Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Baseball Fever in Song

I've been starting to think about early baseball fans. I can get at the secondary literature from Providence, but it's become clear that I'll also need to travel to some archives (and perhaps the Baseball Hall of Fame) for primary source research. I would like to study, for instance, an actual copy of Thomas W. Lawson's The Krank: His Language and What it Means (1889), one of the first, book-length, contemporary interpretations of baseball fandom in the U.S.

The Library of Congress appears to have some interesting holdings around baseball, as well. To my delight, I've noticed that they have lots of sheet music about the game, mostly from the early 20th century. Songs provide a glimpse into the enthusiasm for baseball or, to be more accurate, the perceptions of that enthusiasm among Tin Pan Alley songwriters. I'm aware of the pitfalls of interpreting song lyrics without reference to their articulation in musical performance (which can significantly alter their meaning), but for the purposes of offering examples of this musical evidence, I have reproduced some of the lyrics, here. Go learn the songs on piano and tell me what you think!

First, here is a very early one, "The Base Ball Fever," from 1867. Notice the reference to baseball fashion among women in the stands; gender is an issue in modern sports fandom, and it looks as if it was in 1867, as well.

All ‘round about we’ve queer complaints, 
Which needs some Doctors patching; 
But something there is on the brain,
Which seems to me more catching,
‘Tis raging too, both far and near,
Or else I’m a deceiver,
I’ll tell you what it is, now, plan,
It is the Base Ball fever.

O my, O my, O my, O my,
We want a safe reliever,
For ev’ry body old, and young,
Has got the Base Ball fever.

Our Merchants have to close their stores
Their clerks away are staying,
Contractor too, can do no work,
Their hands are all out playing;
There’s scarce a day that folks don’t run,
As true as I’m aliver;
To see a match ‘bout to be played
‘Cause they’ve the Base Ball fever.
O my, &tc:

Our little boys as well as big, 
All, to the Bat are taking;
And smarter folks are coining cash,
At Bat and Base Ball making;
You cannot walk along the street,
I’ll bet my patent lever;
That two boys ain’t a playing catch,
‘Cause they’ve the Base Ball fever. 
O my, &tc:

To be in fashion, ladies too,
In place of Waterfalls sirs;
Way back behind the ears, they wear,
An awful big Base Ball sirs;
I shouldn’t wonder but’ere long,
Each Miss, if you’ll perceive her,
Will carry Bats all through her hair,
‘Case she too has the fever.
O my, &tc:

Our papers teem with base ball News,
Four columns good and over;
Our stores now sell more bats and balls
Than would, three acres cover.
We’ve clubs no end, and players sharp,
But I will bet my Braver;
That I can catch as well as they,
For I have kocht the fever.
O my, &tc:

Later songs about baseball fans focus more on audiences and consumption, stressing--as with much journalistic commentary on fandom--the pathological nature of enthusiasm. This one, "The Base Ball Fan," from 1892, depicts McCann, a "professional fan," who is lazy and cares only about baseball. The Irish ethnic stereotype is not uncommon for popular music at the time, but it is interesting since depictions of fandom in other realms of entertainment often focus on class.

I’ve a friend named McCann, a professional fan
Who is posted on nothing but ball.
He is losing his wits 
Over errors and hits,
He won’t change the subject at all.
Each day there’s a game in the sunshine or rain
You can gamble on finding McCann.
On the bleachers so grand
With his score card in hand
For he’s a professional fan.

His name is McCann
He’s great baseball fan
They say he’s a little bit crazy.
When summer sets in,
He thinks it a sin 
To work, but you know he’s to [sic] lazy.
When game is in play
He feels happy and gay
And shouts just as long as he can.
But it gives him the blues
If his favorites lose,
For he’s a professional fan.

When the contest begins he gets up on his pins,
How quickly his presence is known 
At the slightest dispute
He will holler and hoots,
Especially when favor is shown.
If the home nine should lose he begins to abuse
The umpire as much as he can
He don’t give him no peace
Till he gets his release
For he’s a professional fan.
Chorus, etc.

He will argue on ball from the spring to the fall
He keeps all the records on hand
He knows ev’ry rule, 
He’s nobody’s fool
He reads ev’ry guide in the land.
When the season is done and the championship’s won
You’ll be certain of hearing McCann.
Say I knew they would win
But I’ve lost all my tin
For he’s a professional fan.
Chorus, etc.

This next example, "The Base-Ball Fiend," from 1902, depicts a teacher who, thanks to a love of playing baseball, quits his job and spends all his time at the field. His wife is dismayed as his children go hungry and they struggle to survive; after his brother sets up him with a new job interview, the teacher forgets the appointment. The story of a husband/father indulging in addictive behavior while his family suffers is a plot straight from temperance narratives in the late 19th century.

A weary teacher in a public school
Was startled one day by a call
There’s no use in preaching 
I can’t bear that screeching
My nerves won’t stand it at all.
I’ve searched all creation for some recreation
Believe it could be found in baseball.
When he returned to his home in the evening
He promptly his wife did call.
Said he my treasure I’m sure ‘twould be pleasure
To join in a game of base-ball. 
All the year I’ve been working my duty not shirking
And I’d really enjoy base-ball.

He played in the home team for a while
Attended school duties as well
Then of his own volition 
Resigned his position
To engage in the game of base-ball.
They say he is lazy but he’s only gone crazy
While thinking so much of base-ball.
His wife stood it all very well for a while
But the fad on her taste did pall.
For not only Monday but most ev’ry Sunday
Would find him playing base-ball. 
So with dear little urchins around her a-perchin’
She resolved to watch the base-ball.

While watching the game the ball whizzed by her
She in the excitement did yell
You play cause its funny
Why not for the money
If your so badly stuck on base-ball.
My dear you are lucky and if you are plucky
You’ll make a success of base-ball.
Then visions of champion floated around her
Gay dresses for party and ball.
But it’s the same old story, he’s content with the glory
He’s achieved in playing base-ball.
And he’s business all over and knee deep in clover
Enjoying a game of base-ball.

Her children were hungry, she went to the cupboard
Her stock of provisions was small
When she called his attention
Oh that Iri he don’t mention 
I’m hurrying for a game of base-ball.
Tho’ the Heavens were falling and Gabriel calling,
You’d pray for a game of base-ball.
There now while we’re talking a few things I’ll tell you
I suppose you won’t listen at all.
We’re all out of shoes and you give me the blues
For you’re eternally playing base-ball.
The boys need new stockings I’m sure, it is shocking
How you spend your time playing base-ball.

The holidays now are drawing so near us
I need some money for all
Maud needs a new cloak
“Oh my that’s a joke
Consider the expense of base-ball.
My dear it’s December so please to remember
The Christmas game of base-ball.
There came a letter one day from his brother
“You’ll have no trouble at all.
There’s a situation at the railroad station
So get it well give you a pull.
So if you are witty you’ll go to the city
And make the officials a-call.

Well armed with credentials he sped to the city
In haste on the magistrate to call
On the way fell to dreaming
And then got to scheming
And forgot on his errand to call.
He grew so elated o’er the scheme he’d created 
To win the next game of base-ball.
When he returned and related his story
His wife had no patience at all.
If the books were opened the judgement was sat
And you were a-waiting your call
As sure as I’m living this fact you are proving
You’d spend the time playing base-ball.

This final one, "The Base Ball Fever," from 1912, is a little less ominous, merely noting the extreme dedication of fans for the home team.

When the ball, a glove, a hickory stick, 
Is all it takes, you know;
Then the men, the boys, the women,
Will to the diamond go.
No difference if the sky is cloudy,
Or is it’s sprinkling rain;
They will be there to help the home team,
Win another game.

Ev’rybody’s got the fever, from father to the son,
You can tell it in the youngster from the way his chores are done;
You can tell it in the “old gent” from the papers he’s been reading,
You can tell it in the women by the absence at their meeting. 

When the players take their places, all
Are silent for a while;
Then the crowd lets out a yell you
Could hear almost a mile.
Ev’rybody’s watching closely craning
Necks and bulging eyes;
And then some play is full of action,
Some are seen to rise.

When the home team makes a rally,
Scoring a man or two;
Then the crowd with shouts and gestures,
Acts like wild beasts at the zoo.
If the umpire makes a close decision,
In favor of either team;
They say he’s got a glass eye, or that,
He has never seen.

Thus the crowds ever doing so they
Watch the baseball game;
And if you were a baseball “fan”
You would go and do the same.
And when the sun is shining brightly and
The grass is turning green
You are bound to catch the “fever” when
Ball and glove you’ve seen.

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