Details make the story sing

Yesterday I wrote about the classic song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Written in 1908, it remains a staple of baseball games today, sung in every ballpark at almost every game, for nearly 50 years now. While stories vary on when and where the song made its first appearance in a game—go down this Wikipedia rabbit hole if you like—one thing about the song remains indisputable: the songwriters had never been to a baseball game before they wrote the song. So what makes it ring so true for baseball fans everywhere? Details. Details make any story sing. Even those without music.

In this case, actor and lyricist Jack Norworth saw an ad for a baseball game while riding the New York City subway one day. Always on the lookout for fresh material, he wrote the song for his wife, Nora Bayes, to sing in their vaudeville act. When you know the lyrics to the verses, the song makes much more sense sung by a woman.

For the record, the music was written by Albert Von Tilzer, and it remains his only apparent claim to fame since Wikipedia describes him as “the younger brother of songwriter Harry Von Tilzer.”

The chorus, the part of the song that’s remained ubiquitous in ballparks at least since 1971 (though it was sung during the 1934 World Series), is full of the details that evoke nostalgia and pride in baseball fans everywhere. Yet lyricist Jack Norworth never saw a baseball game until 1940—more than three decades after he wrote the song.

Details paint the picture

How do you describe something you’ve never seen? Pile on the details, as many as you can find or invent.

“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” First sold in ballparks in 1896, Cracker Jack had become a baseball staple by 1908. The specificity of the brand name—vs. the generic “peanuts”—makes this detail come alive.

I don’t see Cracker Jack in the stores as much as I did when I was a kid—maybe I’m not looking in the right places—but I expect we’ll be seeing it in baseball stadiums until they switch over to 3D digitized games we watch through VR headsets. Wikipedia notes that the Yankees tried replacing it with a different coated popcorn treat in 2004 but “after a public outcry” switched back to the brand in the song.

“Root, root root for the home team”—it doesn’t take genius to imagine that’s what fans do. But people are always happy to have happy activities mirrored back to them.

“One, two, three strikes, you’re out”—Yes, a novice could get these details from the rule book, or from any news account of a game. But could Norworth have imagined how much satisfaction fans would get from mimicking the umpire like this?

At Mets games, the singalong is “led” by Mr. Met, our oddly disturbing baseball-headed mascot. When you create a mascot with a baseball for a head, how many fingers do you put on his hand? Four, of course: Three so he can count out the strikes in the song, and a thumb to tell the opposing batter to take a hike.

With songs and with mascots, the genius is in the details.

  • sports
  • storytelling