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Talkin' baseball with Terry Cashman

The musician reflects on his famous song about Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

August 11, 2009|JERRY CROWE

FROM NEW YORK — Terry Cashman left no discernible mark on baseball history as a minor league pitcher.

As a songwriter, he left a lasting impression.

Cashman's lilting, nostalgia-tinged ode to the national pastime, "Willie, Mickey & 'The Duke' (Talkin' Baseball)," helped ease fans through the pain of a two-month strike in 1981 and later was rewritten and recorded more than two dozen times by Cashman to customize the lyric for every major league team.

Several versions are available through iTunes and Cashman, 68, never tires of talking about a song that managed to strike a chord in listeners even if it never cracked the top 40.

When he recorded the tune in early '81, the singer-songwriter figured he'd never write another song about sports.

Since then, he has written almost nothing else.

"I really thought that would be it," Cashman says over breakfast at a diner near his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. "I mean, how many things can you write about baseball?"

So many, it turns out, that a musical based on Cashman's songs, "Once Upon a Pastime," is in development.

Cashman, dubbed "The Balladeer of Baseball" by New York Daily News sports columnist Bill Madden, has written songs about Cooperstown, Earl Weaver, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, the Boston Red Sox, rain delays and infield practice. He has penned tunes about other sports and teams too, such as golf, the New England Patriots and the New York City Marathon. Last year, he wrote a song about Manny Ramirez titled "Manny Being the Man."

But none ever hit like "Willie, Mickey & 'The Duke.' "

Cashman credits a lyric that transports fans to a simpler time, a video that does the same and, not least, fortunate timing.

"The song is really about me," he says. "It's about growing up in those times and what went on. The lyrics are about the '50s. It's about what life was like in that time, and of course the unusual situation where you had three teams in one city and three Hall of Fame center fielders playing at the same time."

The center fielders, of course, were Willie Mays of the New York Giants, Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Cashman, born Dennis Minogue, grew up a few miles from the Polo Grounds in Washington Heights. He played in the Detroit Tigers organization and, when not playing baseball, sang in a doo-wop group called the Chevrons. Once, he says, he missed out on a chance to appear on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" because he was away at spring training with the Tigers.

After a brief minor league career -- "I could throw a fastball down the middle that kids here couldn't touch," he says, "but in the minors those guys would hit it for a rocket" -- he turned again to music, writing and recording as Terry Cashman.

He co-wrote "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," a chart-topping hit for Spanky & Our Gang, and co-produced albums for Jim Croce until Croce's death in a plane crash in 1973.

Later, he and his friends formed a record company.

It was as a record executive that Cashman was approached by a songwriting friend who'd written a tune about baseball and asked Cashman to release it. Needing a B-side, Cashman says he was inspired by a photograph shot at an Old-Timers Day game at Shea Stadium in 1979. It showed Mays, Mantle, Snider and Joe DiMaggio walking toward home plate from center field.

The next morning, Cashman decided that DiMaggio was of an earlier era and that the song should be about Mays, Mantle and Snider. He wrote it, he says, in about 20 minutes.

Described by People magazine as "a maddeningly infectious paean to those simpler times before free agents and George Steinbrenner," the song takes listeners from the 1950s into the 1980s while naming dozens of players.

"Those kinds of things are hard to write," notes former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, "because there's a danger in being too sentimental on one side and a bit too straightforward on the other. Cashman seemed to hit it just right."

Cashman thought so too.

"When I wrote it," he says, "I knew it was good. When I recorded it, I knew it was something special because the musicians were excited about it. It was something that touched them."

Released near the start of the 1981 season, the song took off during the baseball strike that summer.

With no fresh highlights to show, a TV producer in New York made a video of the song played over clips of Mays, Mantle, Snider and other players named in the song.

Before long, several teams had commissioned Cashman to customize the words to feature their players and the songwriter was asked to sing his song live in stadiums from coast to coast.

Rene Lachemann, manager of the Seattle Mariners, pulled Cashman aside one night and told him, "You're the only good thing that's happened to baseball this whole year."

For the baseball-loving Cashman, it was music to his ears.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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