Take Him Out To The Ball Game

Frank Sinatra sat on a train, grinning from ear to ear. Behind him was a singing engagement; up ahead, a baseball stadium. Sinatra turned to his seatmate, positively beaming.


Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin
© 1978 Bernie Abramson / MPTV.net

"Gee," he said, "it's gonna be great to get back in that old ball game again."

The scene took place not in real life, but in the 1949 musical comedy Take Me Out To The Ball Game, in which Sinatra played an eager, naive ballplayer prone to dropping the word gee and saying things like, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to be married to a girl who played baseball?"

But even offscreen, Frank Sinatra and baseball have a long history together. Take Yankee Stadium, the site of Major League Baseball's 2008 All-Star Game and a park famously known as "The House That Ruth Built." That baseball shrine in the Bronx is also The House That Sinatra Serenaded - because for decades, every Yankee win has ended with the strains of "Theme from New York, New York" over the stadium public address system.

And the Yankees hardly have an exclusive claim to Sinatra. Go across the country, to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and stick your head into the office of Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Famer whose walls are covered with framed photos of the famous and infamous in every field: Sandy Koufax, Don Rickles, Presidents Reagan and Bush . . . Nobody has as many photos on Lasorda's wall as Sinatra, and nobody's photos are as big. "He knew baseball," Lasorda says simply.

In fact, a story from the 1980s has an angry Dodger player trashing Lasorda's office and demanding to be traded - only to be stopped dead in his tracks, just before heaving a chair against the wall, by a teammate who cautioned him with words to the effect of, "Not Frank. You don't want to mess with Frank."

Sinatra had a lifetime love affair with America's pastime - which, after all, originated in some tellings in Sinatra's own hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey. He sang about it, from his and Gene Kelly's version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"from the film of the same title, to the melancholy "There Used to be a Ballpark," one of the most affecting of his 1970s recordings.

But Sinatra didn't just play a second baseman in Take Me Out to the Ball Game - he also played second base in real life, on a late -40's softball team he formed called The Swooners. Other players included actors Anthony Quinn and Barry Sullivan, and songwriters Jule Style and Sammy Cahn - along with a bevy of cheerleaders that could put the Laker Girls to shame: Virginia Mayo, Shelly Winters, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Maxwell all donned Swooner garb at one time or another.

When he wasn't on the diamond himself, Sinatra befriended players, coaches, and managers alike. A story in Bill Zehme's book The Way You Wear Your Hat, told in Sinatra's own words, makes it clear that even in a joint like Toots Shor's, where he always hung out with the rich and famous, a legendary baseball player carried special cachet:

"I went over there and [Toots] said, -Just wait right here at the bar - let's have a drink. -About fifteen minutes later, in comes Mr. Crosby, who had just gotten back from Europe. We had been friends for years, so we had a little touch. Another person comes in - Jack Dempsey, the famous boxer. I looked at Toots and said, -This is a frame-up! -He said, -Of course it is. I wanted all you bums to come and have dinner with me tonight. . .

"But that wasn't enough. Now Babe Ruth walks in the room! When Babe Ruth walked in, I damned near wet my pants. Because I'd never met him before. I knew Dempsey and certainly Bing - but Ruth! . . . As we walked through the room, everyone in the entire place stood up and applauded. I mean, they just stood and cheered and hollered because the four of us walked into the room at the same time. It's something I will never, never, never forget for as long as I breathe."

Later, Joe DiMaggio became a friend; so did 60's Yankee Joe Pepitone; so did Reds catcher Johnny Bench, whom he teased by calling "Johnny Chair." The famously combative Leo Durocher, who managed the Dodgers, Giants, and Cubs, was a poker pal for years, and one of the pallbearers at the funeral of Sinatra's mother.

In his book Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher titled one chapter "The Eye-Talian Street Singer and a Couple of Other Heavy Hitters." Durocher remembered Sinatra, from his box just off the field and just behind the manager's usual spot, riding one umpire so mercilessly that the ump finally threw Durocher out of the game, figuring that the steady stream of abuse was coming from the famously hot-headed manager in the dugout, not the classy crooner in the front row of the stands.

Another time, Durocher says, his pitcher Roger Craig was getting shelled by opposing hitters when the phone in the dugout rang. "How long you going to leave that bum in there?" asked Sinatra - who at the time was following the game from a transatlantic radio in London, five thousand miles and eight time zones away. How he persuaded the switchboard operator to put his call through to the dugout, a major violation of protocol, remained a mystery.

(Sinatra was such a celebrated baseball fan that novelist Don DeLillo dropped him into his delightful Underworld prologue, which takes place at a celebrated 1951 playoff game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Durocher's New York Giants.)

Durocher was reminded just how closely Sinatra followed the game when he introduced the singer to the colorful young Yankee player Joe Pepitone in 1964. "Frank, I want you to meet Joe Pepitone of the Yankees," said Durocher - and according to Pepitone's book, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud, Sinatra immediately made it clear that he knew exactly who the third-year player was.

"I know he's with the . . . Yankees, Leo," Sinatra said. "Hits left handed, plays first base better than anyone the Yankees ever had, and makes the All-Star team every year when he's brand new."

Durocher also introduced Sinatra to Tommy Lasorda, back when the former ballplayer was still a coach with the Dodgers. "I was brought in to meet him at a restaurant in Chicago," says Lasorda, "and he said to me, -You should be the Dodgers- manager. 'I said, -One day, god willing . . .' And he said, -When you do become manager, I'll come sing the National Anthem at your first game."

Lasorda had his doubts about how genuine the offer might be, so he went to a Sinatra aide. "I asked him, -Does he really mean it?" -says Lasorda. "And he said, -When Frank says something, you can put it in the bank." Sure enough, Sinatra sang at Dodger Stadium on April 7, 1977, Lasorda's first game as Dodger manager.

When the Dodgers played the Yankees in the 1977 World Series, Sinatra's loyalties were clearly with the West Coast team. He attended three of the games, and at one point in the series showed up at Patsy's Restaurant in New York City, where he was warned that the upstairs room was full of Yankees celebrating their win earlier that day. "Good," he said. "Tell them the British are coming."

He then told manager Billy Martin that he'd "done a great job managing these monkeys to victory," and admitted to Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent, "Kid, you cost me a lot of money, but you played a great game." Before he left, the die-hard Dodger fan even picked up the check for the Yankees' victory party.

Which is not to say that his Dodger pal wanted to hear about his fraternizing with the enemy. "Once he invited Billy Martin to dinner," says Lasorda, "and the next time we were out, he started talking to me about Billy Martin. I finally looked at him and said, -Hey, when we're together, do I talk to you about Sergio Franchi? Then don't talk to me about Billy Martin!'"

After failing twice in the previous three years, the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the 1981 World Series. Afterwards, four of their players went into a Hollywood recording studio and cut a 45 rpm single- "We Are the Champions" on one side, "New York, New York" on the other. Their version of the latter song may have been lamentable, particularly when compared to Sinatra's, but the players made their point: Frank Sinatra belonged not just to the Yankees, but to all of baseball.

 

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe to the Sinatra.com Newsletter
By submitting your email address you acknowledge and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use and are okay with receiving news, updates, special offers and occasional marketing messages from us and our affiliates.