The story behind “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” seems almost too good to be true. Katie Casey was a hardcore fan, the sort that lives and dies for the home team. In the slang of her day, she was “baseball mad” and “had the fever and had it bad.” She spent every sou—that is, every penny—she had on the game. And when her team was in town, she was at the park. In fact, when a suitor tried to impress her with tickets to a show, she set him straight. “I'll tell you what you can do: take me out to the ball game.”
Katie Casey was, indeed, a hardcore fan, but then baseball ran in her blood. She was the daughter of the “Mighty Casey”—the hard luck slugger for the Mudville team immortalized by Ernest Thayer in 1888. Fittingly, Katie was immortalized as well; songwriter Jack Norworth built his 1908 hit around her story. Of course, most aren’t familiar with Katie Casey because we rarely sing the opening verse today:
“Katie Casey was baseball mad, Had the fever and had it bad; Just to root for the hometown crew, Ev'ry sou Katie blew. On a Saturday her young beau Called to see if she'd like to go To see a show, but Miss Kate said, ‘No, I'll tell you what you can do:’”
We usually ignore this part and jump straight into Katie’s refrain: “Take me out to the ball game.”
Yep, the story’s almost too good to be true. And, in fact, it isn’t true. The Katie Casey myth was constructed eight full decades later when sports writer Frank Deford included it in his 1988 novel, Casey on the Loose. Like all baseball fans, Deford loved the mythology surrounding baseball and decided to add another layer to the Mighty Casey legend. It makes a great story, but it’s just not true. The real story behind “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has nothing to do with Mudville’s tragic slugger. In fact, the song’s history has more to do with show business than it does with baseball.
Take Me Out to the Vaudeville
Jack Norworth, the song’s lyricist, was riding a New York subway train in 1908 when he saw a sign advertising that day’s game: "Baseball Today—Polo Grounds." Norworth didn’t go; apparently, he didn’t like baseball. (In fact, he had never been to a game and would not see one until 1940.) But as a songwriter, one of the many working on New York’s Tin Pan Alley, and a Vaudeville singer, he was always looking for material. The sign started him thinking about Americans’ growing obsession with baseball, so he decided to cash in.
Norworth had no idea just how big his song would become (it’s the third most frequently sung song in America) or where it would eventually find a home. He wrote it for his Vaudeville act; the song was debuted by his newlywed wife, Nora Bayes, also a Vaudeville performer, and it quickly became a regular part of their act. All in all, it was a pretty big year for the Vaudeville couple; a song that they wrote together, “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” was also a big hit. But their act would not go on forever. In 1913 they divorced, but perhaps more ominously, Vaudeville itself was in trouble.
Vaudeville took shape in the late 19th century. Despite the somewhat edgy etymology of the term—voix de ville or "voice of the city”—, Vaudeville represented an attempt to build a clean, family-safe form of entertainment. As American cities had grown during the 1800s, so too had the forms of entertainment they provided, but most of these catered to male-only audiences, and many of them were flat out risqué. Dance halls, beer saloons, and burlesque theaters provided a shocking array of strip shows and sex-filled acts.
Former circus ringmaster Tony Pastor resolved to create a moral alternative. In his New York theaters, he only booked acts deemed suitable for respectable middle-class men and women. He also re-enforced the family atmosphere by prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Other entrepreneurs quickly realized that Pastor had hit on something, so they took his idea and ran with it. Boston partners Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward F. Albee invited Sunday School teachers to verify the purity of their shows by monitoring rehearsals. Then they took the entire concept on the road. They bought theaters throughout the Northeast and sent their acts out on tour.
Vaudeville grew into the early decades of the 20th century. Theaters were built in every city, and performers trekked a circuit across the Northeast and into the Midwest. With shows running continuously, virtually all day, women could drop in while shopping downtown and workers could catch a few acts in between shifts. But like all forms of mass entertainment, a new kid on the block eventually challenged Vaudeville: film.
For a while, Vaudeville tried to incorporate rather than fight the fascinating—albeit silent—films. During the 1920s, it became common for Vaudeville shows to include a couple short movies. Towards the end of the decade, though, the balance within the shows was tipping toward film. By the early 1930s, old-style Vaudeville was dead.
Take Me Out With the Crowd
The death of Vaudeville might have been the end of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but in 1934, the song was played in St. Louis before a World Series Game between the Cards and the Detroit Tigers. By the next season, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was on its way to becoming a ballpark favorite. In 1946, a band struck up the song while fans stood for the seventh-inning stretch, and a tradition was born.
Today, baseball fans sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” between the top and bottom of the seventh inning during virtually every baseball stadium in America (except on certain holidays and special game days, when stadiums play “God Bless America” instead; some stadiums, like Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium, have opted to play “God Bless America” during every game). The ritual is as important to the game as the “Star Spangled Banner” and booing the lousy ump. Many credit Chicago announcer Harry Caray with turning an occasionally sung tune into a seventh-inning requirement. He started belting the song over the microphone while working for the White Sox. When he jumped ship and started calling games for the Cubs, he continued the practice.
Making Caray and the Cubs a part of the story makes sense. As of 2011, the Cubs had not won the World Series since 1908—the same year the song was written. For Caray to try and invoke a little Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance mojo would make sense in this superstition-filled sport. But for its first 20 years, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was more of a Vaudeville tune than a baseball tradition, so Chicago is doubly importance to its history. Chicago ranked just behind New York among cities with the most Vaudeville theaters. The largest, the Orpheum, offered 15 50-minute shows a day, from nine in the morning until eleven at night. Close to a quarter-million people passed through its turn-style monthly. Moreover, from Chicago, circuits stretched into the interior to tough-audience towns like Peoria—as the saying went, “If you could make it in Peoria, you could make it anywhere.”
Perhaps, however, it would be more accurate to say that “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is less a Vaudeville or baseball song than one that managed to jump from one form of mass entertainment to another. When Vaudeville died, it was baseball to a certain extent that filled a similar need by providing wholesome family entertainment to men, women, and children alike.
Baseball did not always meet this need. In fact, after the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, baseball was in crisis. The discovery that several members of the Chicago White Sox had conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series called attention to the fact that the game was riddled with corruption. Baseball owners decided to hire hard-nosed former federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis to clean up the game, and over the next 24 years that’s exactly what he did. He cracked down on gambling, eventually banning eighteen players from the game. He also took steps to eliminate the brawling between clubs that had become too common, and he defused complaints about World Series game called for darkness by donating all the proceeds to charity.
By 1930, baseball’s integrity had been restored—just in time for radio broadcasts and mega-stars like Babe Ruth to help turn baseball into America’s game. Through the 1930s and the dark days of the Depression, baseball took on an almost sacred place in American life. The ball park became a place where families could find not just wholesome entertainment but the certainty of fair play that the world outside could not guarantee.
Part of that certainty is the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Folks that may not like singing in public, that may just mumble the hard-to-sing national anthem, can easily belt out Jack Norworth’s words. It may not be exactly what the songwriter had in mind, but in a crazy sort of way, the song did travel a logical path—from New York to Chicago, from Boston to San Francisco, from Vaudeville to baseball. That’s got to make Jack Norworth happy, wherever he is.