Back in 1908, when Jack Norworth penned the lyrics of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," baseball was a male preserve. Men played it, and men gathered to watch it. Women weren't banned outright from ballparks, though they weren't exactly welcomed.
But passions aren’t confined by gender. And it happens that Norworth — who claimed he’d never seen a professional baseball game — was writing about a woman.
Katie Kasey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Katie’s not only got passion, she’s a die-hard fan. She knows the players and their stats, and spends her last pennies on tickets. She’s got opinions, and isn’t afraid to share them.
Told the umpire he was wrong.
All along, good and strong.
Katie’s got a boyfriend. When he invites her to see a show, she declines — and proposes an alternative:
Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks
I don’t care if I never get back.
Robert Thompson, who, with Andy Strasberg and Tim Wiles, wrote "Baseball's Greatest Hit: The Story of 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,'" the definitive book on the song, says the song caught on quickly: In New Year’s Eve 1908, "Take Me Out" was a No. 1 hit.
First performed in vaudeville shows, the song gained wide popularity during intermission at movie houses, where it was accompanied by painted slides with lyrics. The house vocalist sang the verses, and the audience sang along during the refrain.
The sheet music sold over 6 million copies.
“It sold in parts of the country where there wasn’t even baseball, like Montana and South Dakota and California,” Thompson said. “This is 1908. Baseball hadn’t even crossed the Mississippi.”
And the song became a popular parlor tune, sung complete with verses around pianos at home.
"In that time period, women could read music overwhelmingly better than men," Thompson said. "Men would hear these songs in a vaudeville theater, and come home and say to their wife, 'Honey, I heard this song, could you get the sheet music?' Women at the piano played sheet music, children gathered around."
In 1927, Norworth rewrote the lyrics. The central character, now named Nelly Kelly, was even more forceful than Katie Kasey. By then, women had won the right to vote and become more demonstrative. When Nelly’s boyfriend invites her on a date to Coney Island, she frets and pouts, and then shouts the famous refrain.
"This is not a love-struck, passive woman," Thompson said. "This is a woman who knows what she wants out of life, and what she wants is equality. It’s not, 'Please take me out to the ball game, it’s imperative!' It’s: 'Take me out to the ballgame! Buy me peanuts and Cracker Jacks!'"
The song wasn’t actually heard in a ballpark until 1934, at a high school game in Los Angeles. Later that year, it was sung at the World Series.
But it had arrived at the ballpark stripped of its verses. And stripped of its verses, the song is a gender-neutral waltz-like romp.
Some are thinking it’s time to restore the verses and sing the entire song during the seventh inning stretch. The words could be posted, and led — while we’re getting to know them — by singers on the field, like we do with the national anthem.
“The song is about a strong, empowered woman,” Thompson said. “What she’s asking is to be equal with her boyfriend, to have the same rights he does.”
Red Sox organist Josh Kantor plays the song’s refrain at every Red Sox home game.
“I’ve done it well over 1,000 times,” he muses, and chuckles. “I hear it in my sleep sometimes.”
What does he think about adding the verses to the mix?
Kantor said the Red Sox organization supports fundamental equal rights principles, and that doing the full song could be presented as welcoming and inclusive.
“And that would be nice,” he adds.