Using music to teach about baseball and life

Music - October 2005


John Howell

My 6-year-old son, Will, has a wide range of musical tastes. I am hoping his willingness to listen to diverse styles will survive the inevitable peer pressure to settle into the usual pop fare. From his earliest days, I have exposed Will to my favorites. I would change his diaper to the sounds of "Zoot" (rhymes with "poop") Sims and then we’d ride down the road reciting obscure Waylon Jennings tunes.

Now that he’s old enough to start making his own decisions, I’m proud he still chooses to listen to an interesting combination of CDs. In this second installment of my column, which appears every other month, I suggest and profile some CDs that you might want to squeeze in between the standard SpongeBob and Hilary Duff nonsense.

BASEBALL’S GREATEST HITS, various artists, Rhino Records, 1989, $11.98.

I pitched this CD to my son this spring and it’s been a home run. Will is playing T-ball this summer and has started watching the Chicago Cubs and White Sox with his baseball-loving old man. Baseball transcends generations; it’s some of the glue that bonds father and son together. Indeed, many of my own memories revolve around evenings with my dad, Chuck, listening to the great Ernie Harwell call the Detroit Tiger games.

The 1968 world champions are still my heroes. I still want to hit like Willie Horton, pitch like Denny McClain and fight like Gates Brown. I attempt to explain to Will how the players of my childhood usually spent their entire careers with one team. I carefully explain why they looked so much thinner and seemed to have much clearer complexions than the sluggers of today. I point out that while my favorite hero never could hit as many homers as Sammy Sosa, he did have a battery named after him … Al Kaline!

And I love to hear my own father tell Will stories about my grandfather, Hoyt, becoming so disgusted with the Tigers that he would require a couple of hours of quiet reflection down the block at the Masonic lodge.

With all that history, it would be hard not to love this CD, and Will does. He loves the stories, the play-by-play excerpts and Tommy Lasorda’s (bleeped out) profanity.

There’s some outstanding music as well. Highlights include Abbott & Costello’s classic "Who’s On First?" routine, as well as Dave Frishberg’s "Van Lingle Mungo." (Only two words in the entire song are NOT names of baseball players.) Also included are the legendary Treniers with Willie Mays and Quincy Jones. And what baseball compilation would be complete without Chicago’s own Steve Goodman singing "A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request"? I encourage Will to sing this one often around his mom, Cindy, a fanatic Cub fan.

WHAT I DO, by Alan Jackson. Arista Records, 2004, $18.98.

Country music had a great year in 1989. It was the year Clint Black and Garth Brooks burst upon the scene. Fast forward 16 years and Black is running his own record company while Brooks is running the rumor mill.

Meanwhile, Alan Jackson, an incredible singer-songwriter from Georgia, who also released his first album in 1989, continues to produce high-quality, traditional country music. Jackson is a low-key guy who sings his songs and shuts his mouth. He avoids all the hype and tends to his craft with workman-like habits.

These are qualities I like to point out to my 6-year-old future Grand Ole Opry member. Show business can be glamorous and exciting, but I want Will to know that everyone has a job and entertainers aren’t superheroes who should be worshiped. I tell him to enjoy their talent and emulate their results, but not to fall for the hype. Jackson fits the bill perfectly.

This album features solid traditional stories made into catchy songs. Will’s favorite is "The Talkin’ Song Repair Blues." Will and I love quoting the song while paying the repair tab on my Jeep—the one with 165,000 miles on it.

FRANK SINATRA, THE MAIN EVENT—LIVE, by Frank Sinatra, Reprise Records, 1974, $11.98.

I’m trying to explain to my son what an icon is. I tell him popularity doesn’t translate into "iconic" status, that some hack-winning American Idol won’t make me dole out $20 for a soon-to-be-forgotten CD.

On a recent afternoon while stuck in traffic I managed to get him interested in the great American song form and its best interpreter by far—Frank Sinatra.

A true Sinatra aficionado would never put this live recording at the top of any list. It was recorded after a long layoff, and his voice is not in particularly good shape. Some of the song choices are questionable and Howard Cosell’s concert introduction is the height of pomposity.

But Will doesn’t care about any of that. He loves listening to Sinatra in total control and the crowd eating it up. As we listen, I tell Will that Sinatra was the most popular singer of the last 100 years, that a couple of my friends were sitting in that very brass section and playing their hearts out for the "Chairman of the Board," and that his mom, Cindy, once fetched an egg salad sandwich for Mr. Sinatra when he played the Chicago Theatre.

Will likes the stories, but most of all he loves singing along with this blistering version of "My Kind of Town."

Many lessons can be learned from Sinatra’s songs. We’ve talked about hypocrisy when listening to "The Lady Is a Tramp." We’ve discussed heartbreak as "Angel Eyes" plays. Will learned why "the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of town" as we listened to this corny rendition of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." If you want to introduce your kids to Sinatra, I can’t recommend a better record. And, can there be a better life lesson than "My Way"?

John Howell is a "Morning Show" co-host at WUSN US 99.5 Radio. He also produces and hosts "The Country Gold Show" on the Westwood One Radio Network.


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