Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #39

This is the thirty-ninth in a series of examinations of baseball-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, we learn how the writers of the famous song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” had not even attended a baseball game at the time they wrote the song! Similarly, we learn which Nobel Prize Laureate had not even heard of the World Series when he was given the opportunity to throw out the first pitch! In addition, we discover the true story about whether Grover Cleveland Alexander defeated the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series..drunk!

Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL LEGEND: The songwriters of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” had not attended a baseball game at the time they penned the tune.

STATUS: True

We certainly give songwriters plenty of leeway when it comes to their songs being “true to life.” No one hears “Yellow Submarine” and then criticizes Paul McCartney for the Beatles not actually living in a yellow submarine. Similarly, if you were to learn that Rupert Holmes does not actually like Pina Coladas, I don’t think anyone would judge “Escape (the Pina Colada Song)” too harshly (do note that Holmes actually is not a fan of the tropical drink, noting in the past that he felt it tasted like the medicine Kaopectate). But surely the people who wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” had actually attended a baseball game before they wrote the song, right?

And yet…

Baseball has been tied with other forms of popular culture pretty much as soon as the game began. By the turn of the 20th Century, dozens of songs and poems had been written about the game of baseball. Clearly the most popular of them all was Ernest Thayer’s 1888 poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888,” which practically became a cottage industry in and of itself, in terms of publications and recitations of the poem. The poem was a popular vaudeville act, where noted baseball players of the era would recite the poem (the most famous vaudeville act of this kind was Michael Joseph “King” Kelly, a late 19th Century baseball star – and a 1945 inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame). One of the more popular tunes was a song called “Uncle Josh at a Baseball Game,” which was released a number of times between 1897 and 1909.

1908 was a particularly popular year for baseball songs, likely due to the New York Giants. The Giants had been fairly moribund in the first few years of the 20th Century in their home at the Polo Grounds (which they moved into in 1891), finishing seventh or worse from 1898 through 1902. In 1903, though, the team (led by star pitcher Christy Mathewson) turned things around and came in second place. In 1904 and 1905 they were first in the league, winning the World Series in 1905. They were competitive in 1906 and 1907, but 1908 was one of the great pennant races of the 20th Century, with the Giants falling to the Chicago Cubs by a single game – a gap that is forever associated with Fred Merkle missing second base at the end of a game, nullifying a Giants victory. “Merkle’s Boner” will always have a place in baseball history. That the denizens of New York City would forever tarnish the reputation of a player because of a mistake certainly shows that they were pumped up about the Giants that year, so it is not surprising that the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley put out a number of songs about baseball that year and the next, including “Flanagan and The Reillys at a Baseball Game,” “The Tough Kid on the Right Field Fence” and “The Baseball Girl.”

The most famous song of that year, though, began as lyrics by Jack Norworth, one of the biggest songwriters and vaudeville stars of the day. Norworth was credited at the time (history has shown us a few people dispute this claim) with writing the smash hit “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” which was sung by its alleged co-writer, Norworth’s then-wife, Nora Bayes, who debuted the tune in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1908.

In the summer of that year, Norworth was looking for a tune for Bayes to sing in the Revue when he came across a sign while riding the subway. It was an advertisement for a Giants game at the Polo Grounds – “Baseball Today – Polo Grounds.” Not the most elaborate of ads, but it was enough to inspire Norworth. You see, what has somewhat been lost to history is the fact that baseball in the first decade of the 20th Century was something that women actually attended with some regularity. Years of “ladies days” at baseball parks had paid off, and in fact, in 1909, the National League ceased the promotion, under the theory that they no longer had to offer incentives to get women to come to baseball games. The legendary George M. Cohan also penned a tune in 1908 titled “Take Your Girl to the Ball Game,” so it was quite established in popular culture that women were interested in baseball.

So that certainly was what Norworth had in mind when he penned the lyrics to a new song for Bayes to sing. What is often forgotten about “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is that the famous lyrics are only the chorus of the song. The actual song is framed about a young Irish woman, Katie Casey, who doesn’t want to go to a show – she wants to go to a baseball game!

Here are the original lyrics:

Katie Casey was base ball mad.
Had the fever and had it bad;
Just to root for the home town 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.”

“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don’t care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball 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:

(repeat chorus)

Norworth had Broadway composer Albert Von Tilzer put the lyrics to music, and the song was published in 1908.

Years later, in 1927, the two men would put out a revised version of the song, with Katie Casey now becoming “Nelly Kelly.”

Nelly Kelly love baseball games,
Knew the players, knew all their names,
You could see her there ev’ry day,
Shout “Hurray,” when they’d play.
Her boy friend by the name of Joe
Said, “To Coney Isle, dear, let’s go,”
Then Nelly started to fret and pout,
And to him I heard her shout.

Amazingly enough, though, at the time they penned the song, neither Norworth or Von Tilzer had actually been to a baseball game!

The two were honored at a July 1940 Dodgers game, which was the first baseball game for Norworth (Von Tilzer might have attended a game around the time of the second version of the song, maybe not – I can’t seem to pin it down). Norworth would become an avid baseball fan, especially as he kept getting honored for the song (fiftieth anniversary, etc.).

Norworth passed away a year after the song’s fiftieth anniversary. He lived long enough to appear on Ed Sullivan’s television series!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Grover Cleveland Alexander was drunk and/or asleep in the bullpen when he was called out to face Tony Lazerri in the 7th inning of Game 7 of the 1926 World Series.

STATUS: I’m Going With False

Modern baseball fans certainly recall the heroics of Jack Morris pitching a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, or Randy Johnson pitching an inning and a third of scoreless relief on one day’s rest in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Well, right up there in the annals of World Series pitching heroics is Grover Cleveland Alexander’s performance in the 1926 World Series.

The 39-year-old Alexander had joined the Cardinals earlier in 1926 after being cut by the Chicago Cubs (Alexander was still a pretty productive pitcher for a bad Cubs team, but he did not get along with the manager of the Cubs and the thought was that the next good Cubs team likely would not have Alexander on it due to his age, so why not just cut ties with him now?) and had won Game 2 of the ’26 Series against the New York Yankees. In Game 6 of the Series, with the Cardinals trailing 3 games to 2, Alexander pitching nine innings in a 10-2 Cardinal victory.

Now, in Game 7, played the very next day, the Cardinals were clinging to a 3-2 lead when the Yankees loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh inning with future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri (the Yankees’ #6 hitter) at bat with two outs. Cardinals player/manager Rogers Hornsby went to Alexander. Alexander came in an struck Lazzeri out. Alexander then proceeded to retire the Yankees over the next two innings, with the last out famously coming on an attempted steal of second base by Babe Ruth, for a Cardinals World Series victory.

Great story, no? Well, over the years, the story has almost always included the extra “fact” that Alexander, figuring he was not going to be pitching Game 7, spent the night of Game 6 drinking so much that by Game 7 he was dozing off in the bullpen with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket when he was roused to go save the Cardinals’ season. Supposedly, Hornsby met him in left field as he entered from the bullpen to see if he could even see straight, noted that he was hammered but figured that a drunk Alexander was better than a sober anyone else, so stuck with the future Hall of Famer. Even better story, right?

But is is true?

For almost all of it, definitely not. For some of it, I still lean towards false. Read on to find out why!

Grover Cleveland Alexander (also known as Pete Alexander) was one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, and has the third-most wins in the history of Major League Baseball. Alexander was drafted during World War I and spent much of 1918 in France as a sergeant with the 342nd field artillery. Alexander certainly drank alcohol before the war, but after the war he became an extremely heavy drinker as he suffered from severe post traumatic stress and drinking was the only thing that would calm him down. Combined with hearing loss and eplietic seizures, Alexander was not in great shape throughout the 1920s. And yet he still managed to have some dominant years for the Chicago Cubs (who had acquired him from the Philadelphia Phillies right before Alexander was drafted). By the time he came to St. Louis, though, Alexander was a bit of a mess due to his constant drinking.

The legacy of the Alexander Game 7 story mostly comes down to the fact that Bob O’Farrell, Alexander’s catcher in St. Louis in 1926, did not die until 1988 and was quite open when it came to telling stories about the old days. O’Farrell’s version of the story is the one that most folks rely on when it comes to what happened that day. However, for one thing, even O’Farrell never alleged that Alexander did not know that he could be pitching in Game 7. When pitchers now are willing to pitch on short rest to help their teams, you better believe that pitchers back in 1926 were ready. So the notion that Alexander drank on the night of Game 6 because he thought he would not have to pitch the next day doesn’t make any sense, and, again, not even O’Farrell has asserted that aspect of the tale.

For the rest of the story, while O’Farrell is on one side of the tale (O’Farrell told the story in a few places, but most famously in Lawrence Ritter’s legendary 1966 baseball tome The Glory of Their Times: The Story Of The Early Days Of Baseball Told By The Men Who Played It i), there are two other explicit accounts of the game in the baseball annals. One is from Rogers Hornsby, who gave a detailed account of the game to Francis Stann in a Washington Star article that was later reprinted in a 1953 issue of Baseball Digest. Another is third baseman Les Bell, who gave his take on the game to baseball historian Donald Honig for a 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated. Now do note that Honig worked with Ritter on a couple of baseball books, so it is not like Honig is a guy who is trying to go out of his way to discredit Ritter.

What is astonishing is how closely attuned Hornsby and Bell’s stories are – they are practically identical, and both men make it clear that Alexander was not sleeping when he was summoned to pitch in Game 7, that he knew he might be needed to pitch in Game 7 (Hornsby announced it in front of the whole team) and that Alexander was not out getting wasted all of the previous night. Bell notes seeing Alexander the night before at the hotel. Hornsby goes into further detail, claiming that he and a Cardinals coach Bill Killefer actually went to Alexander’s room the night before Game 7 to search it for alcohol and, after finding a few stashed bottles, took them with them.

All three men agree that Alexander told Hornsby that he was not going to warm up in the bullpen, that he would warm up on the mound (this was typical behavior for Alexander). They differ, perhaps, on whether Alexander said this because he wanted to sleep off his hangover until the last possible moment. Flint Rhem, a fellow Cardinals pitcher, claimed that Alexander did sleep off the whole game with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket. The Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick, years later stated that he saw Alexander during the game awake and paying attention to the game. For what it is worth, Alexander himself claimed he was awake and sober during the game. Hornsby did say later in a memoir that he would rather have a drunk Alexander than a sober anyone else in that moment. That line is true. However, Hornsby said in the same memoir (as well as in the Baseball Digest piece) that Alexander was not drunk and that he was wide awake and sober when he came in to pitch Game 7. Also, all accounts of the game acknowledge that Hornsby did not leave the infield to talk to Alexander – he waited for Alexander to reach the infield before saying anything to him. Do note that in Murray Polnar’s great Branch Rickey biography he quotes Rickey as saying Hornsby told him he wasn’t sure if Alexander was drunk or not.

So what really happened that day? Was Alexander really sleeping in the bullpen? Was he drunk? I find it hard to believe that he did not have something to drink the night before (and Bell acknowledged that he couldn’t rightfully say that Alexander was dry the previous night), and would I be shocked if he had something to drink the day of the game? Of course not. However, I think Bell and Hornsby’s first-hand accounts (as opposed to Branch Rickey decades later saying what Hornsby told him) are just so in tune that when you combine them with Alexander himself saying he was not drunk or sleeping and with the commissioner of baseball saying he was not sleeping and with O’Farrell’s story occasionally changing (sometimes it was “he was sleeping” while occasionally it would be just “feeling the effects of the night before”) I am willing to go with an overall false to the idea that Alexander was sleeping in the bullpen when he was roused to go face Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the 1926 World Series.

Thanks to all of the great baseball researchers out there that I relied on to make this determination, plus the baseball players who shared their stories over the years that informed their research!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Elie Wiesel had not heard of the World Series when he was asked to throw out the first pitch for Game 1 of the 1986 Fall Classic.

STATUS: Apparently True

Elie Wiesel is a world-renowned writer and activist. Born in Romania in 1928, Wiesel spent much of his teen years in various concentration camps during World War II, where his mother, father and younger sister all lost their lives.

Some time after the end of the War, Wiesel was compelled to share his experiences during the Holocaust (a term that Wiesel popularized), and the result was the striking memoir, Night, which is one of the most powerful and popular books on the topic in the world (it has sold over 6 million copies).

Wiesel has since gone on to write over 40 other books, both fiction and non-fiction. He is also a tireless activist for peace in the world, even winning the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace (one of the many, many awards and honors he has received over his life).

Wiesel has lived in New York City since 1955. Wiesel’s interests are very much in the area of academia (he is a very well-respected teacher and lecturer) and he never had much interest in sports. That lack of interest came to an amusing head in 1986, shortly after winning the Nobel Prize.

He received a phone call from Peter Ueberroth, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, with an offer to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox (the first game being held in New York’s Shea Stadium).

Wiesel recounted the story in the nifty collection, Elie Wiesel: Conversations, edited by Robert Franciosi:

He said, ‘I would like you to throw out the first ball at the first game of the World Series.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He thought I was joking.

However, Wiesel had to turn Ueberroth down. Wiesel recounted the reason in his memoir (co-written with his wife, Marion), And the sea is never full: memoirs, 1969-. You see, Game 1 was being held on the second day of Sukkoth. And as Wiesel noted, no practicing Jew is allowed to travel or play any sport on a religious holiday. Ueberroth suggested that perhaps they could get an exception from a rabbi. Wiesel declined. He was just getting off of the phone when his son, Elisha, entered the room. Elisha was despondent that his father had turned such an opportunity down. He urged his father to call Ueberroth back, but luckily, instead Ueberroth calls Wiesel back to offer him Game 2, instead. Ueberroth couldn’t help but laugh when Wiesel asked, “So there’s a second game?”

The problem with the second game was that it was on the Sabbath, so once again, Wiesel turned him down. However, Ueberroth did some checking with an Orthodox rabbi and noted that once night fell, Wiesel could travel, so they would just get him a police escort to the game after night fall and Wiesel would get there in time. Wiesel (with his son exhorting him to do so) finally agreed, and that’s how Elie Wiesel came to throw out the first pitch in Game 2 of the 1986 World Series.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

3 Responses to “Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #39”

  1. Steven Marsh on May 17th, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    “Ernest Thayer’s 1988 poem…”

    I had no idea Thayer was active so late! Clearly the 1980s were the greatest cultural epoch EVER!

  2. Hehe, indeed, Steven!

    Thanks, I’ll fix that.

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