1) "Dock Ellis" by SF Seals (Listen)
Bay Area indie rocker Barbara Manning has never made a secret of her affinity for baseball. One of her early album covers featured a painting of a ball field, and in 1993 she put together a band called SF Seals, named after the Pacific Coast Lea
gue team that gave Joe DiMaggio his start. On her Baseball Trilogy EP, she covered Les Brown's 1941 staple, "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," as well as the more obscure "The Ballad of Denny McLain" by Mad V. Dog and the Merchants of the New Bizarre, but the track that wins the day is her original tribute to the iconoclast who pitched a no-hitter under the influence of LSD, "Dock Ellis." Set against a chugging backbeat, a rumbling bass, and swirling psychedelic guitar lines, the song's lyrics memorialize not only his June 12, 1970 no-no ("Take a trip one summers day / Don't forget, you have to play") but also the time he drilled the first three Reds he faced in a 1974 start ("Next was Pete, he smiled at you / You hit him, too, he rolled it back") as well as his general outspokenness with the media. For four minutes and 22 seconds, it's a thrilling trip and a fitting testimonial to one of the game's true originals. —Jay Jaffe
2) "Move Over Babe (Here Comes Henry)" by Ernie Harwell and Bill Slayback (Listen)
Bill Slayback gained more notoriety for singing a song about Hank Aaron's pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record than he ever did as a major league player. Legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell wrote a song in 1973 titled "Move Over Babe (Here Comes Henry)” and Slayback, a Detroit pitcher, recorded it as a single. The record was played on NBC's Game of the Week, and that led to it gaining some airplay on various radio stations across the country. The most memorable lines of the song were, "Move over Babe, here comes Henry and he's swinging mean. Move over Babe, Hank's hit another, he'll break that 714.'" Slayback went 6-9 with a 3.84 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Tigers from 1972-74, but his interests extended beyond the diamond as he sang, played numerous musical instruments, painted, sketched, and was a furniture maker. More than anything, though, he'll be remembered for singing about one of the watershed moments in baseball history. —John Perrotto
3) "Laughing River" by Greg Brown
So goodbye to the bus.
Good bye to payin' dues.
Goodbye to the cheers,
and goodbye to the booze.
well I'm trading in this old bat,
for a fishing pole.
I'm gonna let the Laughing River,
flow right into my soul.
—Greg Brown, “Laughing River”
My college roommate, Josh Chambers, introduced me to the music of Greg Brown during junior year. A prolific songwriter—who also happened to be the Music Director for A Prairie Home Companion in the 80s—Brown is, for my money, the best songwriter in America. His story in “Laughing River”of a man hanging up his cleats after two decades to go live in the country always struck a chord with me. It’s unique in its description of the ballplayer who is, for the most part, content with walking away. Rarely is the “second act” of a ballplayers life met with hope and optimism, but it’s the essence of this song’s main character, and it will always stick with me. —Mike Ferrin
4) "Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)" by The Treniers
Oddly enough, I’ve never been to New York City. There are three main reasons for this: (1) there’s never been a requirement for me to visit, like a wedding, a funeral, a meeting, a job interview, a summons, or an invitation to cruise by and pick up my Pulitzer; (2) an over-developed Midwestern pride of place that, like hives, can manifest in reaction to the cultural hegemony of the coasts, leading to statements like “why do I need Manhattan when I already have Chicago?” (or, less convincingly, “why do I need Los Angeles when I already have the Wisconsin Dells?”); and (3) fear that a technicolor New York of actual acquaintance would overwrite the gray-scale city of my imagination—a New York defined by fedoras, stickball, bebop, Lee J. Cobb, Jack the Dripper, Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, and grainy stills of Albert Anastasia in a barber shop.
And, of course, Willie, Mickey and Duke. And Campy. And Yogi. Could there possibly have been a better time and place to be a baseball fan than post-war New York City? The color barrier was breached there, the best teams and the best players of a generation played there, and (with apologies to “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?”), nothing better captured the pure joy of this era than The Treniers’ “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)”. Mays himself bookends the recording, first explaining to an over-exuberant Trenier that Monte Irvin is fully capable of covering left field himself before the band launches into a swingin’ exaltation of the Say Hey Kid’s speed, glove, bat, and patriotic service capped by Willie’s final cry of “Say Hey!” This was 1955, and within three years, Willie and Duke would be playing on the west coast, Campy would be in a wheelchair, and the Treniers’ style of rockin’ swing would be absorbed and eclipsed by the Memphis rockabilly of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry’s fashion-forward electric R&B, leaving “Say Hey” as the perfect artifact of a time and place I’ve never been but hope to never lose. —Ken Funck
5) "Catfish" by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy
In the summer of 1975, Bob Dylan was bouncing between the Hamptons and Greenwich Village, writing and recording songs for a follow-up to his masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks.” In the Bronx, Catfish Hunter was enjoying one of his greatest seasons—his first with the Yankees—leading the league in innings (328), complete games (30), and victories (23).
Dylan and his writing collaborator, Jacques Levy, put together a series of “story-songs” for the album that became Desire. Their most controversial effort was “Hurricane,” which questioned the murder conviction of boxer Rubin Carter. Among the songs left on the cutting-room floor, however, was “Catfish”: a slow, bluesy account of Hunter’s move from “Mr. Finley’s farm” in Oakland to becoming a “million-dollar man … up where the Yankees are.” The song was an underground favorite among Dylan fans before it was officially released 16 years later on “The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991.”
You’re not likely to find a clip of Dylan performing “Catfish,” but YouTube offers this up-tempo cover version. Dylan’s web site provides a sample from the song, as well as the official lyrics, including two additional verses that did not make the studio recording (even the lyrics left out—“Even Billy Martin grins / When the Fish is in the game”—are priceless). Dylan was right. Nobody could throw the ball like Catfish—a Hall of Fame subject for a Hall of Fame artist. —Jeff Euston
6) "Walter Johnson" by Jonathan Richman
Like all zero-sum pursuits, baseball requires us to abandon some of our goodness. Winning means the other team must lose, so our pursuit of happiness comes at the direct expense of another's. Jonathan Richman's version of the pitching great Walter Johnson—I've always assumed an entirely fictional version, but maybe not—is torn by this conflict; he wants the other team to be happy too. So when his team was cruising, Johnson would lay in some fat pitches for the other guys to hit hard. His teammates didn't get it, but "Walter just told them with his gentle smile/ Boys, this game isn't any fun if you don't get a hit once in a while." And all through baseball, he was loved and respected. —Sam Miller
7) "The Greatest" by Kenny Rogers
As the resident southerner on the staff, I felt obliged to bring the country music genre into this discussion. I have always been more a fan of the story in a song than the song itself, which is why I always liked this song, but after joining the fraternal order of fatherhood, I earned an entirely new appreciation for this song.
The baseball that we follow today is under a constant microscope of analysis and probability from playoff odds, run expectancy, leverage index, and win probability. There are random amounts of enjoyment that each of us take from watching games through that kind of prism, but I wouldn’t be truthful if I said that it did not take some of the raw joy and passion from the game. I do not like the fact that I know that the run expectancy for bases loaded situations with no out is 2.5 runs because it frustrates me even more when the Rays leave the bases loaded after loading them with nobody out. I do not like knowing that a team down four runs in the ninth inning has a one percent chance of winning. What I miss from baseball these days, as an analyst, is the innocence of baseball. That’s what this song brings back.
There is something to be said about watching, playing, and/or imagining the game of baseball with the innocence of a child where anything is possible at any time. If the situation is less than desirable, a child can find new joy in the moment. I can almost imagine my own son in the front yard as the child in the video, although there is no way my son would be caught dead in a Yankees or Phillies gear. —Jason Collette
8) "Piazza, New York Catcher" by Belle & Sebastian
How do you know when a baseball meme has gone mainstream? I'm not sure what the true tipping point is, but having a Scottish indie-pop band write a song about it is a pretty good indication. In 2003, Belle and Sebastian released "Piazza, New York Catcher" on their album Dear Catastrophe Waitress, which featured the line "Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?"; Piazza's sexuality was the subject of persistent rumors for many years. The song also references Sandy Koufax (sort of), telling the tale of a pitcher who "puts religion first and rests on holidays," although, unlike Koufax, this pitcher spends his time in cathedrals.
This isn't your classic baseball song like “Talkin' Baseball”, “Centerfield”, or even “Glory Days” (god forbid), but it does illustrate an interest of the game that crosses national boundaries. In fact, my question above is a little unfair. Singer Stuart Murdoch is a self-avowed baseball fan who has hosted press junkets at Mets games.
The link between Belle & Sebastian and baseball once helped me realize how big of a nerd I am. Apparently to the outside world, it's not very surprising that someone who studies baseball stats might also fit the mold of a Belle & Sebastian-loving hipster (you know, without the disdain for others). Who knew? —Dan Turkenkopf
9) “Curt Flood” by The Bismark
Fans of punk rock often argue about the origins of the genre. Some say the Ramones, some say The Sex Pistols, some get more esoteric and point to The MC5 or even The Kingsmen's 1963 version of “Louie, Louie.” In many ways, punk is more about attitude than results, and in that mode of thinking, Curt Flood was very punk, and no act in baseball was more punk than his letter to Bowie Kuhn in 1970. With that in mind, I'm happy to introduce you to a punk song simply called “Curt Flood” by The Bismark.
Band member Chris Jury told me, “Most of the lyrics come from the letter Mr. Flood wrote to commissioner Kuhn after being traded for the 1970 season. We often throw DVDs into the laptop while on tour. Eric and Nate (who usually ride in the back) get to watch, and for Dan and I, it's like a book on tape. Ken Burns's Baseball really struck a chord with us. Because we are history nerds, our songs are generally character studies of people or events we find interesting and usually involve some research. This one was Dan's baby, and he does most of the singing.” —Kevin Goldstein
10) "Right Field" by Peter, Paul, and Mary (Listen)
When I was a youngling, I was fixated on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This, I know, does not make me unusual in any way; most young boys at that age, at that time were obsessed with those pizza-swilling reptiles. And so I managed to persuade my parents to get me a VHS copy of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film. I am sure that my mother deeply regretted this, if the damage I ended up doing to her house in my quest to imitate the ninjitsu moves of those turtles is any indication. Thankfully, she has been kind enough to rarely bring this up in the years since.
So anyway, if you were Pizza Hut and it was the peak of the Ninja Turtle craze, you were staring at absolute marketing gold. Those turtles inhaled pizza at a prodigious pace, and impressionable young children such as myself were as keen to imitate their dietary habits as we were their ninja moves (and we were probably doing as much damage that way too). This is why Pizza Hut sponsored the ill-conceived Ninja Turtle album—yes, such a thing existed—and this is why Pizza Hut had a commercial at the front of that movie's home video release.
Thankfully, we were spared the musical stylings of a studio band pretending to be amphibian pugilists. Instead, what we got was the story of a Little League screw-up saving his team in the big game by somehow catching the fly ball. He was carried off the field by his cohorts… and was apparently carried straight off to Pizza Hut to celebrate. And the song used to narrate this young lad's bright, shining moment?
Peter, Paul and Mary singing "Right Field."
I must've heard that song at least a hundred times (don't judge me). And I gotta’ tell you… it's a sweet little song; it really is. Listening to it all these years later, it still really is absolutely charming. And every time I hear it, I see the incredulous look of the catcher as he rips off his mask and sees his teammate holding onto the ball, the sheer joy on their faces as they realize they've won. Yes, it's laughably sentimental, and it's sentiment sponsored by Pizza Hut of all places. I really don't care. —Colin Wyers
11) "Baseball Boogie" by Mabel Scott
Baseball’s association with sexual metaphors goes well beyond the “base system” by which many a young lothario has assessed his anatomical conquests. I spent one of my first working summers in a cramped office with two older employees who routinely regaled each other with tales of their recent sexual exploits. The regularity of these alleged encounters suggested that the stories may have described events both real and imagined—curiously, their evenings on the prowl almost never intersected, as if neither was too eager to put the other’s claims to the test—but the veracity of the events was secondary to the exclusively baseball-specific language used to describe them, which went well beyond the more mundane patter usually reserved for informing one’s bros of what (or whom) one did last night.
“Bases” almost would have been too easy, as would have anything as obvious as rubber games, mounds, sweet spots, balls in the gap, or plays in the hole. There was seemingly no baseball lingo, no matter how obscure, that they couldn’t turn into innuendo capable of sending Eric Idle into uncontrollable nudging. My (possibly) promiscuous co-workers may have been particularly inventive in their use of baseball terminology to render the not-safe-for-work more suitable for the office environment, but they were hardly ahead of their time—Mabel Scott beat them to it by more than half a century with “Baseball Boogie,” which dates from June of 1950.
You might know Mabel, a gospel/R&B singer who broke through in the late 1940s, from “Elevator Boogie,” “Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train,” or “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” a song that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “Santa Claus is coming.” As you might have gathered, Mabel was big on making boogie, and I don’t mean music. (Her pianist on “Elevator Boogie,” Charles Brown, must have taken the hint; he married her a year after recording the song.) It’s safe to say that when she sang “Get your bat ready, baby” in “Baseball Boogie,” she wasn’t calling for a pinch-hitter in the Stairs-ian sense.—Ben Lindbergh
12) "Cubs in Five" by The Mountain Goats
Having apparently torn something important in my back at the conclusion of Sunday's radio show (a moment not caught on tape, alas—I would like to know if my scream was as anguished as I recall it), I have been horizontal for two days and am writing this from that awkward position. It's hard to imagine a more appropriate song for such a moment than the Mountain Goats' Cubs in Five, the leadoff-song from their 1995 album Nine Black Poppies. Songwriter John Darnielle (the only non-transient member of the group) has a knack for contrasting moments of absolute devastation and elation, such as in his 2005 song This Year, in which he describes a confrontation with his abusive stepfather—"the scene ends badly, as you might imagine, in a cavalcade of anger and fear," but then adds, "There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year." Somehow there is light, however remote and nigh-celestial, at the end of the tunnel. The Cubs in Five is really the opposite equation, an illusory flash of light and then all tunnel. First, the light:
They're gonna find intelligent life up there on the moon
And the Canterbury Tales will shoot up to the top of the best seller list
And stay there for 27 weeks
And the Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league
And the Tampa Bay Bucs will make it the way to January
And I will love you again
I will love you, just like I used to
In other words, we're over, baby—it just ain't happening. Just as Cole Porter deserves credit for selecting a list of imperishable cultural and commercial signifiers for his list song You're the Top, so too does Darnielle for choosing a condition for romantic revival that, 16 years later, still seems as if it will never be fulfilled, even if Tampa Bay did win the Super Bowl in 2003. Of course, it helps to have Jim Hendry as your unwitting collaborator.—Steven Goldman