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They're still belting out his 102-year-old hit

Jack Norworth, the man who penned the classic 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' in 1908, lies largely forgotten in a cemetery not far from Angel Stadium. A new monument celebrates his place in history.

July 12, 2010|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times

During the seventh inning of Tuesday's Major League Baseball All-Star Game, some 45,000 fans at Angel Stadium will stand, stretch and sing a few lines of a 102-year-old song written by a man few of them, if any, could name.

Take me out to the ball game. Take me out with the crowd…


FOR THE RECORD:
Baseball memorial: An article in the July 12 LATExtra section about a new monument to honor Jack Norworth, who wrote the lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," incorrectly stated that the granite marker was 5 feet tall. The marker, installed at Melrose Abbey Memorial Park in Anaheim, is approximately 3 feet tall. —

And then they will sit down not knowing that Jack Norworth, the vaudeville songwriter who in 1908 penned the lyrics to what now amounts to the national anthem of baseball, is buried nearby at Melrose Abbey Memorial Park in Anaheim.

Hardly anyone does. When Orange County author and baseball historian Chris Epting recently went to find Norworth's grave, he was surprised the cemetery's staff didn't know they had more celebrities in residence than they realized.

"They said, ' Carolyn Jones from the "Addams Family" is here,' '' Epting said. "I have nothing against Carolyn Jones, but, c'mon, Jack Norworth wrote a classic. I guess it says a lot about the pecking order of pop culture."

What really bothered Epting, however, was Norworth's gravestone. The flat granite marker didn't note Norworth's place in baseball history and was so badly worn you could barely read the man's name. It didn't speak well for a sport that cherishes tradition.

"It's a great piece of baseball history — of American history," Epting said. "But it's really in bad shape."

On Sunday, a new 5-foot-tall black granite monument was installed at the cemetery to honor Norworth's contribution to baseball. But Norworth doesn't lie underneath it.

It's a long story — as is the story of how "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" became an American staple.

Norworth had never seen a baseball game when he wrote the song's lyrics. He was riding the subway in New York when he saw a billboard for the Polo Grounds, the legendary ballpark where San Francisco's Giants then played. He pulled out a pencil and paper and dashed out the lyrics.

The song was a big hit for the prolific Norworth, who followed it up later that year with another: "Shine On, Harvest Moon."

Norworth didn't see his first baseball game until 1940. And the first time he heard his song performed at a game was in 1958, when the Dodgers, newly arrived from Brooklyn, honored him at the Coliseum during the tune's 50th anniversary. The makers of Cracker Jack presented him with a trophy.

That the song is played at every professional baseball game is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Baseball Hall of Fame dates it to the mid-1970s, when Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, ever the showman, encouraged announcer Harry Caray to serenade the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch. A tradition was born.

Norworth died in 1959 at the age of 80. He was a longtime resident of Laguna Beach, where he founded the city's Little League. Today, teams still compete for the Jack Norworth Trophy — the one he was given the year before his death.

"I played Little League and I still love baseball. But I'm really a history fan," said JP Myers, a 47-year-old blood courier from Diamond Bar who met Epting at a book signing and learned about Norworth's grave. "His song is part of American culture. It's right up there with Happy Birthday."

Myers went to see the faded headstone. "I thought, this is ridiculous. Something has to be done." He created a Facebook page seeking support to erect a new monument to the all-but-forgotten Norworth.

Maria and Charles Sotelo, who operate High Desert Monuments in Hesperia, heard about Myers' effort and offered to make and donate a monument.

"He created something that everybody knows," Maria Sotelo said. "He really deserves something bigger than that little stone."

There was only one problem: The cemetery required that any changes to Norworth's grave be approved by his family. But none could found. So, with donations from two local businesses, an empty grave site was purchased for $5,000.

Now, Norworth has a monument befitting his place in history.

And, at some later date, some unfortunate soul will get a free grave.

Epting says he's been in contact with a charity that helps former ballplayers who've fallen on hard times. He and others involved in the project would like to donate the 6 feet of land underneath Norworth's monument to someone who couldn't afford it.

"It would be a shame to waste the space," Sotelo said.

mike.anton@latimes.com

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