Baseball and music from Denny McLain to Bob Dylan

Denny McLain had a season in 1968 that will surely never be duplicated by a pitcher again. The right-handed starter had a record of 31-6, 1.96 ERA and 28 complete games for the world champion Detroit Tigers. He followed that up with a 24-9 record in 1969. His win total led the entire major leagues in 1968 and the American League in 1969. Alas, by 1971, McLain was washed up, having led the majors in losses with a 10-22 record for the Washington Senators and a manager, Ted Williams, who was less than thrilled to have him.

Whoo-ee, ride me high

In 1968, however, McLain was riding high and marched to his own drummer. Eccentric, hot-tempered, outspoken and difficult were words used to describe him. McLain didn’t always show up at the ballpark when he wasn’t scheduled to pitch. He drank around 60-70 bottles of Pepsi per week. He loved the night life. After pitching two innings in the All-Star Game, before the game was even over he hopped on a flight to Las Vegas. Late in the season, the New York Yankees visited Tiger Stadium as Mickey Mantle was making his farewell tour. McLain and catcher Jim Price conspired to serve Mantle an easy fastball so he could hit a home run. When the next batter, Joe Pepitone, signaled where he wanted a fastball, McLain fired one at his head.

The Tigers tolerated these idiosyncrasies as long as McLain was racking up wins. What McLain seemed to love most was playing the Hammond organ. He saw himself as a musician first and a ballplayer second, hoping to use his fame in baseball as a springboard to a more lucrative musical career. Eventually he parlayed his fame into a recording contract with Capitol Records, releasing Denny McLain at the Organ in 1968 and Denny McLain in Las Vegas in 1969.

Failure’s no success at all

The year 1968 saw the release of The Beatles’ “white album,” Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and my personal favorite, Zal Yanovsky’s wacky Alive and Well in Argentina. Against that backdrop, surely a 24-year-old free spirit like McLain would conjure up something to fit the times, right? Wrong! Excepting an oddball, barely recognizable version of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” he offered up dull lounge tunes like “The Look of Love” and “On a Clear Day.” McLain was surprisingly skillful at the keyboard, with a swinging, loosey-goosey style. Even so, the end result was bland and his albums were not successful commercially or artistically. His recording career flamed out faster than his baseball career.

Then again, I’m not surprised McLain thought he could achieve fame as an organist by dishing out such pabulum. In my experience, athletes generally don’t have adventurous tastes in music or any concept of artistic achievement. Sit in any ballpark and listen to the batters’ walk-up music. You’ll hear a lot of mainstream FM-radio hard rock and rap. No cutting edge bands like Talking Heads or Joy Division. No hot indie bands like The Forty Nineteens or Popular Creeps. It’s also interesting to note there haven’t been an overabundance of great songs about the game. Most have been disposable novelty tunes. Let’s dig into more examples of baseball players making music. Then we’ll look at examples of musicians taking on baseball topics.

It takes two, baby

After winning the 1960 World Series, Pittsburgh Pirates Roy Face and Hal Smith performed locally as a guitar-playing singing duo. One performance was captured on vinyl. 2 Bucs at the Holiday House reveals the audience at the suburban supper club having a good time as the players run through tunes like “Five Foot Two,” “Blue Moon” and “Because of You.” However, the record doesn’t have much of a shelf life beyond a couple of spins.

Baby, it’s the guitar man

This brings us to Bronson Arroyo‘s Covering the Bases CD, released in 2005 after the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. Arroyo was a right-handed pitcher on that team. He pitched for four teams over 2000-17, with a career record of 148-137. His best season was in 2010 when he went 17-10 for the Cincinnati Reds. Mostly, though, his value was as a back-of-the-rotation starter who could be counted on to take his turn. From 2005-13, Arroyo started at least 32 games each year. It was also commonly known he was a pretty fair guitarist.

Unlike McLain, Face or  Smith, it can’t be said Arroyo’s tastes in music are mainstream. The CD includes covers of, inter alios, Goo Goo Dolls, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters. He’s backed by Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez and a host of studio musicians. Surprisingly, although he’s pictured on the cover clutching a guitar, Arroyo is not credited with playing guitar on the CD. Instead he’s credited with vocals and percussion.

Boston, you’re my home

The cover versions are nearly note-for-note replications of the original versions. Arroyo doesn’t make the songs uniquely his own, as, say, Dave Edmunds might. It’s not a bad CD, but it’s not essential either. What’s the point in owning a collection of faithful covers by studio musicians with a ballplayer on vocals when you can own the original versions? The CD closes with a performance of The Standells’ garage-rock classic “Dirty Water” with Red Sox teammates Johnny Damon and Kevin Youkilis joining Arroyo on the shouted “Boston, you’re my home!” refrain. After 2005, Boston wouldn’t be home for Arroyo or Damon. Damon, unrecognizable sans his trademark long black hair and beard, would sign a lucrative deal with the hated rival Yankees.

Cut to the chase

More satisfying efforts can be found by former major league shortstop Chase d’Arnaud and current Chicago Cubs pitcher Steven Brault. In 2016, The Chase d’Arnaud Band released Seven Ghosts, a collection of songs that reveals D’Arnaud as a more-than-capable song writer, singer and guitarist. He writes rich tales of real-life situations with strong melodies and evident craftsmanship. Highlights: “Flies Flirts Floats” and “Good Man Steady Hand,” each with a nice country tinge, the smoking sax on “Cash” and the rocker “I Think She Thinks” with some fun back-and-forth between D’Arnaud and a female vocalist. It was the band’s only release. Today he works as a private trainer in California and it appears his band is no longer extant.

Give my regards to Broadway

Brault has shown he can be a useful left-handed starter. He’s just had trouble staying on the field these past two years. With the Pirates in 2019, he also batted .333 with a homer in 42 at-bats. Then-manager Clint Hurdle spoke of converting the athletic Brault into a pitcher/outfielder. Pirates fans who heard Brault sing the National Anthem occasionally before home games know he had another talent as well. In 2020, he recorded an album of show tunes, A Pitch at Broadway, with some crack session musicians. He sings like a trained professional and has an obvious affection for the genre. Former Pirates teammate Josh Bell adds some spoken-word vocals to “Wait For Me.”

Leaders of the pack

Turning to songs about baseball by real musicians, look no further than The Baseball Project. The band is a conglomeration of members of Dream Syndicate, The Miracle 3 and R.E.M., namely  Steve Wynn, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon. If you like those bands, you’ll like this one, too. They combine solid writing with an indie-rock edge and know of what they sing. Songs tackle topics like Harvey Haddix‘s 12 perfect innings, the untimely death of Mark Fidrych, the forgotten crusade of Curt Flood, Dock Ellis going head-hunting against the Reds and Larry Yount, who injured his arm warming up for his only major-league appearance. Their fourth album is due in 2023.

Ain’t got no home

Not about baseball, per se, is Ry Cooder‘s 2005 Tex-Mex/folk theme album Chavez Ravine about the Mexicans who were displaced from their homes so a public housing project could be built. Dodger Stadium was built instead. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award but to these ears it’s not up to the standards of the slide guitar master’s usual work. However, there’s one stand-out song toward the end in the poignant “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium.” The narrator is a young Mexican who lost his home to the construction and works parking cars at the stadium. He describes to an apparently uninterested stranger what used to be there. His home was at third base, Grandma lived at second base, etc. A mournful horn section kicks in. It might make you wonder what used to be there next time you’re at a ballpark.

Get your bat ready

Finally, fans who purchased copies of Bob Dylan‘s Modern Times in 2006 received a bonus CD of his Theme Time Radio Hour program dedicated to baseball. Leave it to Dylan to uncover a few outstanding baseball songs. Among the throwaway novelty tunes about Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Don Newcombe and Willie Mays, there are many highlights. One hears jump blues, country, gospel, rockabilly and jazz. In some, baseball terms are merely metaphors: Cowboy Copas’ “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” Sister Wynona Carr’s “The Ball Game,” Chance Halladay’s “Home Run.” When Mabel Scott wails “Get your bat ready, baby!” in “Baseball Boogie,” she’s referring to . . . something else.

The best songs in the collection are Sonny Rollins’ bebop instrumental “Newk’s Fadeaway,” Billy Bragg and Wilco’s “Joe DiMaggio’s Done It Again” (lyrics by Woody Guthrie) and the aforementioned “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium.” Two glaring omissions were John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” Dylan wisely eschewed his own mediocre “Catfish,” an outtake about Catfish Hunter from the Desire sessions that later made its way onto The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3.

Like a Rolling Stone

Dylan, by the way, is an astute observer of baseball himself, or at least he was in 2006, when author Jonathan Lethem, writing for Rolling Stone, asked him about his favorite team. Replied His Bobness, “The problem with baseball teams is all the players get traded, and what your favorite team used to be — a couple of guys you really [liked] on the team, they’re not on the team now — and you can’t possibly make that team your favorite team. It’s like your favorite uniform. I mean . . . yeah . . . I like Detroit. Though I like Ozzie [Guillen] as a manager. And I don’t know how anybody can’t like Derek [Jeter]. I’d rather have him on my team than anybody.”

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