dead-Ball Era,” resides online at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Science at the University of Georgia. (By the way, it’s called the “dead-ball era” because the games — believe it or not — were even less exciting than they are today.)
Here, I perked up my hometown spirit by searching for John McGraw, an early Orioles legend who shared a nickname with me: Mugsy. As the archive’s section “It Aint’ Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught” notes, Mugsy — who in this card looks a bit like George W. Bush — “routinely cut inside bases, impeded baserunners by blocking them or pulling on their belts, and maddened umpires and the opposition with his short fuse and sharp tongue.” Russell’s six McGraw cards depict Mugsy as manager of the New York Giants. Mugsy’s antics as manager, we find out from the archive, apparently got him ejected 131 times. If only Mugsy’d had access to the Library of Congress’ baseball sheet music collection, he could have sung “Let’s Get the Umpire’s Goat,” by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. Or maybe Mugsy secretly wrote the song.
Sadly, in the years of Russell’s collection, my Orioles were a minor league team. The modern pro Orioles would migrate from St. Louis in 1954; the previous pro Orioles had moved to New York in 1903 and eventually became today’s New York Yankees. I can’t imagine collecting minor-league cards, but it wasn’t so ridiculous in Russell’s day. Aside from players on teams you’ve probably never heard of — like the Southern Association’s Nashville Volunteers — I found nine Orioles in the senator’s stockpile. This includes Jack Dunn, shown here because it’s one of those unusual cards that shows the subject actually doing something baseball-related. This guy ran the Orioles and was responsible for having sold the great Babe Ruth from the O’s to the Red Sox in 1914. (For a nice account of this disaster, see Kal Wagenheim’s Babe Ruth, pp. 24-25). So here’s to you, Jack, for starting an Orioles’ tradition — acquiring and then getting rid of good players. The baseball sheet music collection has a few Babe Ruth songs, but you can bet Mr. Dunn never reached first base with any of them.