Touch ‘Em All: The Shared Sorrow of Country Music and Baseball
I have two great loves in my life and they both make me miserable.
When I was nine years old, Joe Carter hit a three-run homer off of Phillies pitcher Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays. It was a gut-wrenching experience for a kid, and I remember hoping that the game that brought me so much joy would never make me feel like that again. Not long after that, I heard “He Stopped Loving Her Today” for the first time; it sounded beautiful—and then I got to the chorus and realized what George Jones was singing about. Those two moments of childhood trauma have since remained linked in my mind, and the fact that I’ve remained dedicated to both team and song for two decades is probably more an indication of my mental health than anything else.
But I’m not the only one drawn to the joy and sorrow found in baseball and country music. Bill Monroe was, as former Blue Grass Boy Mac Wiseman recalls, the most baseball-crazy man he’d ever met, even including baseball games as part of his touring act; the Seldom Scene’s John Duffey loved the game so much he skipped a gig at the White House in order to play in an intramural league game, and perhaps Emmylou Harris’ only flaw is that the team she’s devoted to is Atlanta Braves. Roy Acuff was on his way to a professional baseball career until a nasty bout of sunstroke made him pursue his musical passions, and Charley Pride pitched in the Negro Leagues, to name two ballplayers turned country singers. There was also a ballplayer turned singer: Milwaukee Braves pitcher Lew Burdette, who won three World Series games in 1957, cut a record that was produced by Mac Wiseman when he was a Dot Records executive.
So what is it about America’s pastime and America’s music that pulls us in, that can devastate us like little else?
“Both are designed to break your heart,” says Nashville-based singer-songwriter-journalist Peter Cooper, who’s written a few songs about the game over the course of his musical career. As anyone who listened to a story-song from beginning to tragic end, or followed a team all season only to see them come up short knows, there’s a special kind of heartache involved in being a fan. There are occasional moments of great joy in country music and baseball, but more often, it’s the depressing ones that stick with us: whose favorite George Jones song is “Finally Friday”?
Perhaps most importantly, baseball and country music draw heavily upon our love of nostalgia. As poet and author Donald Hall once wrote, “For most baseball fans, maybe oldest is always best. We love baseball because it seizes and retains the past, like the snowy village inside a glass paperweight.” Country music operates in similar fashion, forever preserving (some might say mythologizing), the old home place and those good old days when times were bad. For better or worse, misty-eyed remembrances of a golden age—before, say, the designated hitter or country-pop or steroids or Autotune (which is music’s performance enhancing drug)—make up a substantial chunk of contemporary discourse .
On the other side of the stands, both country music and baseball have spent the past 80-plus years making household names out of rural and blue collar boys who devoted their youth to practicing G-runs or turning double plays until they were good enough—and lucky enough—to earn a roster spot or an Opry appearance. Cooper notes that the two industries share another important commonality, the “talent funnel” that gradually narrows the pool of prospects: “ I think the musicians and baseball players in Nashville are like kindred spirits – there’s astounding talent that often gets left behind and goes unfulfilled. There are a lot of musicians in Nashville, believe it or not, and they’re often hoping to play stages bigger than the ones they’re currently on. And when an athlete has made it through Little League, high school ball, college ball, been signed to a contract, and worked all the way up our Triple A team, the Nashville Sounds, he’s a phone call away from everything he’s ever dreamed of. That phone call may or may not ever come.” Well, now, that sounds like a country song.
The thrill of a walk-off homer, of seeing an up-and-comer play in some dive bar, combined with the simpler pleasures of being drawn into the world of a song, or following a team through their 162 game story, captivate audiences and keep us coming back for each new single, each new season. Even when they break your heart.
Later today, we’ll post favorite baseball memories from several musicians. Until then, check out this playlist of a few favorite baseball songs.
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