This past week was quite the roller-coaster for baseball fans. While we had spring training in full bloom and the news wires and internet world alive with box scores and bits about each team, we also suffered two major loses.
Carmen Berra, wife of the much loved and mal-apropped person to ever misspeak the English language, Yogi Berra. They had a love affair that spanned parts of eight decades, and the couple just celebrated their 65th anniversary this past January 26th.
At one point a few years ago, Carmen Berra related how her husband once sent her an anniversary card signed, “Yogi Berra.” She said she was glad he signed it that way because it eliminated any confusion about all the other Yogis she knew.
The second, somewhat less personal to me, but overall more relating to baseball as we know it was the passing of Dr. Frank Jobe. Who was this guy, read on.
On a July night in 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe, the orthopedist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium watching the ace left-hander Tommy John face the Montreal Expos. In the third inning, John threw a pair of wild pitches and heard the sound of a “collision,” as he put it, coming from his arm. He had torn an elbow ligament, which almost certainly meant the end of a pitcher’s career. But Dr. Jobe performed a pioneering operation, transplanting an unneeded tendon from John’s right wrist into his left elbow, where it functioned as a new ligament. John went on to win another 164 games over 14 seasons, retiring from the game at age 46. Dr. Jobe, who died on Thursday, March 6, in Santa Monica, Calif., at 88, was renowned as the father of Tommy John surgery, a landmark in sports medicine that has been duplicated thousands of times and has saved the careers of numerous athletes, most of them pitchers.
So I have been working on the idea of the baseball & blues tie in since I first interviewed George Thorogood back in 2010. George and I discussed baseball and it’s relation to his career in the blues. He liked to think of himself as that pesky utility infielder who always made the play when needed, may not get the big headlines but has a long career and several World Series rings on his fingers. Here is the link to that interview because if I were to pull out a few quotes, one would lose the overall effect of the relationship that we established there. George Thorogood interview.
Purists vs. Modernists:
Baseball & the Blues have certain things that link them together, both have ‘Purists v. Modernists’ – we really don’t need to go too deep there. We know the Blues purists are staunchly in their corner, reinforced by their belief that the blues world is going to wrack & ruin and its just not the same anymore. In baseball we have the DH (Designated Hitter) and non DH camps, plus I am sure expansion freaks and wanting to cut back the playing in foreign countries and all.
Dilution of Talent Pool:
The dilution of the talent base is an interesting one, we see that in both of these endeavors, In baseball the opponents claimed that the dilution of talent has lessened the entire field of it’s high quality level. In the blues we hear much about the same effect happening in certain circles.
The initial segregation of these art forms is also a common thread, in baseball it took Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson to break the color line. In the Blues it was basically ‘colored music’ and the white establishment would actively seek to ban or discourage their audience (white) from buying or listening to ‘race records‘. Yes they were specifically marketed to black audiences, but there was no interest in assimilating them into the broader market by the white record labels or producers because it would then cut into their part of the pie. I think that with any ‘institution’ that has been around for so long we can see these fissures occurring. But to see them side by side makes for interesting observations. Hopefully this will open up some thought and conversations between us.
So with Spring training well into it’s very own special season, and the weather turning sweetly warm I figured I would ask around and get some input on what if any baseball and the blues has. So enjoy these comments and insights from some folks ya know and others ya might not have heard of, they range from artists to fans, to friends – but we all love the blues and baseball…
I asked Sterling Koch about the relationship between baseball and the blues and how they seem to be similar in many ways. Purists v. modernists, what appears to be a very simple endeavor to take on but most difficult to master….
” Jimi I think you hit it right on the head there. Simple to play yet difficult to master. Only as I’ve gotten older have I had an appreciation for the intricacies of baseball. Hitters working the count, pitchers throwing a pitch to set up the next pitch, etc. The blues may be only 3 chords and 12 bars but there IS a particular way to play them and the subtleties and intricacies of the blues are what separate the wanna be players from the true blues musicians.
I’ve always loved the blues and wanted to play them even back in the 80’s when I was doing the hair metal thing I wanted to play blues but I felt I was too young at the time. I didn’t understand them or appreciate how to properly play them. I’m not sure it works this way for everyone but I only fully understood playing the blues as I got older and more experienced as a musician. When I was younger I played baseball too. I was a pitcher and was quite good in my area. My last year of Teener ball I had a 10 and 1 record as a starting pitcher. Yet I didn’t understand all the ins and outs of pitching. I just basically rared back and “let her fly.” Much in the same way I would solo on my guitar back in the 80s. Just let it rip. Now I have come to realize that there’s SO much more to both pitching a baseball and playing the blues than just rearing back and “let it fly.”
The subtleties and nuance of both, things that escape the novice or inexperienced baseball enthusiast and blues enthusiast, are what makes playing the blues and following baseball now for me so much more rewarding. Hope any of this will help Jimi and thanks for asking.”
Making it a habit to check out Ricky’s post about baseball and his keen insights into just about everything, I asked him for his thoughts on Blues and baseball.
“This hit me as I was driving to work this morning. Here is the link between blues and baseball. Specifically, hope in the midst of failure. The best blues songs have an element of hope; the hope that things will be better no matter how bad they may seem today. A ballplayer who fails to get a hit 70% of the time is a .300 hitter and has a chance to be an all-star. That same player may get on base 200 times in the course. If he scores 100 runs, 50% of the times he is on base, he has had a great year. Despite knowing he’s more likely to fail than succeed, every ballplayer walks to the plate with an element of hope. Want more evidence? Look at Chicago, one of the great blues towns. Every year, the folks there maintain hope that THIS year, the Cubs will win it all.”
Having spent many hours talking about any, and everything under the sun with Slim, I knew he was the go-to guy. Now ya just don’t get a simple answer from someone as loquacious as Slim. The man sent me an entire article on his growing up, and feelings about baseball, the DH, plus other insights that I have yet to publish here. So please allow me to selectively edit a few things in relation to his wonderful song ‘Max The Baseball Clown‘, which can be found on the “No Paid Holidays” release.
“I grew up in a Class A minor-league town, Asheville, NC, and refer to that upbringing in my song, Max the Baseball Clown. Max Patkin was the Clown Prince of Baseball. Some will say Al Schacht, a former major-league pitcher, was the King, because he clowned in major-league ball parks, including 28 years as an entertainer for the World Series, from 1927 to 1952, and 18 at the annual All-Star Game.
But Patkin’s career of clowning, after a minor-league career cut very short by injury, spanned 51 years, from 1944 to 1995. I watched Patkin twice in Asheville. Patkin’s clowning career partly overlapped Schacht’s, but Patkin never clowned for the major leagues, instead barnstorming around the country in minor league ballparks.
Patkin accomplished (and not just once, but every time he did it) the greatest baseball feat I have ever watched, or have any knowledge of. One of his highlights involved an air-gun that shot baseballs. To demonstrate the power of this gun, Patkin would first shoot a baseball from the pitcher’s mound of Tourist Stadium (also known as McCormick Field) all the way into the Asheville High School football stadium, somewhere between a quarter and a half mile away.
Then, he would turn the gun straight up, and fire a ball into the night above him (I never watched him in a day game, though I assume he also clowned for day games). There is no telling how high that airgun shot the ball into the air, but I never saw that he had adjusted the gun for a shorter shot. The report of the gun sounded the same as when he shot the ball for near a half a mile.
Researchers have determined that the highest that any batter ever hit, or ever could hit, a pop fly is a little over 200 feet. The balls Patkin fired into the sky took far longer than the time for even a very high pop fly. Might have been 15-20 seconds in the air. Surely the air-gun had fired the balls at least hundreds of feet into the dark sky. It is a mystery how Patkin could know where that ball was going to come down. But when it finally did, Patkin would turn his back to the ball and catch it in a way-oversized back pocket of his uniform! I saw him do it twice, in the early 1960s.
I never watched Al Schacht– he was before my time– and I am sure that he was a hilarious baseball clown, by the fact of his own long major-league clowning career. But I doubt that he ever performed anything like what I must now consider the miracle of baseball skill that was a regular part of Patkin’s clowning show. My song, ‘Max The Baseball Clown’, which I recorded for my CD No Paid Holidays in 2008, is my tribute to the greatest baseball entertainer I ever saw, and perhaps– probably– that ANYONE ever saw. In 1988, Patkin was named King of Baseball at the Baseball Winter Meetings in Atlanta, GA.”
Gerry is a great supporter of the Blues. We met on Facebook (where else), and he has always had a pointed insight on almost any topic. A master crossword puzzle cat, I instinctively knew he would have some golden insight for us here. Enjoy…
“Well, I will be very much obliged to you for any excuse for playing more of Miss Julia Lee, who was wed to Mr Frank Duncan for a while. Julia Lee, of course, was the Empress of the “Songs Her Mama Taught Her NOT to Sing” and Frank Duncan was a Negro Leagues star.
Baseball, like the blues, is something to be taken in and not merely observed. We absorb and are absorbed by only a few aspects of existence, and to me these two schools represent not only the quintessence of America but the respective tops of their forms.
Sure, jazz and football might claim to appeal to greater numbers, and I like them both just fine, but they seem to me to lack that essential quality that demands a greater level of emotional investment and appreciation that comes from baseball and the blues.”
Gerry and I also talked about the Single A Short-Season baseball that goes on in Savannah and many other cities around the country. These folks play for the love of the game. Gerry pointed out that they were akin to gladiators in caps, playing for nothing but for their own personal reasons, it was something they had or wanted to do. This is much like the local blues musicians who play to nearly empty clubs at times, but they return every night lugging their equipment to and from the car. In both these cases there may be no truer expression of commitment to either art.
So to bring this around to the heart of the matter, baseball and songs about baseball have a section in the American Treasuries of the Library of Congress. No these are not blues songs but the fact that they exist shows the connection between the sport and music. This alone is pretty cool.
So here are some links to some blues music about baseball. Check them out, find some more and go down this path that we have set before you.
The Robby-Dobby Boogie – recorded by Brownie McGhee about the first two black players in the major leagues – Larry Doby, Cleveland (AL) and Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn (NL)
Say Hey – The Treniers, their tribute to Willie ‘Say Hey ‘ Mays. Willie appears on the recording to settle a dispute on who’s ball it was!
Life Is A Ball Game - Sister Wyn0na Carr, a gospel singer works the path to righteousness into a baseball song. This song was featured in the movie ‘42‘ about Jackie Robinson. Personally I love this one!
The First Baseball Game - similar to the Wynona Carr tune, but more biblical references, by golden voiced Nat King Cole.
Catfish – While not technically the Blues, Bob Dylan doffs his cap to Jim ‘Catfish ‘ Hunter. This version is by Joe Cocker with guitar solo by Eric Gale.
Baseball Boogie – Mabel Scott in a classic double entendre baseball song, it’s the blues baby!
Baseball Blues – Toby Walker’s double entendre where a Louisville Slugger is more than just a bat!
The Last Home Run a tribute song to Hank Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run record. Written by Willie Dixon, recorded by McKenley Mitchell, with Billy Branch on harp. Could not find a video of this, but there are some copies around of release.
These are just a few samples of Blues songs that are about baseball and easily found. There are a bunch more around.
Plus we did not even touch all the bases on just plain ol’ baseball songs. John Fogerty’s ‘Centerfield’, Terry Cashman’s ‘Talking Baseball’ and many many others.
So batter up! Pick up that bat or guitar and feel the thread that runs thru our National pastime and what should be our National Music. Thank you Sterling Koch, Ricky Stevens, Watermelon Slim,Gerry Lo for your time and contributions to this little bit of passion that we share.
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
Where Blues Thrives