This article was written by Steven A. King
This article was published in the Fall 2009 Baseball Research Journal
In the Spring of 1908 a young songwriter and vaudeville performer named Jack Norworth was riding on a New York City subway (or, in some tellings, an elevated train) when he saw an advertisement for a Giants game at the Polo Grounds.1 Inspired by the image, he pulled paper and pencil from his pocket and rapidly wrote the lyrics to a new song. Albert von Tilzer, a composer and publisher with whom Norworth had previously collaborated, set the words to music and so was born “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the most famous baseball song of all time.
Or so the story goes. Norworth and von Tilzer appear to have written the song, but the rest of this frequently told tale probably has about as much validity as the one about Abner Doubleday and the invention of baseball.
To begin with, Norworth apparently didn’t mention the role of the famous ride until after the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the writing of the song.2 Nor is there any evidence that there were advertisements for baseball games in either the subways or elevated trains in New York City in 1908.3 Furthermore, by 1908 Norworth was successful enough to own an automobile, raising the question why he would be riding on New York City public transportation, which was already considered to be both crowded and malodorous.4
If Norworth’s inspiration for the song didn’t involve a train ride, what exactly was its source? In those days, long before the invention of television and when radio messages were sent by Morse Code, baseball was likely to be brought to his attention if one of two things happened—someone mentioned baseball to him or he noticed an advertisement similar to the one that he was supposed to have seen on the subway. As “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was copyrighted on May 2, 1908, and the New York Giants’ home opener that year wasn’t until April 22, the event that fired up Norworth’s creative juices may well have occurred during the last ten days of April.
The likelihood that Northworth had a conversation about baseball is slim. One of the delicious ironies about Norworth and von Tilzer composing the greatest of all baseball songs is that both would later deny having seen a baseball game before they wrote “Take Me Out.” Whether this is true or not, there is nothing to indicate that, at the time the song was written, either man was, to use the parlance of the day, a baseball “bug.” Although the fandom of many other show-business professionals—playwright and composer George M. Cohan, for example, often played in exhibition games for charity and was a close friend of New York Giants manager John McGraw—was frequently reported in the newspapers of the day, the names of Norworth or von Tilzer do not appear in this context.
Their apparent lack of interest in baseball is further indicated by the lyrics of “Take Me Out,” which demonstrate at best a rudimentary knowledge of the game.
Therefore, the most likely explanation is that Norworth was inspired by something he read. In New York in 1908, there were at least 13 major English-language newspapers published daily in Manhattan and another three published in Brooklyn. Most covered sports to varying degrees and, during the baseball season, often contained ads for games being played that day. However, the ads usually ran alongside news of baseball on the sports pages, making it doubtful Norworth would have noticed them.
We are also left with the question of which, if any, of the papers Norworth read in April 1908? We can’t know for certain but there are at least two newspapers Norworth, and also von Tilzer, probably regularly perused: the weekly theatrical newspapers, Variety and the New York Clipper. The evidence for their attention to these papers is their advertising their work in them: The first ads for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” appeared in the May 2, 1908, issues of both papers.
Variety of 1908 is similar to the Variety of a century later; it was devoted to news of interest to show business professionals. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Clipper carried both theatrical news and extensive coverage of sports, most notably baseball. Although by 1908, it had eliminated the latter, in the April 25, 1908 issue of the Clipper an advertisement appeared on page 264 for the opening home games of the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on April 22, 23, 24, and 25.
Obviously, it is impossible to know if Norworth saw this ad but there is a good chance that he did. It sounds very similar to the one that he supposedly noticed on the subway. Also, it is in the middle of a page of show business news and advertisements. It is far more likely that Norworth would have read it rather than the sports page of a newspaper.
There is one other item that appears in the same issue of the Clipper that provides further evidence. On page 277 there is an ad for one of the two snack foods mentioned by name in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”: Cracker Jack. Despite the ad’s claim that it was “The Biggest Popcorn Seller in the World,” of all the New York newspapers only the Clipper frequently carried ads for it.
We thus have references to both baseball and Cracker Jack published in a newspaper Jack Norworth would have been reading at the time he wrote his lyrics, making the Clipper the most likely source of his inspiration.
- The Sporting News, 9 September 1959, 35.
- Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns, Baseball: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 96-97.
- Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, Tim Wiles, Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game (New York: Hal Leonard Books, 2008), 19.
- Baseball’s Greatest Hit, 21.
- Variety, 1 August 1908, 5.
- Even if the ad that inspired Norworth was for the New York American League team, the same case could be made for the Clipper as the source. In the April 18, 1908, issue there appeared an ad for the first games of that team’s season beginning on April 14 and also the same ad, for Cracker Jack, as in the April 25 issue.