The national pastime has inspired poetry, novels, films, plays and, of course, its share of music. Bob Thompson, the founder of the Baseball Music Project collects works of baseball-inspired music from "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" to a lost John Philip Sousa opera called Angela: or The Umpire’s Revenge (only the libretto exists in the Library of Congress’s archives).
In honor of the MLB playoffs, Thompson -- a trained trumpet player, Yankee fan and foremost baseball musicologist -- shares his top five classical compositions about the national pastime.
1. Thompson’s favorite piece about baseball comes courtesy of his associate director of the Baseball Music Project, Fred Sturm. The work, Forever Spring is in nine movements, each one capturing a vignette from well-known baseball tomes like Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer. “It just captures the essence of the game in its purity. It’s a 25-minute tour de force,” says Thompson.
2. Bernard Malamud’s The Natural inspired the 1984 movie of the same title, which begot Randy Newman's classic orchestral score. “If there is a place in the universe where music, baseball and cinema intersect, well, Randy Newman’s standing at the middle of it,” Thompson says. Newman’s score was nominated for an Academy Award. “James Horner’s music for Field of Dreams is performed all the time. It doesn’t quite resonate with me to the level of The Natural,” says Thompson, “but it’s beautifully evocative.”
3. Ernest Thayer’s poem Casey at the Bat has found many iterations since it was published in 1888, but Thompson’s favorite is the 1953 opera The Mighty Casey, by former Juilliard president and baseball fanatic, William Schuman. “There have been a lot of versions,” he says, “but this was the first, and to have somebody of Schuman’s stature writing about it makes it stand out.”
4. John Philip Sousa may be America’s greatest writer of marches, but he was also a pretty good pitcher in his youth. It seems destined that his two interests would combine in his 1923 march, The National Pastime. “What’s really interesting about that work is it was commissioned by the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis,” Thompson says. “Sousa being a big baseball fan was happy to do it.”
5. Of all the pieces of music Thompson has discovered, J.R. Blodgett’s “The Baseball Polka” deserves special attention. “It’s the first piece of music that was written about baseball,” he says.