Monday, March 28, 2005

Baseball Records by Michael Baker

Baseball has not been kind to music or poetry. The game demands not excitation, visceral grandiosity, or brief stabs at begging for forgiveness. It is a sport that expects rumination, expansion, and cool ones thrown down at day’s ends. Novels, essays, autobiographies, and September suicides are more like it: artistic yearnings of conclusive termination. Poetry and rock prefer brief moments of euphoric pain, small moments of doubt from living in the moment too much. Carpe diem, Joe Strummer, Sandy Koufax, and the lumbering ballets of Ernie Lombardi and Harmon Killebrew belong to the now. Thankfully, a Washington D.C. record company, Hungry For Music in their 8-CD collection, Diamond Cuts, seeks to explore the obvious emotional links to America’s two greatest pastimes, baseball and music.

The company’s charitable primary purpose is to buy instruments for D.C. school children and in this they have a fabulous beginning success. The albums each have distinct themes, instructive liners, and swinging artwork. They are labors of obvious humor, concern, and erudition. And they are moving. There are inevitable missteps: some of the folkies are a little too ardent and arch in their hazy love of a game that is often best pondered not in repose or coffee house but turning two under the hot July sun. Get sweaty my black clad hipsters. There are cuts from people who I never want to hear, see, or think about (Bob Costas, Paul Simon); there isn’t enough of a concerted hatred for the New York Yankees; there seems for the eight CD’s a partial pattern of naming them by innings but that pattern is enigmatic: the titles are—“Diamond Cuts,” “Turning Two,” “Triple Play,” “Grand Slam,” “Bottom of the Fifth,” “A Tribute to Nolan Ryan,” “Top of the Sixth,” and “Seventh Inning Stretch.”

The first is a series loving tributes to the Negro Leagues and distaff members of baseball royalty. Bill Campbell, a guiding light for the organization and compiler and liner note writer, contributes heartfelt lyrics words to the rousing “Play Ball!” and the great Buck O’Neil, the spokesperson for the organization, contributes fine, touching words. Springsteen and Dylan and Fogerty are here; the great SF Seals and Tom Paxton offer memorable tunes, and Cobb, DiMaggio and Nolan Ryan are honored. This is a good place to start: series regulars Dan Bern, George Winston and Chuck Brodsky each contribute fine numbers and there are very few places in the universe where Jesse Jackson, Johnny Mercer, and Satchel Paige are gathered as lustily together as they are here. Diamond Cuts is a superb collection.

The rest of the uniformly excellent CD’s follow this pattern: a healthy wide-ranging scope of songs, styles, and eras. Each volume contains the obligatory blues jump, electrified countrified folk number, zealous women singing about their orgasmic yearning for men in uniforms, bluesy introspection, cornpone declamations, and rollicking troubadours linking middle age with their deluded hopes of one more god damned spring. Many highlights, especially from the DC area: Hula Monsters’ wry “Steelin’ Home,” a couple from the expert and funny Honky Tonk Confidential’s including a pseudo-serious take on “Bases on Balls,” with a complicated backstory more fitting of the Dead Sea Scrolls: the melody is lifted from “Ghost Riders of the Sky” and actress Laraine Day—Mrs. Durocher—provided some of the lyrics on a cocktail napkin at a dinner party in the early 1950’s. The Rhodes Tavern Troubadours contribute a great number on Walter Johnson and their pal Jake Flack sorrowfully recounts Earl Weaver’s stormy reign.

Many quirky and charming oddities are to be found: Steve Goodman’s dying love for the misery-loving Cubs; Ruthie and the WranglersGreg Hardin lamenting the potential resurrection of Babe Ruth’s Massachusetts’s lacustrine-sunk piano. Another winner is Esther Haynes and the Swingin’ Dingers’ bitter sweet “It’s Opening Day.” This is ten hours of music, so pick and choose. There’s zydeco, Eddie From Ohio, Harry Caray, Peter Case, Garrison Keillor, the Nighthawks, and the formidable and queenly Ruth Brown. Get the whole set. Put a clarinet in a kid’s thankful hands. The owners actually answer the phones themselves. Talk baseball. Remember good times you never had. Then just as your team is about to sweep the Yankees in late August, pop a cool one, put the CD’s in your player, and press random. Close your eyes and sing along to songs about Joe Jackson, DiMaggio, Clemente, Dizzy, and Rube Marquard, Ty, and Stan the Man, who has a few seconds here by himself off key and perfect on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Back to the times when giants roamed the earth and we were sinless. When we all had an equal chance on Opening Day. (

Michael Baker teaches composition at New Jersey colleges, where his students write about their fierce hatred of the New York Yankees.

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