Ian Whitcomb is an Englishman and a greatly talented pianist, composer, lyricist, singer, writer, and historian of popular music. He has a weekly radio show on KCRW, Wednesdays at 2 p.m., and recently he rhapsodized over the air about a baseball game he'd seen between the Dodgers and the Pirates--his first visit to an American ballpark.
Baseball's origins lie in the English games of cricket and rounders. Cricket is a highly respectable game played by gentlemen in crisp white shirts and slacks and viewed by spectators possessed of such exquisite aplomb that booing the umpire would be simply out of the question. It embodies the essence of British restraint; a single match might last for several days before the teams have agreed upon who has won. Rounders is a primitive version of baseball, played mostly, I've been told, by English schoolgirls.
The attitude of many Englishmen toward our national sport, while not exactly condescending, seems to suggest that cricket is the real thing, rounders is a jolly old romp, and baseball is a rather typically American vulgarization of the two.
I was delighted that Whitcomb, far from being even remotely condescending, seemed entranced with the entire experience--the stadium, the fans, the hot dogs (mustard, catsup and onions included), the vendors, the Cracker Jack, and, of course, the game itself. As a writer--an extraordinarily good writer, I must add--he took particular pleasure in some of the language of baseball.
He was fascinated by the number of terms that have spilled over from baseball into everyday usage: "getting to first base," "pinch hitting," "out of left field," "in the ballpark" and "switch hitter." ("Of course, when they brought that one up, I at once thought of West Hollywood and so forth," he added as a bit of local color.)
Whitcomb's first book, "After the Ball, Pop Music From Rag to Rock," was published by Simon & Schuster in 1972. Every once in a while, a book makes me think rather vaguely that I'd like some day to meet its author. This was one of them. I phoned KCRW after hearing his baseball discussion these many years later, and, by George, I did meet him. I got a tape of his show, and he gave me a copy of his most recent book, "Rock Odyssey." My interest in rock and roll has been limited largely to a loathing so intense that the "PLANG!" of an electric guitar causes a spontaneous reflex action driving my hand to the "off" switch.
I can't say I'm becoming a rock fan, but Whitcomb has managed to inject flesh and blood and sensitivity into what I had grumpily seen as nothing but electronic cerebricide. Through "Rock Odyssey," I'm learning enough about this noise to become not merely interested in but almost sympathetic to rock. Because I don't really enjoy being alienated from such a dominant social force of our time, I'm grateful for that.
At Dodger Stadium, "we got to sing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,' " he said, and then he informed us that "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was written by Albert Von Tilzer, words by Jack Norworth. (Again, he's a historian of popular music.)
"It really warmed my heart to hear 50,000 people, not singing Rod Stewart or Michael Jackson--well, actually, you cahn't sing these songs, my goodness! Well anyway, they were singing--young and old were singing, and they knew all the words, although they changed one line to 'Dodgers'--they were singing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.' From 1909! Gosh, was I thrilled!"
He had a recording, which he then played on the air, of old Albert Von Tilzer himself, singing his song in 1940 to a crowd of a hundred thousand wildly cheering baseball fans.
Being both a word man and a historian of popular music, Whitcomb was jostled mentally from a balk committed by the Pirates' pitcher to the song "If You Knew Susie." Susie, you may recall, was anything but a shrinking violet: "We went riding, she didn't balk. Back from Yonkers, I'm the one who had to walk!"
The average baseball fan won't leap from a balk to the delightfully salacious Susie, but Whitcomb is obviously among the army of us who get our concentration scattered by such random associations. Our mental peregrinations aren't always profitable, but they're usually pleasant.
"By the way," he says on the tape, "Fernando bagged a victory over Pittsburgh 2 to 1 in that particular match--er, game. I shall have to learn and to understand the language."
Baseball has a rich and wonderful language. Whitcomb's a cinch to have it shagged before you can say seventh-inning stretch.