Neither had lyricist Jack Norworth, who was riding a New York City subway train in 1908 when he noticed a sign: “Ball Game Today—Polo Grounds.” Less than half an hour of baseball-lyric-brainstorming later, he knocked down Von Tilzer’s door, and a new anthem was born.
Von Tilzer was born a Gumm in Indianapolis in 1878, shortened from his Polish Jewish family’s original Gumbinsky. He and his four brothers lived in the 400 block of South Illinois Street, where their father owned a shoe store and Albert worked as a salesman. He attended city schools before dropping out as a teenager to help pay the bills.
Though an improvement over the clunky Gumbinsky, “Gumm” still didn’t exactly bespeak a successful songwriter, or so the siblings thought. So when the oldest brother, Harry, moved to New York with his sights set on show business, he took his mother’s maiden name, Tilzer, and classed it up with a “Von.” Albert soon followed suit.
His Tin Pan Alley tune was first heard not on a baseball diamond, but sandwiched between shows on the silver screen. In the early 20th century, movies often dragged on while film reels were swapped, so cinemagoers were kept entertained with a song or two. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” crooned first by a vocalist and then the entire crowd, was a particular hit.
The ditty became so popular, its sheet music sold millions of copies within a few years, and it would go on to become a seventh-inning-stretch staple in stadiums across the United States.
Tech upgrades ended the song’s run in movie houses by 1911, but it remains an icon of American sport, covered by artists from Frank Sinatra to Bill Murray (in character as Daffy Duck). Yet it wasn’t played at an MLB game until 1934, and it didn’t really take off in the major leagues until Chicago sportscaster Harry Caray began singing it in the 1970s.
Von Tilzer finally made it to a ballgame in the 1920s. But he had already hit a home run.