By Bob Socci
Just as the pilot promised, American Airlines Flight 928, inbound from Guatemala City, began its initial descent toward Miami. At the slightest tilting of the plane’s nose, our baby girl, who almost always inflates her already chubby cheeks with a near-constant smile, turned her expression upside down.
Instantly, every other passenger within earshot — meaning from the cockpit door to the rear galley — was made aware of her displeasure. As a six-month old she may have a lot of growing to do, but her tiny lungs are mighty strong. She shrieks with a piercing pitch that’s practically glass-shattering; like when Ella Fitzgerald used to obliterate stemware simply by hitting her high notes in a decades-old TV commercial.
For years I flew to the sounds of someone else’s infant wailing, always feeling for the poor parent desperately trying to quiet a son or daughter. So helplessly; it so often seemed. Now here I was — actually alongside my wife and our 2-year-old boy — in that exact same spot: sitting in coach, on a seat made hotter with every howl.
Unable to pacify her with a binky, I tried every which of way of holding her. Always to no avail. With pressure mounting in the sky above South Florida, I turned to a last resort. I started singing.
I never quite recall the lyrics to traditional lullabies. Besides, humming their tunes never seems to work for me anyway. The baby remains far from reposeful; I wind up much more panicked. But there is a little ditty I’ve known by heart virtually my whole life. And on countless occasions, sung to both of our kids the last couple of years, it’s proven remarkably tranquilizing.
Still, I can only imagine what everyone else must have been thinking — other than cringing at the sound of this off-key tenor — when I first opened my mouth to intone: Take me out to the ballgame…
For most of the century-plus since Jack Norworth conceived them in 1908, those six words have cued untold millions to stand and stretch. But in our house, as well as on long car and now plane rides, the international anthem of baseball is a fail-safe way to sooth a screaming child into slumber.
The origins of the most famous of Norworth’s nearly 2,500 compositions are legendary. A vaudeville songwriter, he was riding the subway into Manhattan when his train passed a sign reading: Baseball Today — Polo Grounds. Norworth needed just 15 minutes, a pen and some scrap paper to come up with the lyrics he would eventually fit to the music of Albert Von Tilzer. Though his words would echo throughout grandstands across the country, Norworth didn’t attend his first ballgame until 32 years later.
I doubt it will take nearly as long for either of our two children to visit a ballpark. Already in their young lives — too often for their tastes, I’m sure — dad has subjected them to games on television and radio. And, of course, given them a bit of the stadium experience. By day or night. In our nursery upstairs and living room downstairs. From the driver’s seat of a CR-V and Row 16 of a Boeing 737.
Inevitably, with an arresting effect.
Our son was still in the clubhouse when he first heard the garbled sounds of my singing voice. As an eagerly expectant parent, father-to-be would regularly talk to the child hidden inside his mother’s womb. More than occasionally, dad also launched into song. Contrary to conventional advice, the playlist often varied from the classics.
Surely, I figured, the little guy would someday be exposed to Mozart and Beethoven. But what this father knows best is the music of his sporting life: from college fight songs, starting with Anchors Aweigh, to the unforgettable Meet The Mets. And as you’d expect, Take Me Out to the Ballgame. So those are the songs I serenaded him with.
Within weeks of his birth, whenever he fussed, my son heard me singing of peanuts and Cracker Jack. Incredibly, it always seemed to put him at ease. Even more effective were the times I lent my voice to a CD featuring ex-Yankee and classically-trained guitarist Bernie Williams strumming his own soothing rendition. Included on his second CD release, Moving Forward, Williams’s version is introduced by the late Bob Shepherd, longtime Yankee Stadium announcer.
“Your attention please, ladies and gentleman,” says Shepherd, with his customary impeccable elocution, “now batting for the Yankees, number 51, Bernie Williams. Number 51.”
Soon the sound of Shepherd alone was enough to silence the cries of our infant. On his first long ride, strapped into a car seat from Boston to Central New York, our first-born grew restless by the fifth hour of a six-hour trek. As crazy as it seems, the only way to stay sane was to repeatedly replay Track 12 of the Williams CD.
Again and again, my wife hit rewind. Again and again, Bob Shepherd announced Williams at the plate. Again and again, our crying baby was lulled into a state of content. Again and again, the sound track of our drive shuffled from discord to sweet harmony.
We made sure Moving Forward went wherever we did, as essential to our diaper bag as wipes and Pampers themselves. On visits to family and friends we often asked to use their stereos. Baby fussed, the late Shepherd asked for our attention, Williams strummed his first notes, and all crying ceased.
Though invested in New York’s other team from an early age, I’ve always admired the on-and-off field grace of Williams. I became an even bigger fan, following the release of his first CD, The Journey Within. His cover of Dust In The Wind strikes a chord, as a perfect score for personal reflection. Then I experienced Williams’s magic touch on Take Me Out to the Ballgame. The way he caressed the strings of his guitar to calm a baby in distress, made him — unequivocally — my favorite player.
Examining this phenomenon, I sought to explain why an ode to the national pastime, especially when performed by Williams, so consistently comforted our first child. It had to do, I concluded, with all my pre-birth serenading. While pops was longing in song to be taken out to the crowd, junior was being taken back to his more secure and less confusing existence inside his mom. As for Williams’s role, well, his string music just sounds a whole better than my singing voice.
But then the kid sister came along, kicking and turning. Prior to delivery, she hadn’t heard much, if any of Norworth’s melody. For her, I mostly resorted to a feeble impression of Van Morrison on Brown Eyed Girl. That song of choice was based on a pretty safe assumption, given the appearances of both parents. It was also truly forgettable.
Unlike Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
Our little lady was a bit colicky her first few months. Mom and dad were often at a loss. Until one day — and then the next, and the next after that — we introduced her to an oldie-but-goodie. Just like big bro, she stopped her fits and snapped to attention well before being told to root, root, root for the home team. Ever since, whenever our sweetheart won’t settle down, my wife and I turn to a familiar tune. Sometimes we collaborate on a duet.
Last week, near the middle of an airplane cabin, I sung solo. Trying not to notice glances from the strangers around us, I thought of baseball’s most famous stadium crooner.
Years before moving to the other end of town, the late broadcasting legend Harry Caray called White Sox games on Chicago’s South Side. In 1976, Sox owner Bill Veeck — who rarely met a promotional idea he wasn’t willing to try — noticed Caray singing along with organist Nancy Faust. Veeck approached Caray about putting a live stadium microphone in his radio booth, specifically for song time in the seventh-inning stretch.
Veeck reasoned that if fans heard Caray singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, they’d find his poor singing voice anything but intimidating, and would happily join in. Caray relocated to Wrigley Field in the early eighties, and conducted a singalong that continues today at every Cubs home game. Fourteen years after Caray’s death, celebrities lead Wrigley’s crowds in a daily homage to the broadcasting icon.
Last Monday, far from the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field, nobody else felt compelled to join in. I doubt, unlike Chicagoans so long ago with Caray, the crowd crammed into Fight 928 was intimidated by my voice.
More likely, I think, they sat there like daddy’s little girl; in stunned silence.