When they can’t attend games, how does a busy, middle-class family find time for baseball? If they were living in the 19th century and had a piano, most likely they were singing about it.Long before the advent (and then rapid ubiquity) of recorded sound, musical entertainment was a home-made concern, a familiar element of social gatherings. An abundant and continual supply of sheet music supplied the old chestnuts and the latest compositions for these family activities. Sometimes they were songs performed in music halls by well-known artists, sometimes they were eagerly submitted to the public first, in hopes of a hit. Baseball, which by the late 1860s had garnered nationwide popularity, legions of fanatics (“fans,” better known as “kranks”), as well as its share of scandal, was naturally already proving to be a rich and enduring subject for popular music.
From the earliest years of a game that was still evolving (and at the time referred to as “Base Ball”), many a march or waltz was composed for regional clubs. And they were clubs in the traditional sense: non-professional social organizations comprised of prosperous young men. The game was a true “pastime,” starting out with non-competitive intra-club play before progressing to matches between teams. Dances and dinners rounded out the club’s activities. A club might have hundreds of “honorary” members, but only a few dozen participated in the ballgames.
During this period, sheet music had been a common way to advertise—often a “freebie” distributed by pharmacies and other businesses. The wider the circulation, the better. And the wider the circulation,the more likely a song or piece of music would catch on, create an audience, and a market. Then, as now, successful advertising touched on the latest trends, interests, and fears of the populace. Baseball was no exception. A catchy piece of music could help galvanize fans as well—yet another market to tap. A club with a theme song—their own anthem—was distinguished from rivals who had none. It was one more reason to be proud of your home nine.
The cover images of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sheet music ranged from engraved text and simple illustrations to cartoons and fine, lithographed illustrations in vivid color, depicting the teams, the game, and the social phenomenon it was fast becoming. They were a visual chronicle of baseball’s relationship to American culture: its growing role in polite—and mixed—society, the structure and rules of play, its aesthetic and moral qualities, and the new phenomena of baseball fandom and celebrity athletes, .
This 1889 song, by the entrepreneur, entertainer, and songwriter J.W. Kelly, reprises the chant of Boston Nationals kranks when the great Mike “King” Kelly (no relation) was on base. “Slide, Kely Slide” [sic] remained the #1 baseball song until “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” edged it out in 1904.
In some cases, the illustrator seems to have had only a vague notion of what the contemporary game looked like—e.g., fielders in awkward stances, badly proportioned diamonds, or the wrong number of bases.
“Catch it on the Fly,” from 1867, is a particularly awkward example. As Irwin Chusid, music historian, producer, and 19th century baseball aficionado points out: “despite the advanced evolution of rules by 1867, the players seem indifferent to the concept of position. They appear to be haphazardly standing around the field much as one would scatter pool balls in a break shot. One player appears to be catching a ball, but the batter hasn’t swung, nor has anyone else tossed it to him. Perhaps he’s simply bobbling it. Two fielders have their hands upturned as if in prayer. There is a base or some sort of maker near the fellow committing the miscue. If the fielder to the immediate right of the batter is the 3rd baseman, the fellow behind him is playing in foul territory.”
The cover of “Finnegan the Umpire” (1890) reflects a fantasy still experienced by some players and fans on occasion. It does not, however, reflect the fact that by 1885 the umpire’s uniform commonly included chest protectors over the usual formal dinner attire. This illustration was done by Thomas Worth, a prolific (and now largely forgotten) cartoonist and illustrator of the day.
Novelty baseball songs—including plenty of what we’d now consider politically “incorrect” compositions— also used the game to address changing social structures;naturally this found expression on the comic cover art. “Brother Noah Gave Out Checks for Rain” (1907) tells the story of an all-black team, but in pre-Emancipation days, before Reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the first Jim Crow laws of the late 19th century. Yet well-known and highly regarded professional “colored” clubs had existed since the 1860s.
In fact, for one brief, shining moment in the 1870s, the integration of baseball seemed a (very) remote but nevertheless real possibility, with several black players briefly signed to white teams. By the 1880s, blacks were unofficially but effectively banned from the major leagues, and it would be another 60-odd years before Jackie Robinson “re-integrated” professional baseball.
First-wave feminism gets its due in this bit of satire, “dedicated to the new woman,” from the 1895 Comic Opera “The Merry Mormons.” (Two birds with one stone, it seems.)The libretto was written by once-famed-but-now-forgotten toast-writer, humorist, and poet of dubious quality, Fred Emerson Brooks.
Baseball was an effective marketing tool from its very beginning, and the music reciprocated. As a novelty, the game was the inspiration for all manner of songs; as a trope, it exemplified the way American ideas and (ideals) could be broadcast by way of entertainment. The national pastime indeed.
Works and sites consulted:
- The Baseball Library.com:Baseball Rules Chronology 1845-1899. Accessed 14 August, 2014.
- Hartman, Dorothy W. “Baseball in the Nineteenth Century: from Gentleman’s Sport to Professional Play.”Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Accessed 14 August, 2014.
- Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection. Accessed 14 August, 2014.
- Library of Congress Baseball Sheet Music Collection .Accessed 14 August, 2014.
- 19th Century Baseball. Accessed 15 August, 2014.
- The Rucker Archive. Accessed 14 August, 2014.
- Thorn, John. Baseball in the Garden of Eden: the Secret History of the Early Game.New York: Simon and Shuster, 2011.
- Binkowitz, Leah. “Play Ball (and Tunes):Sheet Music from the Game’s Early Days.” Smithsonian.com, 3 April, 2013.
- Lindberg, Ben. “Overthinking it: Baseball, sex, and sheet music.”Baseball Prospectus, 13 December, 2011.
- Gary Ashwill’s blog Agate Type.
- Mark Schubin’s Baseball-Opera Chronology.
- MLB Historian John Thorn’s blog, Our Game.