What Walk-Up Music Reveals about Baseball

A good song at the ballpark can be really uplifting. (via Keith Allison & Michelle Jay)

In school, when teachers would have students answer basic questions on the first day of class as an icebreaker, I rolled my eyes probably harder than I needed to when an answer to “What couldn’t you live without?” would be “Music.”

This isn’t to say that I don’t love curating playlists and it’s not to say that I haven’t marveled at and coveted the way Whitney Houston could put passion into her incredible vocals. I even got it when the classmate was a musician. But the insufferable part of high school me couldn’t connect an understanding of the way music was so inextricably linked to the fabric of people to the way high schoolers clung to pop bands or a tween connection to My Chemical Romance.

But I was wrong, obviously. There exists a strong link between almost all cultural phenomena and even our most mundane tasks. Heck, there exists a link between almost any two spheres that humans engage. Pick two at random, like employment and food: When I was little and helped my mom at the snack bar at my brother’s baseball games, the other kids and I were each allotted a hot dog, and we’d argue over the correct toppings. (Turns out, we were Twitter before Twitter was Twitter.) In a far less innocent example, politicians often go through great lengths to be photographed and seen at “down to earth” restaurants or with hashtag-relatable foods.)

And as we wade through a time where links between sports and other significant cultural phenomena–like, oh, I don’t know, politics–are refuted by some and desperately made clear by others in an unending tug of war, the interest in finding where society’s most meaningful spheres intersect is amplified because it tells us about both.

Music and sports are two of those spheres. Tracing the ways these two intersect is not only a fun exercise in psychology and history, it’s also a reminder of baseball’s humanity. Baseball and its players are not protected from outside influence, even if it is comforting to pretend so sometimes when we all we want is a break from the harshness. We wouldn’t love it so much if it weren’t.

Music is a revealer of truths and truths are revealed in music. That includes baseball and the walk-up music of its players.

The concept of walk-up music was born in the audio booth at White Sox Park, as it was called in 1970. The story of its origins are often told: From organist Nancy Faust came what would be the foundation of modern walk-up music. Faust chose songs that connected to the players. “Who Are You” would be played for a rookie, or “Like a Virgin” would be chosen for a player who was known to be dating Madonna. Faust used her music to give additional commentary to the game, almost like a second set of announcers.

Faust’s method to ballpark music has carried on. One of my earliest baseball memories is a manager getting tossed at Camden Yards in the early 2000s and the booth responding by throwing on Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much.” It was both simultaneously the sickest own of all time and a reminder of the impact of the creativity and fun that came from Faust’s fingers because, as it turns out, that song in that situation was the brainchild of Faust, too.

Faust’s knack for connecting songs to people and events even thrusted the chorus of Steam’s 1969 song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” into the veins of sports from then until now. She had played the song before, but it hadn’t garnered such a notable response until 1977. When Faust played the song during a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals, White Sox players flexed their muscles and fans sang along as the Royals pitcher the Sox had knocked out headed to the dugout.

The tradition continued with the Sox and spread across sport lines. If you were at Fenway in 2007 for the ALCS to hear the ballpark break out in song, that was because of Nancy. Or if you have been at just about any NCAA championship game and sang it when your favorite team’s victory became imminent, it was Nancy who made that expression of togetherness and elation possible.

Singing Steam’s song is an expression of the immediate moment, but it’s also a connection to baseball’s rich history — just as the Chicago Cubs still have a guest each game sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” 17 years after Harry Caray, who introduced the custom at Comiskey Park with Faust’s help and his happy, loose demeanor, passed. Even now, there’s still excitement and controversy over who is handed the microphone to carry on the honor.

The modern-day versions of Faust’s work include playing the “middle fingers up, tell ‘em boy bye” refrain to Beyonce’s song “Sorry” or Kendrick Lamar’s chorus “sit down, be humble” from “Humble” after a strikeout. As video boards dictate fans’ cheers to them now, and the PA systems project manufactured claps, the creativity behind the songs chosen is still unmistakably Faust’s.

That creativity now, however, doesn’t end at the door to the audio room. Players may have been  choosing their own walk-up songs as early as the mid-1980s, definitively since the Mariners did it in 1993. That is one of the few ways players are allowed to show personality on the field, but the strategy behind the choices has other driving factors. By my count there are five different types of walk-up song: the mood affector, the statement, the joke, the sing-along and the superstition.

The statement, or the personality walk-up song, is probably the most straightforward. Players often choose songs that they find to be a core part of themselves. Sometimes that means a rap song that touches on the trials of making it to the big leagues, like when Torii Hunter used a clip from Lil’ Wayne’s feature on Rick Ross’ “Luxury Tax” with the lyrics “I couldn’t play baseball at all But now every day of my life, I ball.” Hunter told MLB.com, “It’s something that pertains to me. People told me that I wasn’t going to play baseball when I was coming up.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Another type of statement walk-up song has a religious theme, more specifically, Christianity. For the purpose of full disclosure, I have to admit that when Daniel Murphy walks up to a Christian rock song usually in the sixth inning, I lose it. Not because I mean any disrespect a religion, but because the mix of something that is usually reserved for clean-cut churches on Sunday and has such power (enough, in Murphy’s case, to justify bigoted views of homosexuality) seems out of place on a baseball field where men roll around in dirt.

But the genre is far from uncommon. When he was with the Yankees, John Ryan Murphy walked up to “Give Me Your Eyes” by Brandon Heath, who found out and tweeted him about it. The two had lunch together, and now consider themselves friends. Basically, walk-up songs are better than Tinder. But the statements that Christian walk-up songs make are also interesting for the way they defy the expectation of uniformity and limited shows of personal belief. Christianity, if looking specifically through the lens  of the walk-up song, is one of the few personal beliefs that are okay to express in a major league  clubhouse.

While most players uphold the standard of conformity that their forefathers have imposed on them,  most players also enjoyed the encouragement and relaxed restrictions of Players Weekend. Walk-up songs are a sample of what Players Weekend provides. The players who are changing their music from week to week seem to be those who most enjoy this aspect of the walk-up song. Whatever they are bumping to, whatever they identify with, is what goes. That is, when frequent changes aren’t a result of superstition.

Baseball is a monster land with unbridled superstitions lurking at every corner. Superstitions form when routine gets turned up a notch. But it’s a product of what’s beautiful about baseball. With more downtime between action, baseball players have time to think themselves to death. Vin Scully says about outfielders in particular that “they have a lot of time to think and destroy themselves.” Baseball is a mental game because there is time for it to be such. That extra time gets filled with little reminders of humanity. One of those reminders is the fight back against the thoughts that can creep into a player’s head in that walk to home plate.

Superstition is real if you think it’s real. Essentially, says Dr. David Schary, a sports psychologist at Winthrop University, “If [players] feel the song is somehow tied to a hot streak, or if a song is tied to their routine, then I would continue with that” But, he continues, “I think if a player isn’t superstitious, the song won’t really help them or hurt them.”

So Travis d’Arnaud, who calls his walk-up music a battle song to get ready for war with the pitcher, told the New York Times, he “started feeling good again” after changing his walk-up music five times, only to get back on track when he went back to the original. It is likely the music really did have something to do with it. The same is true when Brandon Crawford switched his walkup song to Kelly Clarkson after slumping in June and raised his batting average 20 points in the second half. Essentially, the walk-up music you hear really can be helping improve or steady the performance of your favorite player or the player your fantasy team is depending on.

Studies on the impact of music on athletic erformance don’t show many breakthrough conclusions. In essence, the conclusions amount to the agreement that music impacts mood. In baseball, before you find the sweet spot on the bat, you have to find a mental sweet spot walking up to the plate. And that’s where walk-up music comes in. An extension of this is that whichever way you tend to spiral is the opposite of what kind of music you should choose. Cal Ripken Jr. told us to not get too high with the high or too low with the lows;walk-up music might help players to that end.

When Jonathan F. Katz, who has worked in sports psychology with many professional organizations, spoke to the New York Times in 2015 he said, “Music is a factor in getting people in the right mindset. Now, the body and the mind work interactively, right? If you’re kind of anxious and nervous, the tension in your arm and how you hold the bat and your grip could be affected.” Are your hands wrapping around the bat so tight you might pull a Bo Jackson without pulling a Bo Jackson? Maybe choose something light-hearted like Bryce Harper’s 2015 walk-up song, Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend.” Conversely, maybe Metallica is the right choice if you find yourself yawning during at-bats. (Unless you are Anthony Rendon, who somehow only ever smiles and yawns and is still one of the league’s best third basemen.)

There’s a bit of an overlap between mood affecter walk-up songs and superstitious walk-up songs (because when a song gets a player right mentally, it becomes a routine, and when a player puts stock in routine, well…). Many songs closers choose are like this.

But in late May, Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post wrote about Wilmer Difo’s walk-up choices.  Difo had debuted “Unchained Melody,” a 1965 hit by the Righteous Brothers and The Temptations “My Girl” as walk-up songs. Difo told Castillo that he loves romantic music and that when he finds an English song he loves, he uses it to teach himself English.

Jayson Werth called the song choices, “extremely unorthodox.” But were they? Difo is an electric player and always the first to every celebration. Heading into July with those songs as his music, Difo earned himself a spot on July’s Player of the Month ballot. His elevated play was likely a result of the regular playing time he was getting with Trea Turner on the DL, but I’d like to think that a little bit of it was that he was adequately relaxed by the sounds of The Temptations, and that it transferred to his bat.

Knowing the way songs impact mood, the question becomes, if Sean Doolittle uses “For Whom The Bell Tolls” as his walk-in song in the ninth inning, does the pump-up factor he receives from it also benefit the batter he’s about to face if that batter also needs to be pumped up? Please let your experimental psychologist friends know about this question, because I need to know.

Harper, as a shining star in the sport and an exploding-star hot-head who will defy an umpire’s ejection to celebrate walk-offs, is one of baseball’s best examples  of how music impacts mood. You may have heard of white suburban moms blaming their teens’ outbursts on rap music, but Harper has twisted that old tale a bit. In the second game of three against the Brewers in July, a series in which the Nationals would get swept, Harper, uh, blew up a little bit on an ump for throwing him out after calling him out on strikes with the go-ahead run on third in the eighth inning. Harper spun on his heels and did his patented angry fist pump. He later explained that he wasn’t angry at the call, he was just mad at himself and earlier calls. Most importantly, Harper would reveal in his postgame interview that he was so pumped up because of his Chance the Rapper and Logic playlist.

Even warm-up music is an important look into the psychological effects of music. But it doubles as another chance to bond. Choosing different music, finding out common favorites, and ribbing on teammates for their taste in music are all bonding activities.

The idea of bonding through music is in the same vein as when teammates change walk-up music for other players, or the joke walk-up song. Mike Trout once walked up to Barney’s “I Love You” song at the request of teammates because he was the baby of the team, and Curtis Granderson was once surprised by the musical stylings of Rebecca Black coming out of the speakers. The Dodgers once used Joe West’s music as walk-up songs. But maybe most the most important joke walk-up song of all, is Trevor Bauer’s rap song “Gutter to the Grail.” Teammate Mark Reynolds used it in 2013, and subsequently hit a home run. Some of us derive power from terrible music, I guess.

Music has always had a way of bonding people, and not just the athletes. I’m sure everyone who sang “Go Cubs Go” on that fateful November evening would probably give their life for everyone they sang with. Mets fans couldn’t get enough of Yoenis Cespedes coming out to the Lion King classic, “The Circle Of Life,” so much so that it was newsworthy when he stopped using it.

When people say  “singing Kumbaya around a fire,” it could also be translated to “scream-singing ‘Bodak Yellow’ in a club” or “yelling ‘Tiny Dancer’ on a road trip.” In the baseball world, that translation could be singing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” with an entire stadium, or it could be singing picking up where the PA system cut off “Take On Me” or “Three Little Birds.” A-Ha’s “Take On Me” seems to be a favorite, used by both Michael Morse and Hanley Ramirez.

Morse used the song with the Nationals throughout his tenure, including during his fourth at-bat in Game Five of the 2012 National League Division Series. For fans who had been with the team since 2005, that Game Five was like a teen movie where the “ugly kid” got a makeover but was still stood up for prom: All the build up, and all of the heartbreak. Ten minutes after the Cardinals cut the Nationals’ 6-0 lead to one, Morse came up. The crowd holding the high-note solo of “TWOOOOOOO” was cut by the crack of a Morse base hit and exuberance.

Oh, you poor souls, you have no idea what is about to happen. Despite the heartbreak of the night, fans loved the song so much, it was used for a season in the seventh inning each night aftyer Morse’s departure. Morse would continue to use the song after he left Washington, and set off Washington fans when he claimed that San Francisco sang along to it at “another level.”

Often the the audio booth is the biggest reminder of the world off of the field, whether it be the person an athlete is dating or his religion. It’s a needed reminder that a baseball field doesn’t exist in a vacuum, even if it’s easy to pretend for our own mental health sometimes. There’s a link between it all.

But walk-up music gives more than it gets. The tangible differences it makes in a game are minimal, but it’s incredible that it makes any difference at all. And is that really the point?

Baseball means more with the context of song, and songs can mean more in the context of baseball. There’s a reason why the Wild Thing entrance song from the movie Major League was considered pivotal for walk-up music after its 1989 release. The scene turns into what looks like would happen if 20 different ’80s music videos were squished into one ballpark. The Wild Thing himself clearly zones in with it playing, and the song makes a statement all at once. It fits into more than one category of walk-up, but it also ties in additional commentary to the game, just like good entrance music should do.

What would the World Series have been for Cubs fans without “Go Cubs Go”? Would Crawford’s 20-point increase in batting average in the second half of 2015 have meant as much? And what would a Mariano Rivera appearance have been without “Enter Sandman?”

Would Vaughn have still have blown “The Terminator” by Parkman in Major League II without “Wild Thing” blasting? Maybe, but it sure wouldn’t have been as groovy.

References & Resources

Find Mina on Twitter @maddc8.
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5 years ago

“Extremely unorthodox” is funny coming from Werth, who has used Walking Dead, Werewolves of London, and the speed-metal version of GoT’s Rains of Castamere….

5 years ago

So you ‘lose it’ from hearing 15 seconds of a song, but you call someone else a bigot? How about having some tolerance and examining your own biases.

Psychic... Powerless...
5 years ago

Small typo: It’s Harry Caray, not Harry Carrey.

Paul Swydanmember
5 years ago

Oof. Can’t believe I missed that. Thanks for the catch.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

I think the so called “walk up” song had its origins in professional wrestling in the early ’80’s. Superstar Billy Graham entered the ring with Eye Of The Tiger blasting through the cheap speakers. Soon each wrestler who had a large fan base adopted a theme song. It was the beginning of the intersection of the sports and entertainment worlds. Baseball just caught on at a later time.

87 Cards
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

The first and ultimate “walk-up” 1977..Darth Vader….”The Imperial March”.

As a youth, I witnessed Wichita State University come to my town once-a-year with Joe Carter/Russ Morman/Phil Stephenson swinging the Easton pipes. Sometimes when I hear Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”, I flash back to the Shockers assaulting the collegiate infielders of early 1980s. Ping! Ah! Ping! Ah! Ping! Ah!….

Dan Weiner
5 years ago

What can we say about Aoki on the Mets using the Ghostbusters theme as his walk-up music?

87 Cards
5 years ago
Reply to  Dan Weiner

A musical reminder that Nori Aoki is chasing the ghost of Jay Bruce while denying much-needed evaluation at-bats to Julio Lagares, Travis Tajeron and Brandon Nimmo.

4 years ago

Get rid of walk up music, I to watch baseball not listen garbage music I mean rap

4 years ago

What should have been a fun, light-hearted column, found time to call Bryce Harper a hot-head and Daniel Murphy a bigot. That whole tired line of Harper as an egotistical, arrogant hot-head was put to bed years ago I thought. As for Murphy, just because you disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean they’re a bigot or a Nazi.

4 years ago
Reply to  Pig.Pen

It might be valuable to know that Mina is a Nats fan and prominent figure on Nats Twitter. She is almost certainly more familiar with them than any other team, which could explain why she chose so many Nats as examples. She’s not ignorant of player personalities.

4 years ago
Reply to  lilpudge

If she’s not ignorant, how else would you categorize her depictions? As a Nats fan, I’m not familiar with her on “Nats Twitter”. Most Nats fans know that Bryce Harper is extremely competitive, which is far different than being a hothead. Sure, he’s more of a hothead than Anthony Rendon or Ryan Zimmerman, but so is most of America. As for Murphy, he’s one of the nicest guys in baseball and just because he has religious convictions against homosexuality, that hardly makes the guy a bigot. In fact, the very definition of the word bigot (intolerant towards those holding different opinions), would seem to more accurately describe people like Ms. Dunn.

4 years ago

Folks, when you see quotes like she posted about Daniel Murphy and Harper, you know that anything else you read is going to be poor. This is an obvious troll attempt to get the biggest audience of these articles upset by spouting her views on homosexuality and whiteness. I would not be surprised if she has served time in a liberal university.

4 years ago

Man, how “The Hardball Times” has fallen. . .

4 years ago

I can’t recall who or when, but an organist was once ejected by an umpire for playing “3 Blind Mice” following a call that went against the home team.

A Different Bob
4 years ago

Best walkup song of all time (at least for one at bat) had to be when Adrian Beltre returned to the Mariners lineup after being out for a time after fielding a one-hopper off his scrotum. Ken Griffey Jr. convinced someone to play the Nutcracker Suite.