Touch ‘Em All: The Shared Sorrow of Country Music and Baseball

Juli Thanki | April 11th, 2013

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.

  1. Karlie
    April 11, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Loved this – I just have to swap baseball for ACC basketball/football heartbreak.

    And “Finally Friday” is probably my second favorite George Jones song.

    • Juli Thanki
      April 11, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Haha, my local station would play an awful “Finally Friday” remix every Friday at 5 p.m., which has, sadly, turned me off the song for life.

  2. Dave D.
    April 11, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Great article. I was thinking about Peter Cooper’s 715 as soon as I started reading and was pleasantly surprised to see him quoted later on.

  3. Ken Morton, Jr.
    April 11, 2013 at 10:26 am

    My questionable yet undying devotion to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team has just gained great clarity. Thanks for the great article, Juli.

  4. bob
    April 11, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Great article and songs.
    My first sad baseball moment came when the then Brooklyn Dodgers with Johhny Podres shutout my NY Yankees in game 7 of the 1955 World Series. I was 9.

    My favorite baseball song is Centerfield. The last song on your list, “The Greatest” was written by Hall of Fame songwriter Don Schlitz of “Gambler” fame. I love the twist at the end. Schlitz is a huge baseball fan. In the 7 times I’ve seen him he has always sung “The Greatest” and “I Watched It All on My Radio”. The first part of the latter song is about baseball but after the game he searches for music:

    “And on Saturday night when the skies were all clear
    A station from Nashville sometimes would appear
    The steel guitars and soft southern twang
    The stars of the Grand Ole Opry would sing.”

    The song was recorded by Lionel Cartwright.

    Another baseball song with a twist at the end is “The Show” from Jon Vezner’s 1994 album “Who’s Gonna Know”. Don Henry co-wrote the song with Vezner.

    I also like the Terry Cashman “Talkin’ Baseball” songs, especially the original “Willie, Mickey & the Duke”.

  5. Andrew
    April 11, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Very well written Juli. Though as a Rockies fan I don’t think Phillies fans have anything to be complaining about.

  6. Barry Mazor
    April 11, 2013 at 10:59 am

    As a Phillies and Sounds fan I applaud editrix Thanki’s double play. On behalf of my St Louis-raised wife, I will link a song more popular in that city than the Steve Goodman song, from our Nashville-based Ozark Mt Daredevil, “I Married a Cubs Fan”. It’s country:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXzCmE-xtXY

  7. nm
    April 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

    As a St. Louisan, I have to prefer Steve Goodman’s “St. Louis Browns” to his Cubs song. Otherwise, it’s a great list.

  8. Barry Mazor
    April 11, 2013 at 11:03 am

    I have a copy of this single around somewhere, as many lifelong Phils fans would. It is, it appears, not country:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dR4_OMa5Bs8

    PS: Back at their beginning when the Sounds were a Double A Yankees franchise, they were owned in part by Conway Twitty, who also had some baseball past, I believe..

  9. Blake Boldt
    April 11, 2013 at 11:14 am

    I’m boycotting the site until Gretchen Wilson’s repurposing of “Redneck Woman,” titled “Redbird Fever” in honor of the St. Louis Cardinals, is included on the list.

  10. Howard
    April 11, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Doug Sahm was a huge baseball fan. Everything I have read about him tells tales of him pulling off the highway when he saw a minor league stadium and how we would often spend time in Florida for spring training.

    Believe he was an Astros fan like myself..tough times.

    Not country but still good songs about baseball:
    Buck 65 – 463.
    Kelley Stoltz – ’84 Tigers

  11. Howard
    April 11, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Now this one IS country

    Del Reeves – Philadelphia Phillies

    Classic.

  12. Barry Mazor
    April 11, 2013 at 11:27 am

    True about Sir Doug, although he was even more of a professional wrestling fan; I once was present when he began talking about that really passionately. He was a devoted rasslin’ fan and a devoted vegetarian, not a typical combination, but then, untypical combination was him all over.

  13. Luckyoldsun
    April 11, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Pro wrestling and country music both started going downhill when the country stars and wrestlers stopped looking like each other. (That might have been around the time that they announced that both were fake.) Charlie Rich, Razzy Bailey tag-teaming with Greg Valentine and Ric Flair. Johnny Russell and Gorilla Monsoon. And wasn’t Harley Race the Conway Twitty of pro wrestling?

  14. Jon
    April 11, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    “whose favorite George Jones song is “Finally Friday”?”

    Dunno about that, but I know plenty of folks who count “White Lightning” as their favorite.

  15. Leeann Ward
    April 11, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    I call for more columns from Juli!:) Even as a non-baseball follower, I found this article to be quite awesome and an intriguing read. I love the parallels that have been drawn here. It’s only fitting that you’d include Peter Cooper in this column. His song is one of my very favorites; it’s in my iTunes “Favorites” playlist.

  16. AndyTheDrifter
    April 12, 2013 at 12:07 am

    Great article. Baseball and country music are my two greatest loves in life as well. I’m a diehard White Sox fan which has resulted in its fair share of heartbreak (at least I’ll always have 2005…). Luckily I have my country music to help me through the roughest times.

  17. Arlene
    April 12, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Some more favorites:

    Knuckleball Catcher- Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65_VQLq5d3Q

    Some Dreams- Steve Earle
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGvLf0kZlf8

    Hey Ozzie- Sam Bush
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2L9IV726G3o

    The Kid From Spavinaw (Micky Mantle)- Tom Russell
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wD3bZc-24g

    3rd Base, Dodger Stadium- Ry Cooder
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po2Qv3C8bf0

    Baseball- Sam Baker w/Gurf Morlix:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew_gSM-gCSI

    Heaven’s Game- David Olney

    Moe Berg- Chuck Brodsky

    Bob Dylan- Catfish

    Paul Simon- Night Game

  18. bob
    April 12, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    @Arlene – didn’t know there was a song about Moe Berg. Thanks. I just listened to it on you-tube. Maybe Chuck Brodsky read “The Catcher Was a Spy, The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” by Nicholas Dawidoff. Good read.

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