Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #40

This is the fortieth in a series of examinations of baseball-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn just why is it that the Boston Red play “Sweet Caroline,” discover the Hall of Famer centerfielder who helped to name a critically acclaimed rock band and see the baseball song that pre-dated the Civil War!!

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

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn indirectly led to the naming of the band Yo La Tengo.

STATUS: True

Yo La Tengo is a highly acclaimed alternative rock band that consists of Ira Kaplan (guitars, piano, vocals), Georgia Hubley (drums, piano, vocals), and James McNew (bass, vocals). Kaplan and Hubley, who are married to each other, formed the band in 1984. The current lineup has been in place since 1992. While perhaps not the most popular band in terms of album sales (of their dozen albums that they have released only one of them has ever been in the Top 100 of the Billboard Top 200 charts) they have a dedicated fan following (allowing them to have released so many albums) and are one of the best reviewed rock bands of the past two decades.

Their interesting name is derived from a famous baseball story involving Richie Ashburn. Ashburn was a longtime member of the Philadelphia Phillies organization. The fleet-footed Ashburn was one of the greatest defensive centerfielders of all time, and it is mostly his defensive prowess that led to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, although he was a fine hitter, as well, with a career .308 batting average and 2,574 total hits.

Although Ashburn made it to the World Series in just his third year in the Major Leagues, the end of his career saw the outfielder stuck on some pretty poor teams. His last two years with the Phillies saw the team mired in last place. He was then traded to the Chicago Cubs, who promptly finished second to last the next two seasons! The ultimate indignity came when Ashburn was drafted by the New York Mets in the 1961 Expansion Draft. Ashburn had a fine season, becoming the first All-Star representative for the Mets while spending time at all three outfield positions (mostly center and right).

However, seeing his team lose 120 games after spending the previous four seasons for bad teams was too much for Ashburn and he retired after the 1962 season. He eventually became a very popular announcer for his original team, the Phillies. He was set to retire after the 1997 season but tragically died of a heart attack during the season (after broadcasting a Phillies/Mets game in New York).

In any event, during that one season with the Mets, Ashburn had a problem with the Mets starting shortstop, Elio Chacón.

You see, Chacón was from Venezuela and spoke little to no English at all. So when a ball was hit to shallow center or left-center field, Chacón would drift back while Ashburn would drift forward. Since both men’s eyes would be on the ball, they would have to rely on verbal communication to keep from bumping into each other. Ashburn would yell “I got it! I got it!” but that did not work and the pair would either collide or come close to it. So Ashburn learned how to say “I got it!” in Spanish. And, basically, that’s what “yo la tengo” means. So Ashburn used the phrase and it worked well. Chacón learned to back off on the ball. However, one day Ashburn was coming in on a ball hit to left-center and shouting “yo la tengo!” when out of nowhere he collides with Mets left fielder, Frank Thomas!

Thomas, the longtime Pittsburgh slugger, has been acquired by the Mets in a trade with the Milwaukee Braves for Gus Bell (who the Mets had drafted in the 1961 Expansion Draft) and the veteran player did not speak a lick of Spanish so he has no idea what Ashburn was saying! In fact, allegedly, Thomas remarked “What the heck is a Yellow Tango?” I don’t know if that’s accurate, though.

In any event, Kaplan knew the anecdote and the Hoboken, New Jersey resident named the band after the phrase.

Pretty neat, huh?

Rumor has it (and Kaplan doesn’t seem to be interested in confirming or denying it) that Yo La Tengo’s 2006 album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (the one album that did crack the Billboard Top 100, coming in at #66) is also a sports reference, specifically to the time that Tim Thomas of the New York Knicks said to teammate Stephon Marbury during a timeout, “Everyone in this organization is afraid of you, but I’m not, and I will beat your ass.” Sounds likely, but I can’t say for sure.

BASEBALL LEGEND: The Red Sox began playing “Sweet Caroline” in honor of a Red Sox employee who named her newborn daughter “Caroline” in 1998.

STATUS: I’m Going With False

One of the coolest baseball musical traditions is the singing of the Neil Diamond hit “Sweet Caroline” during the 8th inning of Boston Red Sox games played at Fenway Park.

WHY the song is played during the 8th inning of Boston Red Sox games played at Fenway Park is a whole other story.

The song has nothing to do with Boston, so why the connection?

The most common “official” explanation is that an unnamed Red Sox employee had the song played in honor of his newborn daughter, Caroline. That was the one offered up by Megan Kaiser, the game day music programmer at Fenway from 2004-2007. Honestly, that might very well be true. It would not surprise me at all to learn that a guy got them to play the song that day. However, there is “playing the song one day” and there is “the song becoming special.”

And Amy Tobey, the woman who had Kaiser’s job from 1998-2004, is pretty clear in the song’s origin at Fenway, and I could see where you’d want to invent a story, since the actual one is fairly mundane.

You see, the song has long been popular at sporting events because of its infectious positive vibe (and its extreme sing-along-ability) and when Tobey began using it, that was her inspiration. She saw it used at other games and she thought it would work well for the Red Sox, as well. She would play in some time in the later innings (7th or later) if the Red Sox were ahead. She told the Boston Globe, “‘I actually considered it like a good luck charm. Even if they were just one run [ahead], I might still do it. It was just a feel.”

When new ownership took over, they had Tobey make the song a regular occurrence, because it was so popular with the fans. When Kaiser took over, she added the twist of cutting the volume on the song to allow the fans to sing parts of the song, a very popular Fenway tradition to this day.

So while “other teams seemed to like using it” is perhaps not the most attractive of answers, it also appears to be the correct one.

Thanks to the Boston Globe’s Stephanie Vosk and Tobey for their side of the tale, and thanks to MLB’s Alyson Footer and Kaiser for their information.

BASEBALL LEGEND: The first published baseball song pre-dates the Civil War!

STATUS: True

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is now over one hundred years old. And yet, there was a song that pre-dated that tune by fifty years! Before the United States Civil War!

In the earliest days of baseball, teams were pretty much just based in New York. One of those teams was founded in the Niagara area by Jim Creighton. Polka were a very popular style of song during the 1850s and 1860s, so in 1858, the first year that the Niagara baseball club began to play, J. R. Blodgett composed and published the very first published song about baseball, “Baseball Polka.”

Polkas about baseball were quite popular over the next decade or so. Here’s one from 1867…

baseball-polka

Isn’t it amazing to think of a published baseball song pre-dating “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by FIFTY YEARS?!

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

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