Take Me Out to the Ball Game: A Musical Classic

Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Courtesy of MGM/Warner Bros.

Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly star as a pair of baseball players who moonlight as vaudeville comedians in Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

It’s late in the first decade of the 1900s when part-time vaudeville comedians Eddie O’Brien (Gene Kelly) and Dennis Ryan (Frank Sinatra) make the way to Florida to train for the upcoming season. When they’re not performing vaudeville, they are the shortstop and second baseman for the Chicago Wolves, respectively. A lot of humor comes shortly after their arrival when they don’t realize that K.C. Higgins (Esther Williams), their new owner, is a female. O’Brien just lets it loose upon trying to woo her as his next girl. From here on out, there’s a solid mix of comedy and humor. I absolutely love that Higgins coaches O’Brien into being a better batter. Like here’s this woman who knows more about hitting the ball than the shortstop does!

There’s no way that Eddie O’Brien and K.C. Higgins would be able to go out with each other in this era. Not with all the scrutiny and charges of favoritism that would come with a player dating an owner. The fact that both Eddie and Dennis go after K.C. speaks to how important it is for these films to have a love story let alone a love triangle. If you think Dennis is going to end the film without anyone, don’t worry as a fan, Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garrett), has an interest in him.

I can’t say I’m surprised that there’s also a subplot in the film dealing with gambling on professional baseball. Funny enough, this is one of those situations that predates the Chicago Black Sox and the movie’s fictional team plays in Chicago! When you know as much about baseball history as I do. it’s one of those moments where you can’t help but appreciate the coincidence. Obviously, there’s no Shoeless Joe Jackson on the team and it’s not like any of the players here are guilty. It’s more that the ruthless Joe Lorgan (Edward Arnold) has so much money invested in the Wolves losing that he’ll do anything to earn the big bucks.

The classic baseball song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” kicks off the film makes another appearance when Williams reprises during her one swimming number. The first rendition of “Strictly U.S.A.” offers a show stopping number just shy of an hour into the film. I’m wondering if this would be the second-act opener on Broadway if not the end of the first act? In any event, it’s such an entertaining show-stopper. We’ll see it again during the finale where the song also gets meta.

Busby Berkeley may be credited as the film’s director but Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen did much of the work. While Kelly and Donen are credited with the story, the film is also a remake of a 1930 musical, They Learned About Women.  Meanwhile, musical star Esther Williams became a late addition to the film’s cast. Both actresses (Kathryn Grayson, Judy Garland) she replaced get a mention during a song that bookends the film at the end. As such, there’s not really an opportunity to feature her in an aquatic set piece. Behind the camera, producer Arthur Freed does what he can to make fans happy. Alas, the film’s plot doesn’t really work for aquatics. We get a swimming sequence at the hotel where Williams sings and that’s it. It’s a shame because this film is my first introduction to the work of Esther Williams.

If you’re a baseball fan, one of the songs, “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg,” is a clear reference to the famous poem about the Chicago Cubs infield. I may be a St. Louis Cardinals fan but give credit where credit is due. You can’t make a film about the early years of baseball without referencing the era. Speaking of Goldberg, one thing I love about the film is that it offers the rare opportunity to see a Jewish actor, Jules Munshin, playing a Jewish character during Hollywood’s Golden Age. The fact that Goldberg is a violinist-turned-baseball player speaks to how many Jews learn to play the violin. Anyway, casting non-Jews as Jews was one of the unwritten rules in Hollywood during the Golden Age. Unfortunately, it feels like this unwritten rule is very much in effect today.

One quick historical note: the film’s early 1900s setting depicts K.C. Higgins comes into ownership of the fictional Chicago Wolves after the previous owner died. This actually predates the first female owner in professional baseball in real life. Helene Hathaway Britton became the first woman to own a Major League Baseball franchise following the deaths of Frank Robison (her father) and Stanley Robison (her uncle). She owned the St. Louis Cardinals from 1911-1917 when she sold the franchise. Just in case you were wondering about Nat Goldberg, he did not predate the first Jewish baseball player. Hank Greenberg may have become the first Jewish baseball star but Lip Pike was the first Jewish baseball player and is only one of seven Jewish managers in baseball history.

Kelly, Sinatra, Garrett, Munshin, and Donen would all reteam in On the Town, released by MGM in December 1949.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is an entertaining and enjoyable star-studded musical comedy with baseball as the film’s backdrop.

Bonus Features

  • Deleted Musical Numbers
    • “Baby Doll”
    • “Boys and Girls like You and Me”
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Cartoon: The Cat and the Mermouse.

DIRECTOR: Busby Berkeley
SCREENWRITERS: Harry Tugend and George Wells
CAST: Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, with Betty Garrett, Edward Arnold, Jules Munshin

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released Take Me Out to the Ball Game in theaters on April 13, 1949. The film is available on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive Collection.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.