Boston Strong: Music to Fans' Ears

Boston Strong: Music to Fans' Ears

By Carl M. Cannon - October 31, 2013

New Englanders awoke this Halloween to the realization that they weren’t just dreaming Wednesday night: The Boston Red Sox really did win their third World Series in the last 10 years.

Much was made in 2004 about how Boston had “reversed the curse”—the curse in question being the one that befell Beantown's beloved franchise after Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees in 1919. But last night was even better than the championships in 2004 or 2007. This victory came at Fenway Park, not on the road, and it occurred six months after the city, and our country, were shaken by the Boston Marathon bombing.

I do mean our country, and even the world. That much “hated” New York team in pinstripes? Their ownership was classy enough to play “Sweet Caroline,” the Red Sox' traditional 8th inning song, at Yankee Stadium the next day. The Los Angeles Dodgers and other teams followed suit, as did organizers of marathons in Germany and Sweden.

Meanwhile, Neil Diamond showed up at his own expense at Fenway Park to sing his famous song in person. He also donated recent royalties to Boston bombing victims, and wrote a new tune, “Freedom Song,” which he performed on July 4 at the Washington Nationals' game.

Singing is a feature of the Fenway experience that has been long under-appreciated outside Red Sox Nation. The tradition dates back more than a century to when John Francis Fitzgerald—known then and now as Honey Fitz—led the “Royal Rooters” in ear-splitting songs either at Mike McGreevey’s 3rd Base Saloon or the ballpark.

Honey Fitz wouldn’t have been doing either activity on this date in the early 1900s, however. For one thing, the baseball season ended earlier a century ago. For another, October 31 was his wife’s birthday, his wife being Josie Hannon Fitzgerald, the maternal grandmother of John F. Kennedy.

In April of this year, when two terrorists’ bombs shattered the tranquility of Patriot's Day, the Red Sox had recently left spring training in Florida to come north. It’s easy to forget now, but they had become something of a civic embarrassment.

In September 2011, the team had spiraled out of the playoff picture in a historic collapse. In 2012, they stumbled to a last place, 93-loss season. It wasn’t just that they lost; it was that the players had become so joyless and conceited, not to mention overpaid, that they were hard to root for.

So what did they do?

First, they retained the core stars still devoted to team play—men such as Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Big Papi. Second, they brought in an even-keeled manager, the Sox’ former pitching coach, who stabilized the pitching staff. Third, they completed the process of replacing their cadre of high-paid 2011 stars with overachieving grinders who cared only about winning—epitomized by growing that ridiculous facial hair that became, along with the distinctive music, the 2013 Red Sox identifying characteristics.

The beards, and the beard-tugging, every baseball fan knows about. But a word must be said about the music: Sure, everyone knows about the soft-rock favorite, “Sweet Caroline.” With its catchy melody and lyrics that are little more than a ditty, it’s a song some people love and others cannot stand. And in 2007, Neil Diamond claimed incongruously that the song’s inspiration was Caroline Kennedy.

This account seems unlikely—the song was written in 1969 when Caroline Kennedy was 11 years old—but this story nonetheless completes a circle begun in the earliest days of the 20th century when another unlikely song was entwined with the Red Sox' fortunes.

As the 1903 season got underway, Boston baseball fans were treated to the sounds of Honey Fitz and the Royal Rooters serenading the team with the words to “Tessie,” a ballad from a popular Broadway musical, “The Silver Slipper.” This was before Fenway Park opened (that occurred in 1912, when Honey Fitz, who twice served as Boston’s mayor, would throw out the first ball) and even before the team was named the Red Sox.

In any event, the Boston nine made the World Series in 1903, playing the Pirates. The Rooters showed up in force, and even took to the railroads to root for their boys on the road. They brought “Tessie” with them.

Tessie, you make me feel so badly.

Why don't you turn around?

Tessie, you know I love you madly.

Babe, my heart weighs about a pound.

Don't blame me if I ever doubt you,

You know I wouldn't live without you.

Tessie, you are the only, only, only.

In Pittsburgh, fueled by alcohol and passion, the Royal Rooters began to ad-lib verses as a way of heckling the Pirates, singing to Pittsburgh star Honus Wagner, for instance, the following version:

Honus, why do you hit so badly?

Take a back seat and sit down

Honus, at bat you look so sadly.

Hey, why don't you get out of town?

Did this bother the Pirates? Evidently it did.

“I think those Boston fans actually won that Series for the Red Sox,” Pittsburgh third baseman Tommy Leach later told baseball writer Lawrence S. Ritter. “We beat them three out of the first four games, and then they started singing that damn ‘Tessie’ song. They must have figured it was a good luck charm, because from then on you could hardly play ball they were singing ‘Tessie’ so damn loud.

“[It] sort of got on your nerves after a while,” Leach added. “And before we knew what happened, we’d lost the World Series.”

That was before “the curse,” however. So in 2004—in an effort to recreate the halcyon days before the Sox traded The Babe—the Boston-based Dropkick Murphys, a Celtic punk rock band, reprised “Tessie.”

"Tessie" is the Royal Rooters rally cry

Tessie is the tune they always sung

Tessie echoed April through October nights…

On the liner notes to their album, the Dropkicks explain what happened next:

“We recorded this song in June 2004 and after giving it to the Red Sox told anyone that would listen that this song would guarantee a World Series victory. Obviously no one listened to us or took us seriously. We were three outs away from elimination in Game 4 at the hands of the Yankees and receiving death threats from friends, family, & strangers telling us to stay away from the Red Sox and any other Boston sports team and get out of town. Luckily for us things turned around for the Red Sox and the rest is history.”

But human history is not a snapshot. It is a crowded ship sailing on uncertain seas. The Fenway faithful were reminded of that reality in Game 2 of the 2013 World Series, when the stadium announcer introduced Boston Marathon bombing victims and their families. Some of them walked out onto the field on prosthetics, which made “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” another Dropkick Murphys song played over the public address system that night, all the more poignant.

“I’m a sailor peg and I lost my leg,” the song begins. “Climbing up the topsails, I lost my leg! I’m shipping up to Boston to find my wooden leg.”

That’s Boston Strong. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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