From Vaudeville to Laguna Beach

written by Stacy Davies

How Jack Norworth’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”  Became an Anthem for the Ages

In 1908, Vaudevillian actor and singer-songwriter Jack Norworth landed a lucrative gig in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. An even bigger boon, however, was meeting Nora Bayes, a highly popular singer and comedian who was already established on both coasts. Norworth, who was recently divorced from actress Louise Dresser, quickly married Bayes and, while appearing in Follies, the couple combined Norworth’s lyrics with Bayes’ music to create the iconic Tin Pan Alley song Shine On, Harvest Moon. It debuted in the show, and was an instant success.

Norworth and Bayes collaborated on several more tunes for Follies, including Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon-Man, but Harvest Moon was undeniably Norworth’s most popular song. That is, until one fateful day on the New York subway.
As he rode along his usual route, Norworth noticed a sign that read “Ball Game Today at the Polo Grounds.” He had never been to a baseball game, but that wasn’t too surprising. While professional baseball had been around since 1869, its early period prior to 1920 is referred to as the “dead-ball era,” with players rarely hitting home runs and chaotically jumping from one team and league to another.

Nevertheless, Norworth’s muse kicked him. He began furiously scribbling down lyrics to a new song—a simple song that told the story of a baseball-crazy young woman named Katie Casey, who refused to go anywhere with her boyfriend except to a baseball game.
“Katie Casey saw all the games/Knew the players by their first names/Told the umpire he was wrong/All along/Good and strong/When the score was just two to two/Katie Casey knew what to do/Just to cheer up the boys she knew/She made the gang sing this song/Take me out to the ballgame …”

Norworth finished the modest two-verse, two-chorus song and took it to his frequent collaborator, composer Albert Von Tilzer, who quickly penned the music—just in time for Bayes to debut the novelty at the Follies.
The reaction of the crowd was instantaneous. While there had been other baseball songs, such as 1867’s Base Ball Polka, Norworth and Tilzer’s Tin Pan Alley ditty had hit a major home run; after Billy Murray and Haydn Quartet recorded it that same year, Ballgame became the number one song of 1908.

Norworth and Bayes wrote another baseball tune, Let’s Get the Umpire’s Goat, but split up in 1913, with Bayes going on to record numerous other hit songs, including George M. Cohan’s Over There, the iconic WWI anthem that Cohan himself asked her to debut. (Bayes would die relatively young in 1928 at the age of 47.)

Norworth spent the war years in London starring in theatrical productions and specializing in tongue-twisting numbers such as Which Switch is the Switch, Miss, for Ipswich? When he returned to New York in 1918, fans greeted the “Globe Galloper” as one of the world’s greatest performers, and critics cited his name as “one of the sterling-marks of the native theatre.”

Moving to Hollywood in the 1920s, Norworth appeared in numerous shorts with third wife Dorothy Adelphi to little fanfare, but Ballgame remained hot: in 1931, mega-star Ruth Etting performed it in the Follies, and in 1934, it was played for the first time at the World Series – in game four between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, with the Cards taking the series.

Movie studios attempted to capitalize on Norworth’s fame, as well, and in1944, Warner Bros. filmed a biopic of Norworth and Bayes titled Shine On, Harvest Moon starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan. The film was panned for being a shallow showcase for songs, as well as for neglecting Bayes’ role in the song’s creation. (She didn’t fare much better in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, where Frances Langford portrayed her as a “heavy” who snatched Over There away from Cohan’s singing wife Mary.)

By 1948, Norworth and Adelphi were living in San Diego running a novelty shop. Norworth was still collecting song royalties and making occasional appearances in films and television, including stints on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Milton Berle Show. He finally saw his first Major League Baseball game, as well.

After Adelphi died in 1950, however, Norworth moved north to Laguna Beach and married again, this time to Amy Swor. There, the two founded the Laguna Beach Little League Baseball program, with Norworth becoming its honorary president and starting the tradition of personally handing out Cracker Jacks to players on Opening Day—a tradition that Amy Norworth would continue every year until her death in 1974.

In July of 1958—the 50th anniversary of Take Me Out to the Ballgame—Norworth was honored with his own day at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and at the pre-game ceremony was given the unprecedented honor of a lifetime pass to any game played in the American or National League. Sadly, Norworth would die the following year at the age of 80 from a heart attack.

During his career, it’s estimated that Jack Norworth wrote over 2500 songs, but he only believed seven of them were any good.

“My songs do very nicely by me,” he once told an interviewer, “because as soon as baseball training begins, the bands start playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and then they start playing Shine On, Harvest Moon—and that takes me right through spring again.”

In 1970, Norworth was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and just a few years later, Take Me Out to the Ballgame became an official, time-honored tradition at games after broadcaster Harry Caray and team owner Bill Veeck Jr. reintroduced it to fans.

As for Jack Norworth’s ultimate legacy, the chorus of Ballgame may be the only part of the song that’s survived, yet that legendary refrain remains the most-sung song lyrics in the nation – second only to the National Anthem.

 

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