"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Diamond Records

Baseball and rock ‘n’ roll are such elemental and ubiquitous American inventions that it’s a bit perplexing that they don’t really fit together. Baseball just doesn’t rock, no matter how hard stadium public address systems try to force the issue. Baseball is a game of calm, precision, suspense and strategy. For that reason, there are precious few worthwhile rock songs about the game.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great baseball songs in other genres. “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” the 1941 novelty hit from Les Brown and his Orchestra, is a stone cold classic, and “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?,” written by Buddy Johnson and recorded by both Johnson and the Count Basie Orchestra in 1949, is a jump-band variation on that theme that’s nearly as good a song and a superior cultural signifier (Johnson name checks African American major leaguers Satchel Page, Roy Campanella, Don Newcome, and Larry Doby). Bob Dylan’s “Catfish” from 1975 is great as well, but it’s not rock, it’s acoustic blues.

Being more of a fan of jazz than of baseball, my dad goes for David Frishberg’s “Van Lingle Mungo”, though I consider it more of a tone poem than a song. Still, I’ll take Frishberg’s list of names over any version of Terry Cashman’s trite “Talkin’ Baseball” (originally “Willie, Mickey, & the Duke”). “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” is a fun alt-country tune, but it’s removed from it’s place and time as part of the Mermaid Avenue sessions in which Billy Brag and Wilco set long lost Woody Guthrie lyrics to music.

There are rock tunes that reference baseball, but aren’t really about the game. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”, speaking of DiMaggio, is the most famous. Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” contains a variety of baseball references (including Joe D yet again), but Joel uses the game to greater effect in 1978’s “Zanzibar” (“Rose he knows he’s such a credit to the game, but the Yankees grab the headlines every time”) and also drops a Yankee reference into “Miami 2017”. “Zanzibar” also uses a bit of the “bases” metaphor best employed by Phil Rizzuto in Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. More recently, Belle and Sebastian’s “Piazza, New York Catcher” is something of a cryptic love song in which Piazza (and Sandy Koufax, who isn’t actually named) are either incidental or symbolic, and the only baseball reference in Kanye West’s “Barry Bonds” is the title. Of course, extending the conversation to hip hop brings in hundreds of references, from the Beastie Boys having more hits than Sadaharu Oh or Rod Carew to Jay-Z having “A-Rod numbers.”

For a long time, John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” seemed like the only proper rock song that was actually about baseball. As a result, it quickly became overplayed to the point that it is now one of the few 1980s hits I can’t stand (and I can stands a lot), though if it weren’t so trite it would have held up better. Fortunately, “Centerfield” finally has some company this year. A quartet of alt-rockers, the most famous of whom is R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, came together earlier this year as the Baseball Project and released a 13-song album devoted entirely to songs about the game and players including Ted Williams (via a rewrite of Wings’ “Helen Wheels” called “Ted Fucking Williams”), Curt Flood, Satchel Page, Fernando Valenzuela, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ed Delahanty, Harvey Haddix, and Jack McDowell (“The Yankee Flipper”).

More recently, Eddie Vedder, who is name-checked in “The Yankee Flipper,” released a Cubs anthem called “All The Way” (as in “someday we’ll go all the way”), and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren released “Yankee Stadium,” a tribute to the doomed ballpark which he cowrote with his wife, Amy. Unfortunately, neither really fits on the list of rock songs about baseball. Vedder’s song deserves to be listed among the classics above, but it’s more of a prostest/drinking song than a rock song (and veers dangerously close the list of team fight songs below). Lofgren’s tune, though well-intentioned (“For every soul who entered here/we raise a glass we shed a tear”), just isn’t very good. Lofgren’s vocal delivery is off-putting and, not surprisingly, the best part of his song is the guitar solo.

Of course, Lofgren already has his baseball song bonafides from Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” (that’s him in the beret with the white guitar), but that’s another one of those songs that mentions baseball, but isn’t really about it.

So what’s your favorite song about the game? What did I miss?

Note: Even though Yo La Tengo once covered “Meet the Mets” and “Here Come the Yankees” by the Sid Bass Orchestra and Chorus, a 1967 Columbia Records release that was the best thing to come out of CBS’s ownership of the team, is a personal favorite, team fight songs don’t count. That includes “Tessie” by Boston’s Dropkick Murphys, and the Sammy Hagar-meets-Kenny Loggins “Let’s Go Mets Go” from 1986. Having said that, be sure to check out Larry Romano’s trapped-in-time “Rock In The Bronx” from 1993. Also worth a look are the abominable “Super Bowl Suffle” rip off “Get Metsmerized,” also from 1986 (cripes, how many songs did the Mets need?), and the horrendous 1987 update of The Twins’ 1961 anthem “We’re Gonna Win Twins.” Actually, pregnant women and people with heart conditions should probably skip those last two.

Categories:  Cliff Corcoran  Music

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver