“Play Ball, You All”: Baseball’s Turn Down Tin Pan Alley by Katherine Walden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Although only a few songs in the collection reference baseball umpires, those that do provide unique insights into how baseball fans interpreted, constructed, and responded to the authority and influence umpires had within and outside the game of baseball. Although the umpire’s role has shifted and fluctuated throughout baseball’s history, particularly in the current era given the increased reliance on instant replay technology, its significance during the TPA era can be considered against the backdrop of changing social mores, political and economic influences, labor regulatory structures, and the radical changes taking place in the American workplace and industry. This project does not take up those themes in depth, but such a consideration would be a fruitful site for future research using this archival collection.
Some songs include lyrics and subjects that focus explicitly on the umpire’s role within the game, while others include passing mentions of umpires but do not focus entirely on them. For example, in Moe Jaffe’s 1950 “Baseball Polka,” the main character describes baseball as “the game that I love the best of all/How I love to listen to the cheers.” However, rather than be distressed by fan hostility toward the umpire, he states that “When they yell ‘Kill the umpire’/It’s music to my ears,” suggesting that negative attitudes toward umpires were rooted in genuine dissatisfaction but also communicated with varying degrees of hyperbole and exaggeration. Even the famous “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” includes a passing reference to umpires. The song’s second verse details how Katie Casey, the main character, “saw all the games” and when at the games “old the umpire he was wrong, all along good and strong.” Although no threatening or humorous language is used here to protest the umpire, the underlying trend of fans being inherently untrusting or suspicious of umpires remains.
However, the songs that do explicitly focus on the umpire in their title and subject themes provide greater detail and nuance for how fans viewed and responded to umpires. A 1945 title “The Baseball Umpire” includes the following in-game description of an umpire’s actions:
“The game was even Steven,
Then the Umpire called an OUT,
The crowd yelled ‘Kill the Umpire’
He don’t know what’s all about,
He made a wrong decision,
While the clouds of dust were deep,
With pop bottles and brick bats,
The crowd rocked him to sleep.”
Within the song, the fan’s reactions to the umpire’s ruling prompt the formation of a violent mob that severely injures the umpire, who in the next verse “lay a dying/There beside the old Home Place.” The song clarifies that “The rocks and clubs about him/Told how he had met his fate.” However, the song’s later verses indicate that the narrative about disgruntled fans mortally injuring the umpire was merely a fictionalized tale. The third verse describes how the umpire on his deathbed summoned the players and changed the game’s final score to appease heightened emotions. The romanticized language used in the “deathbed” scene makes the believability or authenticity of the song highly suspect. But, the fact that a song would communicate fan distaste for an umpire with such a violent scenario suggests that the underlying antipathy toward umpires was not contrived.
Other titles about umpires used humor and comedy over violence to express fan dissatisfaction with umpires. The 1909 title “Let’s Get the Umpire’s Goat,” written by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth (one of the “Take Me Out” co-writers), details how “Young Jimmy Croker…clerk for a broker” would make up excuses to leave work to see baseball games. Though the lyrics in the song’s verses do not explicitly mention umpires, they do detail how Jimmy and his fellow fans would “yell if the game was to slow.” The following chorus, though, contains the title phrase and details how Jimmy and his fellow fans wanted to express their frustration with the umpire:
“Let’s get the Umpire’s goat, goat, goat
Let’s make him go up in the air
We’ll yell, Oh you robber! Go somewhere and die
Back to the bush, You’ve got mud in your eye
Oh, what an awful decision!
Why don’t you put spectacles on?
Let’s holler like sin, and then our side will win,
When the umpire’s nanny is gone”
Although what exactly the song means when reference the umpire’s goat is unclear, the trope of “the goat” character as referring to a fool or bumbling character was prominent in popular culture films from this era. Although appearing after this TPA song, “The Goat” was a 1917 silent comedy film starring Oliver Hardy, as well as a 1921 short comedic film written by and featuring Buster Keaton. Although these films did not appear until after the umpire song, it is reasonable to assume Norworth and Bayes were familiar with that popular culture trope and were at least implicitly drawing on that comedic construction when referencing “the goat” in their song’s chorus. The language used to describe the umpire as lacking coordination and sound judgement or vision reinforces that interpretation.
Though it does not describe an in-game scenario as vividly, the 1905 title “The Umpire is a Most Unhappy Man” characterizes the umpire as “a cross between a bullfrog and a goat…[who has] a mouth that’s flannel lined and brass tubes in his throat.” According to the song, driving a hearse was only profession worse than being an umpire. In addition to characterizing the umpire as inept or unworthy of respect or regard, the following chorus details how fan’s distaste for the umpire makes the professional entirely unenjoyable:
“How’d you like to be an umpire
Work like his is merely play
He don’t even have to ask for
All the things that come his way
When the crowd yells, ‘knock his block off’
‘Soak him good,’ says ev’ry fan
Then who wants to be an umpire
The brickbats whiz when he gets his
For the umpire is a most unhappy man”
In subsequent choruses, the song asks the audience how they would like to be a camel or mermaid, highlighting the obstacles faced in both roles to emphasize the lack of fulfillment umpires experience. Interestingly, no songs in the collection include the actual voices or umpires or are written from the perspective of umpires, suggesting that songwriters thought constructing humorous caricatures of umpires would gain better popular culture traction and reception than attempts to rehabilitate or reform fan (and by extension audience) impressions of and reactions to umpires.
Although this section of the paper is focused on songs that reference umpires, worth noting is the presence of songs that discuss the connections between baseball fans and the American workplace. In literature and other popular culture imaginaries, baseball’s identity as the national pastime is interwoven with its connection to working-class populations and cultural spaces. In these cultural myths, baseball operates as the national pastime because it is grounded in a particular conception of “true” American identity, which most often strikes a tenuous balance between working-class immigrants in urban spaces and self-reliant agrarian farmers in the rural Midwestern frontier. In contrast, TPA songs mention young men working in white-collar positions like clerking running to catch a baseball game after getting off work. Other songs with discuss young men calling in sick or being absent from white-collar jobs in order to attend mid-day or afternoon games. Although this project is not exploring these songs in depth, their presence within the archival collection deserves mention.