20 Rock Songs With Baseball References
Baseball has long been described as America's favorite pastime.
Founded in 1876, Major League Baseball is one of the oldest professional sports leagues in the world and has been captivating fans both in-person and remotely from radios and television screens ever since.
In the late '50s and into the '60s, the league experienced significant expansions and shifts: The Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, while the New York Giants went west to San Francisco. Multiple new teams were also created, like the New York Mets, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins.
A newer cultural phenomenon was bubbling up in America at the same time: rock 'n' roll. With its birth came a brand new era of entertainment, one that young people across the country fell for fast and hard.
Many of rock's biggest names were at just the right age to have grown up listening to games on the radio or to attend a major league game, if they were lucky to live close enough to a stadium. So it makes sense that the sport would find its way into some songs here and there.
We're taking a look at 20 Songs With Baseball References below. Some are direct odes to the sport, others use just a verse or two to describe a particular baseball-related moment, but all pay tribute.
Who hasn't looked back at their perceived glory days? For Bruce Springsteen, those days include a guy he knew way back when in New Jersey: "I had a friend was a big baseball player / Back in high school / He could throw that speedball by you / Make you look like a fool, boy." This friend was a real person named Joe DePugh, who would later confirm that yes, Springsteen's account of him was quite accurate — DePugh excelled at baseball and Springsteen, not so much. "Look, I am just flattered that he put me in [a] song," DePugh told the Waterbury Record in 2012. "Maybe he took a little shot at me, but the song is about how you can't live in the past and I understand that. … The fact that he put me in any song is such a tribute. I mean, who gets that?"
2. "Catfish," Bob Dylan
From: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991 (1991)
"Catfish" didn't appear on any of Bob Dylan's studio albums, only belatedly seeing the light of day as part of this box set of rarities. The song was co-written with Jacques Levy, who collaborated with Dylan on the Desire album. It's a tribute to the pitcher Catfish Hunter, who played for the Kansas City / Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees between 1965 and 1979 and was later posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Though Dylan has never pledged allegiance to any one particular team, he's been known to attend games and once played an entire tour with Willie Nelson in Little League stadiums around the country.)
3. "The Greatest," Kenny Rogers
From: She Rides Wild Horses (1999)
A considerable hit on the Billboard Hot Country Tracks chart, Kenny Rogers' "The Greatest" is about a scenario many kids experience growing up: trying out for a sport, working toward perfection and imagining the rapturous audience: "He makes no excuses / He shows no fears / He just closes his eyes and listens to the cheers."
A big Yankees fan, Paul Simon made sure to slip in a baseball reference in 1968's "Mrs. Robinson": "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? / Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Then Simon wrote an entire song about the sport seven years later. "Night Game" is rather morbid, though: The pitcher suddenly dies as night falls in the bottom of the eighth inning. Decades later, Simon wrote yet another baseball song in 2016, "Cool Papa Bell, " which paid tribute to the center fielder who played Negro League baseball from 1922-46, widely considered one of the fastest players of all time.
5. "Joe DiMaggio Done It Again," Billy Bragg and Wilco
From: Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000)
Back in 1998, Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up to record an album of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs, titled Mermaid Avenue. A second installment arrived two years later, featuring "Joe DiMaggio Done It Again." Guthrie penned the song in 1949, the year DiMaggio became the first player to break $100,000 in annual earnings. Guthrie never recorded the song himself, and all Bragg and Wilco had was the lyrics, but "there was enough fossilized song there for you to judge what kind of song it was," Bragg told Billboard in 2012.
6. "All the Way," Eddie Vedder
From: 2008 Single
Singer Eddie Vedder is reasonably associated with Seattle, the city of Pearl Jam's origin. But Vedder comes from the Midwest and has been a lifelong Cubs fan ever since he went to his first game at Wrigley Field as a kid. Vedder's devotion is so strong he wrote and recorded an entire song dedicated to the Cubs. He first performed "All the Way" in August 2007, and then later recorded it live at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and then released the single in 2008. "Don't let anyone say that it's just a game," Vedder sings. "For I've seen other teams, and it's never the same."
7. "Angels of Fenway," James Taylor
From: Before This World (2015)
Vedder isn't the only one who's paid tribute to his favorite team with an original song. Boston native James Taylor also did it for the Red Sox, after they won their first World Series in more than 85 years. "In 2004, that miracle season, that incredible thing that happened and what it meant to Red Sox fans, and the city of Boston, to all of New England," Taylor told Time magazine in 2015. "It moved me deeply and I knew I wanted to write about it." He even performed the song at Fenway Park.
8. "Sweet Caroline," Neil Diamond
From: 1969 Single
Lyrically, "Sweet Caroline" has nothing to do with baseball: Neil Diamond originally told reporters that it was inspired by President John F. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline. Later he said it was actually about his wife, Marsha, but he couldn't make those syllables work in the melody. Regardless, the song has been adopted as an anthem at Boston's Fenway Park, and it's been played during the eighth inning of every home game since 2002, with fans belting out the words. The origin story of this tradition goes back to 1997 when Amy Tobey, an employee in charge of the ballpark music, played "Sweet Caroline" because she knew someone who had recently had a baby named Caroline.
9. "Right Field," Peter, Paul and Mary
From: No Easy Walk to Freedom (1986)
If there's one song that captures the pleasant purity of baseball, it might be "Right Field" from the Grammy-winning No Easy Walk to Freedom. "Right field, it's easy, you know – you can be awkward and you can be slow. That's why I'm here in right field, just watching the dandelions grow." The song was composed by Willy Welch, a former childhood right-fielder turned author, actor and songwriter. When Peter, Paul and Mary covered the song, Welch's life changed practically overnight, but baseball remained a constant. "The only tattoo I have is a Red Sox logo on my arm," Welch told MassLive in 2022.
10. "Knock It Out of the Park," Sam and Dave
From: 1970 Single
Written by Dave Crawford and Willie Martin, "Knock It Out of the Park" is a classic example of using baseball as a metaphor for another kind of action. "You don't win by getting on the base. Honey, you got to make the score," Sam and Dave sing. "Make sure you don't be fakin' when you say you gonna quit her. Yeah, yeah, you might know your very next friend might be her pinch hitter."
11. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," Chuck Berry
From: After School Session (1957)
"Brown Eyed Handsome Man" was first released as a single in 1956, and then appeared on Chuck Berry's debut album. He wasn't necessarily writing about any specific man, but in the last verse, he makes some references to baseball: "He hit a high fly into the stand. Rounded third, he was headed for home. It was a brown-eyed handsome man." (The song was later covered by the likes of Buddy Holly, Johnny Rivers, Waylon Jennings, Robert Cray, Paul McCartney, and others.)
The subject of this song is the real-life Bill Lee, a famous left-handed pitcher who played for the Boston Red Sox between 1969-78, then the Montreal Expos from 1979-82. A well-decorated athlete who earned himself the nickname "Spaceman" for his take on an "eephus pitch," Lee was maybe even better known for his questionable antics. He often made eccentric statements or acted in strange ways — inspiring Warren Zevon's lyric: "Sometimes I say things I shouldn't."
13. "(I Used to Be a) Brooklyn Dodger," Dion
From: Return of the Wanderer (1978)
A huge star with the Belmonts in the doo-wop era, Dion was ready to look backward by the '70s, using baseball as an analogy. "Yesterday somehow slipped by me. It died like an old forgotten friend," he sings in "(I Used to Be a) Brooklyn Dodger," "Didn't I just turn 16 in May? / Now 35's just around the bend." Dion was born and raised in the Bronx but had a soft spot for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They'd moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
Billy Joel includes several contemporary culture references in "Zanzibar," notably the baseball player Pete Rose and the New York Yankees, who were the World Series champs that year. Then Joel shifts into something a little more suggestive: "Me, I'm trying just to get to second base, and I'd steal it if she only gave the sign. She's gonna give the go-ahead; the inning isn't over yet for me." Joel used the baseball metaphor again for 1982's "Pressure:" "Here you are in the ninth, two men out and three men on. Nowhere to look but inside, where we all respond to pressure."
Alice Cooper was born in Detroit, but his family moved to Phoenix when he was in his early teens. Cooper made his way back to Detroit in 1970 to get his band off the ground, and despite having been away for several years, he continued to follow his home team. He name-checked the Detroit Tigers in 1983's "I Love America," which obviously could not be complete without a baseball reference: "I love the Tigers but I hate the Mets."
As the story goes, Joe Walsh was struggling to come up with the lyrics for an instrumental track. He was mowing the lawn at home in Colorado one day when he looked up, took in the beauty of the Rocky Mountains for a moment and was suddenly inspired. Still, it's not exactly clear why Walsh slipped a baseball reference into "Rocky Mountain Way": "Bases are loaded and Casey's at bat, playin' it play by play – time to change the batter."
17. "Home Run King," Gene Clark
From: Two Sides to Every Story (1977)
Byrds co-founder Gene Clark did not enjoy much solo success, but that didn't mean he wasn't well-respected in the rock community. His fifth solo album started with "Home Run King," which is more political than its title suggests. The song emphasizes the disparity between America's ordinary citizens and those with protection and wealth at the top: "You are either just the newspaper boy or you're either Babe Ruth."
18. "It's Trying to Say (Baseball's On)," The Beach Boys
From: Unreleased Demo
Brian Wilson oversaw the completion of an album dubbed Adult/Child in 1977, but the other Beach Boys vetoed the release and it remained shelved. Bootleg tracks eventually surfaced, including Dennis Wilson's "It's Trying to Say," which is also known as "Baseball's On": "Oh, the baseball season's on, get your season tickets now. Oh, those athletes work so hard. There's a pitch and the bat goes pow." (They later re-recorded "Hey Little Tomboy" from Adult/Child for 1978's M.I.U. Album, before other tracks arrived on the 1993 box set Good Vibrations.)
This era wasn't exactly the happiest. Neil Young was still struggling with the immense fame that Harvest brought in 1972, a reality that hit harder than perhaps he'd expected. There's a melancholic mood to On the Beach, including "For the Turnstiles," which notes that "all the bush league batters are left to die on the diamond" and "in the stands, the home crowd scatters for the turnstiles." It's presumably a commentary on how fame and success seem to have a way of breaking things down in the end, whether in sports or music or anything else.
"Over the years it seemed like sports songs just didn't qualify into the rock 'n' roll lexicon," noted baseball fan John Fogerty told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "There was that unwritten distinction. It was never considered rock 'n' roll." After roughly a decade of being out of the music business, Fogerty decided to flip that idea on its head in 1985 and return with a song — and album – titled "Centerfield." The song is about the sport but it can also easily be interpreted as something of a statement regarding Fogerty's defiant return to music after so many years: "We're born again; there's new grass on the field."
30 Rock Stars and the Sports They Love
Gallery Credit: Jen Austin