LOS ANGELES (JTA) — At the ballpark this summer, when you rise for the seventh-inning stretch to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” stretch a bit taller — one of the song’s writers was Jewish.
The unofficial song of America’s pastime, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is the product of a Jewish-Episcopalian collaboration: Jewish songwriter Albert Von Tilzer wrote the melody, lyricist Jack Norworth penned the words.
Prior to writing baseball’s hit tune, the lore goes, neither had attended a ballgame.
Their famous collaboration, which is sung publicly somewhere in the U.S. every day from mid-spring to early fall, is believed to trail only “Happy Birthday” and "The Star-Spangled Banner” as America’s most performed songs.
Since the sportscaster Harry Caray first began belting it out at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in the mid-1970s, and later at Wrigley Field, the song has become a regular feature at major league and minor league ballparks across America. They even sing it in Japan.
Yet considering the song’s fame, Norworth and Van Tilzen go largely unrecognized by baseball officialdom, and Von Tilzer scores barely a nod in the Jewish community. Their story resembles the song’s famous punchline: “and it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out at the old ball game.”
According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame website, Norworth wrote the lyrics to the universal seventh-inning stretch anthem in 1908 “while riding a New York City subway train.” He had spotted a sign that said "Ballgame Today at the Polo Grounds" and “baseball-related lyrics started popping into his head.”
His partner Von Tilzer already had a successful career in songwriting and music publishing in the Jewishly influenced Tin Pan Alley in New York when he wrote the music for what was to be his most enduring creation.
In 2008, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the song, but there’s no mention of the songwriters.
Von Tilzer died in 1956 and Norworth three years later, but word now comes from AOL columnist Chris Epting in a story titled “Stepping Up to Bat for Jack Norworth” that in Southern California where Norworth is buried — just a mile or two from the site of next week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Anaheim — the stone marking his grave site is worn and barely readable.
A Facebook group has formed recently that is dedicated to raising Norworth’s visibility and “getting a groundswell going.” Its goal is to have the marker redone on better quality stone, adding words marking Norworth’s role in co-writing the famous song.
But since Norworth has no known next of kin for approval, the Melrose Abbey Memorial Park is not allowing any do-overs, though it is open to discussing a plaque elsewhere on the grounds.
And what of Von Tilzer’s grave?
I found he was buried in Glendale, N.Y., in a family plot in the New Mount Carmel cemetery. The headstone, simple in design with just a name and date, is without a word memorializing his part in celebrating America’s pastime.
I called the cemetery and asked the receptionist, Lina Cortesiano, if anyone comes looking for Von Tilzer’s grave. First she had to look him up.
“Yes, he’s here,” she said. “But I don’t recall anyone coming to find him.”
In an era of sheet music, “Von Tilzer wrote the music for 20 million copy-selling songs,” said Tim Wiles, director of research at The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., one of the authors of “Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ ” with whom I recently spoke by phone.
Von Tilzer, who changed his name from Gumm (originally Gumbinski), was one of five brothers from Indiana who all had careers on Tin Pan Alley and in vaudeville.
In Indianapolis, where Von Tilzer grew up, “The Gumbinskis owned a shoe store,” Wiles said. “Upstairs was a performance space where they could kind of get their feet wet.”
I wondered if the Hall of Fame had done anything permanent to commemorate the composer and lyricist of baseball’s most often heard song. Perhaps an award set up in their names to honor others who have made creative contributions to the sport.
So far it’s a shutout.
Wiles says Von Tilzer and Norworth do not fit into any of the four categories recognized by the Hall of Fame: “player, umpire, ownership, and pioneers.”
“Von Tilzer’s and Norworth’s cultural contribution was one of the most important that has ever been made to the game,” he said. “A contribution that is worthy of being remembered.”
Wiles recalled that in 1997, the Hall of Fame did have an exhibit.
And what recognition has Von Tilzer received in Jewish circles? Certainly a Jewish sports hall of fame would have done something to honor his contribution?
I checked the website for the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, N.Y., less than 40 miles from where Von Tilzer is buried. To achieve its goal of fostering “Jewish identity through sports,” I found that the hall had honored not only athletes but sportswriters, broadcasters, columnists and a photographer. But no songwriters; Von Tilzer has yet to be inducted.
Why not add a plaque singing the praises of Von Tilzer? We already stand and sing his song at every game.
Like the songs says, if he doesn’t win it’s a shame.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. He also is the author of a baseball biography, "Nomo, The Tornando Who Took America by Storm.")