Baseball: A History of the Walk-Up Song

My friend, Mike Lee, is always giving me something to do.

As a matter of fact, this whole blog thing I'm chained to every day is his doing. You can thank him for what ends up in your inbox most days. Or, blame him. Pick your poison.

So, on Thursday, August 30, Mike tells me I need to blog about a history of walk-up songs in baseball. I suppose he figured that, since I'm a baseball fan, and since I dabble in music, it would be a natural exercise for someone like me. You know...combine my two loves. Kind of like peas and carrots...hammer and nails...Abbot and Costello.

So, it got me to thinking. When did walk-up songs become part of baseball culture. I'm well aware of the ballpark organ, and I always enjoyed Harry Caray's 7th inning performance of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", especially when his blood alcohol content was soaring. Of course, now, we have the 7th inning singing of "God Bless America" in some ballparks, which has become more an anti-Taliban patriotic anthem than a passionate prayer for God's blessings.

But, I digress.

Both my sons - Griffin and Penn - play baseball. One in college, and one in high school. The walk-up song has become, to them, as important as whether they wear their pant legs at the knee or gathered at the ankle. The first is orthodox old-school. The latter - an imitation of any number of major league ball players. The same goes for the bill of their cap. Flat and cocked to one side is cool; bent and pulled down low is not. Like their uniform, I've seen them labor over a walk-up song for days, and they, thankfully, ask my opinion. It goes something like this:

"Hey, Dad, I've got a great walk-up song for this year. Wanna hear it?"

"Yeah, I suppose. Who sings it?"

"It doesn't matter. You've never heard of them." (Red flag #1)

"Does anyone else use it?"

"No, I don't think so." (Red flag #2)

And, so, the song begins. I try to imagine my son walking to the plate while the cacophony of what I'm hearing plays.

"Hmmm...", I say. "You sure you want to come out to that?"

I try to imagine their mother sitting in the stands with the other mothers, talking of whatever it is that mothers talk about during a game - fabrics, shoe sales, and the accursed mother who never works a shift in the concessions stand. I picture her in my mind, as her focus turns from shoe sales to the game, when her son strides to the plate, and the song begins to play. I snap back into reality, and for future self-preservation, I suggest a continued search for the elusive walk-up song.

It's clear. The walk-up song is important. It's a statement. It describes everything from attitude to persona to intent. It says as much about the player as his actual play. Like a last name, the walk-up song is who you are.

Here I come. Hear my song. This is what I'm saying to you and everyone here.

According to Kate Kilpatrick, in her article "Baseball's Brand New Soundtrack", "walk-up songs help mold players' identities on and off the field." She goes on to say,

Rare is the player today who doesn't care about his theme music. In a sport where every swing, every statement, every gesture is deconstructed, analyzed and post-analyzed, walk-up music has become an area of growing scrutiny among both players and fans.

The choice of walk-up song might seem a minor detail, a bit of filler shtick like kiss cams and wiener races, but for many players their music is anything but an afterthought...The music selection is especially critical for closers, who show up at the most intense, make-or-break moments of the game. His appearance calls for something theatrical, something aggressive and fearless that matches the attack mode he must bring into the game. High-energy heavy metal and hard rock are favorites.

The one person, though, who Kilpatrick credits for starting the musical statements in the game is Nancy Faust, a 65 year-old organist who retired in 2010 after 41 years with the Chicago White Sox. She began using the organ to make subtle statements about players and the game. Kilpatrick states,

Faust got more creative and cheeky with her organ over the years. If fans told her a certain player was dating Madonna, she'd play the "Material Girl." If a rookie player stepped up to the plate, he might hear "Who Are You?" by The Who.

While Faust was making comedy and commentary in Chicago, the Padres were trying to find a way to create some fan excitement and generate corporate sponsorship of the team in San Diego. Their closer, Trevor Hoffman, was the best thing they had going, and the San Diego management wanted to capitalize on that. They came up with the idea to play AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" whenever Hoffman came into the game from the bullpen.

The idea of the Mission being just behind the outfield walls and our names being the Padres and having a pitcher come in to a song talking about fire and brimstone was quite ironic, and the bells in that song sounded a lot like the Mission bells that played in that area. Also being a classic rock song it was perfect for the San Diego fan base.

Others emulated the success that the Padres created with their closer. Probably the most famous, and most appropriate, is Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees closer. His song is "Enter Sandman" by Metallica. But, contrary to other players in the game, Kilpatrick says he care less.

For the longest time Mariano couldn’t even tell you the name of the song or who it was by. He really could’ve cared less and still doesn’t care. If he came out to Christian music he’d probably be happier.

So, a long story to say that a witty, 65 year-old organist is what started the phenomenon in baseball known as the walk-up song. And, she's the one responsible for my late night discussions with my sons as I try to extol the virtues - and the importance - of making their momma happy, even if it means choosing a different song to play as they walk up to the plate.

Baseball. Music. What odd bedfellows you've become.

Here's a great site - www.mlbplatemusic.com -that keeps you up to date on current walk up songs for MLB players. Search by team and listen to song. I highly recommend it! You can also follow them on twitter - @mlbplatemusic

Baseball's Most Memorable Walk-up Songs

From Bleacher Report, the Top 25 Walk-up Songs in the MLB

Sports Illustrated writer Joe Lemire offers a great run down of the decisions that go into choosing a song, as well as some pranks played on players.

6 Comments

Filed under Commentary

6 responses to “Baseball: A History of the Walk-Up Song

  1. You have the same question I’ve been trying to find the answer to: “When did walk-up songs become part of baseball culture.” I only started noticing walk-up somngs in the past few years. I’m sure eventually someone will write a history of it!

    • Rebecca:

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I do think “commentary” music started with Trevor Hoffman, and then caught on from there. Still. there’s no definitive answer for when walk-up songs became part of the game. If I could get an all-expense paid trip to every MLB ballpark (and some minor league, too) to interview the game operations staffs, I’d be happy to write it!

      Think you could find a benefactor for me?

  2. Tommy Thompson

    So why only baseball? Why not walk up songs for the 3BC Staff whenever they step up to the mike for announcements on Sunday morning? It could be interesting.

  3. Pingback: 6-String Salvo September 7, 2012 « Mike Lee

  4. Beverly Garrity

    Mark, I enjoyed your article on walkup songs. My daughter and Penn went to Pre-School and Kindergarten together in Hattiesburg. As usual my son and I were trying to pick out a new walkup song for this season and I started reading this article and when I saw the names Griffin and Penn I scrolled back up to see who wrote it!!!!!! Those are very unique names! We spend almost as much time picking out songs as we do practicing!!!! It’s hard to believe Lindsey (my daughter) and Penn are seniors! Hope y’all are all doing well, Beverly Garrity

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