The Best Baseball Songs Ever. Period.
The countdown is really in no particular order, although the song in the number one slot is, indisputably, the greatest baseball song ever. Despite the fact that I’m naturally partial to tunes that have personal emotional resonance, this list should still be considered definitive for everyone.
Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, although petitioning for “Centerfield,” “Glory Days” or “Talkin’ Baseball” will result in your IP address being banned from ever accessing this site again.
10. Sister Wynona Carr – The Ball Game (1957)
I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball. – Annie Savoy (Bull Durham)
Amen to that. While music repeatedly has the power to bring me closer to a higher power, baseball is the greatest spiritual nourishment of all. From a tattered little league sandlot to the Giants’ magnificent home on the San Francisco Bay, every ball field (with the exception of Yankee Stadium) is a cathedral offering divine refuge … or maybe just a good time.
Like Annie Savoy, Jesus and I never did quite come to an understanding, but I’m a fan of gospel, so naturally Sister Wynona Carr’s bewitching marriage of baseball and the Bible is a big hit with me.
It must be the overt religious content that keeps this tune from being a mainstay at professional ballparks across the country, although to this non-believer’s ears, there are few things more offensive than the banal top-forty babble that routinely desecrates stadiums across this great land of ours. Certainly, this song would be a wonderful alternative to the cavalcade of American Idol-inspired mediocrity that passes for in-between inning entertainment, but some misguided do-gooder would probably be offended by the religious content and write an angry letter denouncing the transgression of religion into the public sphere.
At least, that’s what I thought until I saw that the Reds are hosting, once again, “Faith Day” this year, which I initially mistook for a celebration of a country singer, but is in fact an evangelical event. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I reflexively found the idea of Faith Day at the ballpark somewhat offensive – not because it encourages Christians to believe in their destructive fairy tale version of life on the public dime – but because the musical highlight will center on the “inspirational” crooning of Jeremy Camp, a purveyor of Christian Rock. However, after managing to listen to one of his songs almost in its entirety, it quickly became apparent that Jeremy Camp is a dangerously subversive man. Clearly, his “music” is a thinly veiled call for mass suicide. If all goes to JC’s devious plan, April 16 in Cincinnati promises to make the Jonestown Massacre look like a footnote.
While Jeremy Camp is clearly a false prophet, baseball routinely tries our faith, so it seems appropriate to illustrate the downside of blind devotion by allowing his insipid stylings to waft like a cancerous cloud over a crowd of believers. I, of course, wish no ill will to the Christians and have no interest in seeing them led like lemmings to their death. At this point, one can only hope that some balance will be provided by piping “The Ball Game” into the mix of the day’s festivities. That may be the crowd’s only chance to regain their spiritual footing after having been unwittingly led down the path to despair by Mr. Camp. After all, baseball is a metaphor for life itself and Wynona Carr, who also wrote “The Ball Game,” deftly uses the Greatest Game as a template for religious salvation. “The first base is temptation / The second base is sin / Third base is tribulation / If you pass you can make it in / Ol’ Man Solomon is umpire / And Satan is pitching the game / He’ll do his best to strike you out / Keep playin’ just the same.”
Indeed, baseball and religion both have their controversies, but it’s hard to argue with that call.
The Persuasions offer a fine version from 1996.
9. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – The Fenway
To my great shame, I’ve never been to Fenway Park, but I am grateful to Jonathan Richman for taking me there in song. Jonathan sings that he was born near Fenway and ever since it has been a place “where I dream my dreams.” While Richman is famous for invoking nostalgia for a time that perhaps never was – more an indictment on the nature of nostalgia than on the authenticity of Richman’s recollections – in baseball he’s found a subject that transcends such silly hair-splitting. When he sings “there’s an echo from an era that’s already past and gone,” he might as well be singing about himself.
8. Belle and Sebastian – Piazza, New York Catcher (2003)
Belle and Sebastian dare to ask if Mike Piazza is gay, an allegation that has dogged the certain Hall of Famer for much of his career. Despite being well-scrubbed from the internet, it was widely rumored in L.A. that when Piazza was a Dodger he was married to Eric Karros in a clubhouse ceremony attended by their teammates to celebrate their “roommate” situation in Newport Beach. I believe Piazza was dressed up as the bride for the festivities, although that may be my prejudices speaking. Just because he’s a catcher doesn’t necessarily make him the more feminine of the two. Karros, after all, is noted for his soft hands at first base and Piazza is notorious for carrying a big stick. Either way, the couple should be praised for happily co-habitating in a Newport Beach bungalow for four years. Certainly, their liaison would have lasted longer had not the notoriously homophobic Fox News Corps gotten in the way of their special relationship and traded Piazza to the Marlins in 1998.
Mike Piazza, meanwhile, adamantly claims he is not gay and has proven it by getting married to Alicia Rickter, a former Playboy model and Baywatch “actress.” Oh sure, it would be easy to mock Piazza’s bride for being perhaps the most obvious choice for a beard one could find … but she actually doesn’t look as plastic as I suspected she might. Who knows, maybe she cured him? After all, I wouldn’t be surprised if images of her were routinely used in homosexual re-education gulags run by rabid Christian fundamentalists.
At any rate, I hope Mike Piazza is not gay for no other reason that that it would be sad if he were. Instead of being in the closet, he could have been a great spokesman – not just for young gay athletes in the closet, but also for an array of men’s beauty products. In fact, he could have been the Jackie Robinson of his era.
Instead, he’s just a guy who made a fortune playing baseball and married a hot actress. He wasn’t just a good player, he will forever be remembered as one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time. A dream for sure, but somewhat uninspired considering that he could have been a pivotal figure. How much more interesting Mike Piazza’s life would be if he could have been the person who so many others wanted him to be.
Belle and Sebastian also reference Sandy Koufax, the great Dodger from the late 50s and 1960s: “The pitcher puts religion first and rests on holidays.” Koufax was also rumored to be gay and got so upset about a story in the New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, that he severed ties with the Dodgers out of protest. Koufax was 67 and the Dodgers, as noted earlier, were also owned by the diabolical, gay-hating Murdoch at the time. (Koufax has since reunited with his old team, who are now owned by an entirely different brand of idiot). If anything, Koufax’s reaction was a bit extreme, revealing an unflattering degree of anti-homosexuality – a sadly common affliction of actual self-hating homosexuals. Koufax, as the song states, is famous for refusing to pitch in Game One of the 1965 World Series because it was Yom Kippur. I suspect many people thought his adherence to faith was “gay” not in the homosexual sense, but simply “gay” in the lame sense. It’s a semantic problem that comes up frequently and due to the confusion it creates, it’s probably a good idea to simply refrain from using “gay” as a synonym for that which is lame. I suspect, though, I won’t be able to help myself until a good, solid role model from a traditionally heterosexual segment of society comes along and articulates the errors of my ways.
7. SF Seals – Dock Ellis
On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis performed the greatest single-game achievement in baseball history when he pitched a no-hitter while on acid. He was also under the influence of speed, many ballplayers’ drug of choice in the 1960s and 70s (now they enjoy their amphetamine boost via Ritalin), while LSD was and is still only considered a performance-enhancing drug when playing the guitar.
Ellis was “effectively wild” that afternoon in San Diego, walking eight batters and hitting one. Dock would later recount, “I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate.”
The SF Seals, named after the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, provide the best and most compelling anthem to commemorate this monumental event, their fuzzed-out guitars providing a delirious compliment to the insane thoughts which were clearly pulsing through Dock Ellis’s mind. “Take a trip one summer’s day / Don’t forget you have to play … ”
Ellis would later become a drug counselor, which I assume meant he counseled people to take drugs. It’s got to be kind of hard to tell a kid not to get high when you were lit up like the 4th of July and threw a no-hitter.
Honorable mention goes to Todd Snider’s “America’s Favorite Past Time” for his take on Dock’s infamous trip.
Todd Snider – America’s Favorite Past Time MP3
6. Serenading Joe DiMaggio
No ballplayer has been immortalized more often in song that Joe DiMaggio. This, however, is a dubious distinction since among those dropping DiMaggio’s name include Billy Joel, Jennifer Lopez and Bon Jovi. Of course, that is the price of fame, everyone wants to ride your coattails. Meanwhile, one the most quoted lines in all of pop music is ‘Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns it’s lonely eyes to you” courtesy of Paul Simon, who elegantly wrote about the song’s meaning in a New York Times op-ed shortly after DiMaggio’s death in 1999: “DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life.”
“What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away?” Well, with a little help from Paul Simon, Joe DiMaggio won’t soon be forgotten, even if the grace and dignity he embodied is now rarely exhibited by modern athletes.
If only it were that simple. More likely, it seems, the grace and dignity attributed to DiMaggio was just an illusion propelled by our pathological need to create heroes (and then destroy them). After all, Joe DiMaggio is notorious for insisting on being introduced as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer,” which certainly rankled many of his colleagues. I’d think Willie Mays would be especially offended. By every metric he was superior to DiMaggio, who incidentally was the player Mays had most tried to emulate. Nonetheless, insisting on being called “The Greatest” tarnishes the very notion. The kind of bravado may work with boxing, but with baseball – a team sport – it doesn’t go down so smooth.
While his ego may have gotten a bit out of hand, still, I love Joe DiMaggio. Thanks to the three or four minutes he gave me and two of my friends on a summer evening in 1981, I will forever be a fan. That night, he was throwing out the first pitch for the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees’ AAA team. Coincidentally, a colleague of my dad’s was hosting our family in a skybox – the only time I’ve watched a game behind glass – and the press box was right next door. Like giggling hyenas, we waited for Mr. DiMaggio to come up after he had fulfilled his ceremonial duties. As he exited from the elevator, there were three of us there to ambush him and to our immense surprise, he graciously invited us all into the booth. It felt like ten minutes, but the interaction must have been less than half that. It doesn’t really matter, for those few moments, Mr. DiMaggio was completely engaged. He seemed honestly happy to meet us. He asked our names and gave us a brief tour of the box. I collected autographs from ballplayers back then and of all the greats whose path I crossed, Joe DiMaggio was the one who made the most effort to connect. From the height of his monumental fame, he actually made me feel like a person, a feat seldom accomplished by an adult, let alone a living legend. Each of us walked out with a huge smile on our face and an autographed ball that proved it wasn’t all just a dream. I was giddy for weeks.
While I think Joe DiMaggio is great, the songs about him unfortunately tend to come up short. Certainly, “Mrs Robinson” deserves to be the classic that it is, but it’s not really about DiMaggio or, for that matter, baseball. So it doesn’t qualify. “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, features DiMaggio, but I could quite happily live without ever hearing it again. It’s off the list. “Bloody Mary” from South Pacific says a girls’ skin is “as tender as Joe DiMaggio’s glove” – which is disturbing on so many levels. Pass.
The song that was most associated with DiMaggio during his career was “Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio,” originally recorded by Les Brown’s Orchestra in 1941. Betty Bonney is the singer. Sadly, this song is largely ruined by the unctuous, snearing male background vocals. Their hearts clearly weren’t in it, leading me to believe that the boys in the band rooted for the Dodgers. It’s the kind of novelty tune that was routinely churned out in the 1940s and 50s and like ditties about Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson from the time, you can hear them on just about any baseball compilation. The soundtrack to Ken Burns’ excruciatingly boring documentary “Baseball” comes to mind. Don’t buy it, though, it’ll only encourage him. Better yet, just listen to Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. He did a glorious show on baseball. Listen to (and download) it all here. It’s great.
Les Brown’s “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio”: Les Brown’s Orchestra – Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio MP3
For a much better, less grating, version, check out the SF Seals take from 1993. Joe actually played for the San Francisco Seals, so they are uniquely qualified to sing about him. Their EP, Baseball Trilogy, now has two mentions on the Best Baseball Songs Ever list. “He’s just a man and not a freak,” they sing. Ironically, Tim Lincecum, the best player in San Francisco, is now heralded as The Freak. Oh, how the times change, no one wanted to be a freak back in the old days. Now it’s a badge of honor.
SF Seals – Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio MP3
Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded two albums worth of unpublished Woody Guthrie songs in the early 200os. There are some real gems in the collection and “Joe DiMaggio’s Done It Again” may be one of them. It’s the best of the DiMaggio tunes, but I’m torn. And I suspect Woody Guthrie was, too. There’s certainly a reason why he never actually wrote music to accompany the lyrics in his lifetime. In many ways, it would be as if Bob Dylan penned a love letter to Richard Nixon. As a notorious subversive, it’s the kind of secret you might want to hide in your attic, which is exactly what Guthrie did. After all, Woody Guthrie was a man of the people, an advocate for the discarded and downtrodden. The Yankees, meanwhile, were – as they are now – an Evil Empire. Joe DiMaggio was the most popular guy in school; he didn’t exactly need a folksinger to sing his praises. Guthrie tries to mitigate this issue by casting DiMaggio as an underdog: “Some folks thought old Joe was done!” There’s also a reference to a hurt heel. Guthrie wrote the lyrics in 1949 when DiMaggio only played 79 games. Two years later Joltin’ Joe’s baseball career was over. Perhaps, Guthrie should have written a song about Jackie Robinson instead.
So, while none of the songs heralding Joe DiMaggio are as great as he was, there are enough of them to collectively lock up a spot on the list. I probably wouldn’t feel that way had I not met the man and seen him live up to the platitudes attributed to him by Paul Simon. DiMaggio was not just the hero I wanted him to be, he was one of the defining heroes of the 20th century. It can’t be easy to live that life, to be a god among men. Yet, he was gracious and kind. He treated us as if it was his privilege to meet us. That signed ball remains one of my few prized possessions, but much more than his autograph, he gave me something much more valuable: a few moments of his time.
more after he jump ——>
5. The Harry Simeone Songsters – It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame (1960)
I grew up hating the Dodgers and by extension the entire city of Los Angeles. Not only was I raised to believe that Los Angeles was a bastion of sin and depravity, but the Dodgers were my beloved Cincinnati Reds’ big rivals in the 1970s and as such represented everything despicable about the world.
To my own shock and dismay I would end up moving to Los Angeles, where for 12 of the 14 years I was there, I could see the lights of Dodger Stadium shine bright over the hill from the window of my Silver Lake bungalow. Unable to resist its call, I would attend about 175 games. While I quickly grew to love southern California, I clung to my contempt of the Dodgers, silently rooting for injuries. After a few seasons of sustaining myself with the fumes of my youthful malice, oddly, injuries no longer held their allure. I feared I had become weak for the bile in my heart had evaporated in the warm Los Angeles sun. I no longer really wanted the Dodgers to get hurt, just to lose. I was on a disturbing trajectory. My 11 year-old self was disgusted with me. For a few seasons a disconcerting ambivalence took hold – I hoped simply to see a good game – but when the Dodgers picked up Greg Maddux for the stretch run in 2006, I actually found myself pulling for the ol’ Bums. Clearly, I had become estranged from my core values. In a (perhaps, misguided) attempt to save myself, I would flee the city in the off-season.
There was, however, never a day that I didn’t root for Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers broadcaster. When I first got to Los Angeles, there were no games streaming on the internet, but there was Vin Scully on the radio and on TV. In exile from the Reds, I took refuge in Vin and he immediately cast his spell. The man is simply a joy, his love of baseball and life itself is contagious. As an added bonus, he was the perfect counterpoint to the cynical, right-wing mutterings I had become accustomed to from the Reds’ Marty Brennaman. Incredibly, Vin has been calling games since 1950 and will retire after this season – never having lost a beat. To this day, there is no one better. If a baseball stadium is a church, the broadcaster is the game’s minister. When he is gone, inevitably, Vin’s flock will be lost without him. And I suppose I will, too. Despite my protestations, through the art of his gentle persuasion he exorcised much of the hate from my heart.
Which brings us to the Harry Simeone Songsters’ great contribution to the 20th century: “It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame.” The first forty seconds of the song begins each Dodger broadcast and as such has come to invoke a Pavlovian response in me. Where the Songsters go, Vin will soon follow. It is a tune that is the perfect beginning to a baseball broadcast, it gives permission to slip into a better, blissful place for the next three hours: “Let’s go, batter up! We’re taking the afternoon off!” Then, in a Hollywood rarity, Vin Scully takes over and exceeds the expectations of the pre-game hype.
Since it would be wrong to play this song and not listen to Vin afterward, here’s the master himself calling the 9th inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game versus the Chicago Cubs on September 9, 1965.
For a great recounting of Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 series, click here ….
4. Nelly – Batter Up (2000)
I often wonder what’s going through my 83 year-old father’s head when he’s exposed to our culture’s rougher edges. He’s a pretty straight guy. To this day, he still suits up and goes to the office every morning. It is because of him that I fell in love with baseball and while the Great American Past-time is generally a safe haven from the vulgarities of modern life, it is certainly not immune – whether from ear-blasting transitions of Fox game coverage to the terrible music that frequently intrudes at the ballpark – and I can’t help be offended for him, even if he seemingly doesn’t care. In my eyes, the man simply deserves to live in an aesthetically more pleasing world.
While frequently there is no escape, sometimes there is a choice, which is why there should be a rating system, where parents are restricted from material unless their children say it’s okay. For example, I told my mom not to take my dad to Black Swan. I knew it was not suitable viewing. But like a petulant teenager, she ignored me. And yes, they both regretted it. No doubt, some of the images haunt my dad today. Like when Mila Kunis was going down on Natalie Portman? What could my dad have been thinking? For me, it was actually the best part of a tedious, cliche-ridden film. For him, he must think the apocalypse has already begun.
It’s times like this when I am embarrassed for our culture. I can’t help but I wonder if my dad feels like the future has let him down. Worse, I somehow feel responsible. Unfortunately, he won’t talk to me about these things. He either changes the topic or hands the phone off to my mom. In the end, I suspect the thoughts in his head aren’t nearly as bad as I think they are. He probably just filters it all out.
While ordinarily “Batter Up” is just the kind of the spectacle I’d want to shield my father from, perversely, I would, however, like to see him watch Nelly break it down St. Louis-style since like Nelly, my father is a lifelong Cardinals fan. Surely he would find the rump-shaking in the video scandalous. Most certainly, he wouldn’t understand the use of The Jeffersons Theme Song, or even know who The Jeffersons are. Would he have any idea what “Smoke some herb and clear your mind” means? Unlikely.
My dad, however, would probably agree with Nelly’s sentiment, “What the fuck wrong with the world today? With these girls today?” They’d probably also both concur that if the Cardinals are going to make a run for it this year, they better get another starting pitcher to replace the injured Adam Wainwright.
3. Georges Bizet – Toreador from Carmen (1875)
This quitting thing, it’s a hard habit to break once you start. – Coach Morris Buttermaker
How did an opera that was first performed one year before the establishment of the National League produce one of the best baseball songs ever? And how is it that an aria about the glories of bullfighting is, in fact, best suited to baseball? Thank The Bad News Bears (1976) and its soundtrack’s composer Jerry Fielding, who liberally utilized not only “Toreador,” but other themes from Carmen, elevating what could have been a pedestrian tale of overcoming adversity into an epic exploration of triumph and redemption set against a prophetically searing portrait of unbridled competition’s dark side.
My father took me to see The Bad News Bears when it came out. I was eight years old and as I recall, he attempted to cover my ears when the cursing began, but it quickly became evident that was a losing strategy and soon thereafter he gave up. At the time, I thought it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen and to this day, it remains in my top ten.
Not only does The Bad News Bears capture an authentic slice of Americana, but it also transforms one of the seminal musical compositions of the 19th century. At first glance it may seem ironic to mix high and low culture, but when you’re a kid, your trials and tribulations are everything. Jerry Fielding and director Michael Ritchie understood that there is nothing ironic about feeling the huge sweep of emotions life offers for the first time. The soundtrack accentuates the monumental scope of a little league season, leaving an emotional echo that lasts long after the credits fade. It is a tremendous achievement.
The montage beginning at 5:16 chronicles the rocky rise of the Bears, propelled by an ingenious remix from Carmen and ends about a minute later when Ahmed takes a fly ball in the nuts.
Losing never felt so sweet. If only we could learn this film’s great lesson: winning at any cost is not winning at all.
2. Greg Brown – Laughing River (1992)
We’re always told that if we work hard enough, we’ll achieve your goals. But sometimes that’s not the way it goes down. Hard work and dedication doesn’t always pay off. In baseball, as in life, not only do you have to be good to succeed, but you also have to get the opportunity to prove yourself. Some guys don’t live up to the chance when they get it, while some guys don’t ever get the chance at all.
“Laughing River” is a devastatingly beautiful song about a career minor leaguer who, after twenty years, is finally ready to give up on the dream of making it to the big leagues. He’s going to trade his bat for a fly fishing pole. “I’m going away because I got a busted heart,” he sings. But while his baseball dreams may not have come true, our narrator isn’t defeated. Instead of the big leagues, now he has his sites set on a better life along Michigan’s Laughing River.
This song guts me each time I hear it, not because of the sadness of giving up, but because in the face of failure, our narrator has the optimism to see a better future down the line. His resilience is an inspiration. It’s easy to become bitter as we face our failures, to look for scapegoats, to search for answers that might explain why we fell short, while others – surely less talented – succeeded. This song’s narrator, though, doesn’t play that game. He doesn’t second-guess himself; he’s just ready to move on. He has a new dream and the fact that it’s along the Laughing River suggests that our narrator understands that while the world may laugh at our dreams, as long as we look optimistically to the future, we get the last laugh, for it is our dreams that keep us alive.
Buy the album here.
(song begins :47 seconds in)
1. Steve Goodman – A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request (1983)
Steve Goodman’s masterpiece is simply the greatest baseball song ever written and certainly one of the most heartbreaking songs of all-time. And that would probably be the case even if the songwriter’s circumstances weren’t as tragic as the fate of the Cubs themselves. Steve Goodman had been living and dying with leukemia since the late 1960s and when he wrote this prescient ballad, he only had about a year left.
To add salt to the wound, Steve Goodman would die eleven days before the Cubs would play their first post-season game in 39 years. It would have been a great day. Goodman was scheduled to sing the National Anthem and although he didn’t make to Wrigley Field in body, surely he was there in spirit. His pal Jimmy Buffet pinch hit and the Cubs went on to win the opener 13-0. The Cubbies won again the next day 4-2 and were now one victory away from going to the World Series for the first time since “the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.” In traditional Cub fashion, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory: they lost three straight in San Diego. They’ve been waiting for next year ever since.
As the dying man’s friends surround him on his deathbed:
He whispered, “Don’t Cry, we’ll meet by and by near the Heavenly Hall of Fame.”
He said, “I’ve got season’s tickets to watch the Angels now,
So it’s just what I’m going to do.”
He said, “But you the living, you’re stuck here with the Cubs,
So it’s me that feels sorry for you!”