Football may have the ratings, but baseball has the songs.
Homages to America's national pastime have been recorded by everyone from Count Basie to Jonathan Richman. There's even indie-rock supergroup The Baseball Project, featuring members of R.E.M., Dream Syndicate and the Minus 5, who recently released a third album of original baseball songs.
To celebrate the arrival of the 2014 season, here's a chronological list of some favorite baseball songs. Advance apologies for leaving yours out.
Sister Wynona Carr, "The Ball Game" (1953). This rocking gospel number by Mahalia Jackson's protégé draws this unusual analogy: "Jesus is standing at the home plate; he's waiting for you there. Life is a ball game, but you got to play it fair. The first base is temptation; the second base is sin. Third base is tribulation; if you pass, you can make it in. Old man Solomon is the umpire, and Satan's pitching the game. He'll do his best to strike you out, but keep playing just the same."
The Treniers, "Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)" (1954). This contagious jump-blues number actually features a guest appearance by Mays himself. The Treniers were a classy Southern vocal group, and the orchestra on this date was conducted by Quincy Jones.
The Intruders, "(Love Is Just Like a) Baseball Game" (1968). Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote this Philly soul number for their male-harmony quartet, the Intruders. It became a No. 4 R&B hit.
Kinky Friedman, "Catfish" (1976). Bob Dylan wrote his only baseball song about Catfish Hunter of the Yankees, and Friedman, Dylan's sidekick at the time, recorded the original version. It's a blues-rock song about the pitching prowess of Hunter, who "ain't working on Finley's Farm no more."
Meat Loaf, Ellen Foley and Phil Rizzuto, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" (1977). Getting to first base, second base, etc., has long had a double-entendre meaning for would-be high school lovers. Meat Loaf's song describes the competition between an eager teenage male and his reluctant date in the front seat of his car, with Yankees announcer Rizzuto doing the play-by-play.
Warren Zevon, "Bill Lee" (1980). Bill "Spaceman" Lee was a notorious non-conformist when he pitched for the Red Sox, and in this midtempo piano ballad, Zevon pays tribute to Lee's refusal to mouth the usual jock cliches.
Steve Goodman, "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" (1981). The late Chicago folk singer captured the special devotion required of the fan of a perennially losing team in this live recording of a delightful talking blues. Alternately hilarious and poignant, Goodman relates how the Chicago Cubs led him into a dissolute life, "but what do you expect when you raise up a young boy's hopes and then just crush them like so many paper beer cups year after year after year."
Bruce Springsteen, "Glory Days" (1984). The back cover of the Born in the U.S.A. album was a photo of Springsteen's rear end with a red baseball cap hanging out of his jeans pocket. This is the song that justified the photo; it's a simultaneously funny and touching, self-mocking confession about an old friend who was the star of the singer's high-school baseball team, but who's now just another aging jock in the bar with embroidered stories about his "glory days."
John Fogerty, "Centerfield" (1985). Now a staple at ballparks all over the country, this is the perfect baseball song, as energizing and catchy as a late-inning winning rally. Built atop a retooled Chuck Berry guitar riff, a ballpark organ and crack-of-the-bat percussion, the song is full of knowing references to Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," Malamud's The Natural and Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," and concludes with the fervent wish of every ballplayer who ever lived: "Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play!"
Nelly, "Batter Up" (2000). The best hip-hop song about baseball is this double-entendre-filled number from a Missouri kid who wanted to be Ozzie Smith before he wanted to be the Fresh Prince.
Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Joe DiMaggio Done It Again" (2000). DiMaggio hits the ball where the eagles soar and slides into base like a cyclone. Billy Bragg set Woody Guthrie's tall-tale lyrics about the New York Yankees outfielder to music and sang the results.
Sam Baker, "Baseball" (2004). While Baker's narrator is watching little kids play baseball beneath a blue sky in a small Texas town, he has a premonition of those same kids being marched off to war in a few years. Baker doesn't have to editorialize, because both the present and future visions are so vividly evoked and juxtaposed in this understated ballad.
Dan Bern, "Seven Miles an Hour" (2012). Bern's Doubleheader album contains 18 terrific baseball songs, but the best is this one, about the small difference in talent between the millionaire stars in the majors and the almost-stars rattling around in the minors.
The Dropkick Murphys, "Jimmy Collins' Wake" (2013). Boston's Celtic-punk band has supplied a theme song for each of the Red Sox's past three world championships: "Tessie" in 2004, "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" in 2007, and last year's "Jimmy Collins' Wake," a song that's actually about baseball.
A version of this story originally appeared in Paste Magazine.