Fifty years ago, a tune with some catchy lyrics hit the pop charts. For two weeks in December of 1969, it was the #1 record in the country. It was performed by a group of session musicians who were given the fictional band name Steam.
Eight years later (that would be 1977), the Royals and White Sox were playing at Comiskey Park before a large crowd – the teams were in a tight race for the division title. At an opportune moment in the game, the Comiskey Park organist played that 1969 #1 song by Steam. The enthusiastic crowd joined in with the catchy lyrics. After that festive night at Comiskey, (i) the Royals went on the win the division (and lose, again, to the Yankees in the ALCS), and (ii) the song became (and remains) a staple at sporting events around the country. See Lonnie’s Jukebox at the end of this post for the rest of the story.
I had not planned on posting again this month, but I still had way more copy left over from the “Seinfeld Baseball Chronicles” (see Hot Stove #104). In my sometimes failing effort to avoid tl;dr (too long; didn’t read), I had to cut (temporarily) a treasure trove of episodes featuring George Steinbrenner and George Costanza. So here they are. Warning: Lots of film clips – part of the genius of Seinfeld is the comic timing.
The Two Yankee Georges: The Yankee years started for George Costanza in an episode titled “The Opposite.” George is not pleased with the decisions he has made in life, and he tells Jerry and Elaine he’s going to start doing the opposite of his instincts. He is encouraged when he finds that the truth works better than his usual lies in pursuit of a date (“Hi, I’m George, I’m unemployed and live with my parents.” She smiles, she’s interested…).
George continues this approach when he applies to be the assistant to the traveling secretary of the Yankees. He meets George Steinbrenner (the shadow below) and instead of being nice to the owner, he does the opposite by berating Steinbrenner for how he has run the team. It works! George is hired on the spot (click here – 0:40).
George was with the Yankees through seasons 5, 6, 7 and 8. Many Yankee players had cameo roles in those years. A running joke is the occasional appearance of Steinbrenner whose face is never seen on camera. He is played by actor Lee Bear, but the blustering voice comes from Seinfeld co-creator Larry David.
I’ll start with an example from season 6. George is wrongfully accused of pilfering Yankees equipment and is called into Steinbrenner’s office. The shared first name becomes the gag (click here – 0:58).
In season 8, George wants to be fired so he can go to work for the Mets, so he outrageously puts on a rare Babe Ruth jersey and spills strawberries on it. He is called in by Steinbrenner and, expecting to be fired, finds the owner wearing Lou Gehrig’s pants and saying that Babe Ruth was “nothing more than a fat old man with little-girl legs” (click here – 0:30).
Fidel Castro: When George answers a personals ad in The Daily Worker, Steinbrenner mistakenly believes George is a Communist. Rather than getting fired, George is sent to Cuba to recruit players. The episode ends with George in Fidel Castro’s office, listening to the Steinbrenner-like Castro (click here – 1:00).
Jay Buhner and the Costanzas: Two of my favorite Seinfeld characters are George’s parents, Frank and Estelle Costanza. They meet George Steinbrenner when he shows up at their home to tell them (mistakenly) that their son George is dead. The reaction by Frank is priceless. He interrupts the discussion of the possible death of his son to deliver a diatribe to Steinbrenner about the horrible Yankees trade of Jay Buhner to Seattle. Click here (0:41).
[Buhner Trivia: Frank Costanza was right. It was a lopsided trade. Buhner had a superb 15-year career with the Mariners. The Seinfeld clip was played at Safeco Field when Buhner was inducted into the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame.]
Danny Tartabull, Bucky Showalter and Cotton Uniforms: After being told by Danny Tartabull that the players are wearing uncomfortable polyester uniforms, George talks manager Bucky Showalter (below) into changing to cotton uniforms.
The players are initially ecstatic and George is a hero (click here – 2:18). But then the uniforms are laundered. As George and Jerry watch the next game on TV:
ANNOUNCER #1: And the Yankees take the field!
ANNOUNCER #2: What is with the Yankees? They look like they’re having trouble running, they can’t move!
ANNOUNCER #1: It’s their uniforms, they’re too tight, they’ve shrunk! They’re running like penguins! Forget this game!
ANNOUNCER #2: Oh my God, Mattingly just split his pants!
[Tartabull Trivia: Twelve Royals players have hit 30 or more homers in a season (counting Jorge Soler this year). Only one Royal has done it twice: Danny Tartabull in 1987 (34) and 1991 (31). After his 1991 all-star season, Danny became a free agent and signed with the Yankees…and Seinfeld.]
Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, etc.: The real George Steinbrenner was well known for losing patience with his managers. This trait was covered in my favorite Steinbrenner rant on Seinfeld. When George Costanza is given a promotion, he is reminded by faux Steinbrenner that a “few” people had been let go, “Yogi Berra, Lou Piniella, Bucky Dent, Billy Martin, Dallas Green, Dick Howser, Bill Virdon, Billy Martin, Stump Merrill, Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Billy Martin, Gene Michael, Buck Showalter,…uh, tut!…George, you didn’t hear that from me.” Click here (1:17).
This episode aired on October 12, 1995, at which time Bucky Showalter was still the manager, having just completed his fourth season with the Yankees. The fake rant proved prescient. Two weeks after the show ran on TV, Showalter and Steinbrenner could not come to terms and Showalter was out. A week later, Joe Torre was named as his replacement.
The repeated firing of Billy Martin by Steinbrenner (as noted in the rant above) did not keep the two men from appearing in commercials together: Miller Lite in 1978 (click here – 0:32) and Pepto Bismol in 1981 (click here – 0:30).
[Billy Martin Trivia: Mickey Mantle said that Martin’s temper was so bad that Billy was the only guy he knew who “could hear someone give him the finger.” This has a parallel in a Seinfeld episode. George Costanza believes a waitress is surreptitiously giving him the finger. Then, the issue comes up again when he gets Danny Tartabull to appear on a charity pledge drive on TV. On the way there, George (channeling Billy Martin) believes that another driver gives them the finger; an hour-long car chase ensues. Of course George is wrong (click here – 3:37).]
Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter: George’s girlfriend gets mononucleosis, placing him in a state of involuntary abstinence. He finds that this makes him a budding genius. He begins reading dense literature. He easily learns to speak Portuguese. With a new-found expertise in physics, he becomes proficient at hitting a baseball. Click here (0:38) to see him tutoring Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter. The players are not really interested, noting that they won the World Series. George scoffs, “In six games.”
Alas, when George gets the opportunity for sex with a Portuguese waitress, he calculates that, statistically, he has to do it. George’s genius then evaporates, and he returns to being babbling George.
Steinbrenner Cameo (Not): George Steinbrenner had no objection to the extra publicity he received from his character being on Seinfeld. He even agreed to do a cameo on the show. The setup was that he encountered Elaine in George’s office. Elaine was telling George that she would not go to George’s wedding because she did not have a date. Steinbrenner insists on being her date, and they also agree to meet for dinner to get acquainted.
The scenes were shot, but never aired. However, they survive on the internet (click here – 2:37). In the two dinner scenes at the end of the clip, Steinbrenner and Elaine do not hit it off. As one pundit noted, Steinbrenner may not have been sponge-worthy (inside joke, literally, maybe appreciated only by Seinfeld aficionados).
Steinbrenner Trades Costanza: George gets caught in another lie when he tries to impress a woman by saying he is an executive for Tyler Chicken in Arkansas. Steinbrenner overhears this and calls Tyler Chicken’s president to demand that he not poach George from the Yankees. The Tyler president never heard of George Costanza, but negotiates a deal to keep him in exchange for new chicken specialties for fans at Yankee Stadium. Steinbrenner agrees to the trade (click here – 0:37).
Result: George loses his job with the Yankees. He of course never reports to Tyler Chicken in Little Rock. His baseball career is over, but he does have a baseball card:
The Finale: Although the Yankee arc ended in the 8th season, George Steinbrenner returned for the series finale in 1998. In the courtroom scenes, many characters from prior seasons testified. Steinbrenner (still played by Lee Bear and voiced by Larry David) testifies about how George was rumored to be a Communist. George’s dad, Frank Costanza, jumps up in the courtroom and yells at Steinbrenner “How could you give $12,000,000 to Hideki Irabu?”
Larry David and Bernie Sanders: Larry David took his blustering Steinbrenner routine to another level during the 2016 presidential campaign. But this time it was more than just his voice. David made several appearances on Saturday Night Live as candidate Bernie Sanders. He is perfect for the role. Click here (0:46). He has revived the character for the 2020 campaign (below, from an SNL cold opening this season, with Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris and Woody Harrelson as Joe Biden).
Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Dodgers: Larry David playing Steinbrenner and Sanders is not a stretch for those of us who love his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Check out these scenes of him playing himself as a dedicated curmudgeon (click here – 1:41).
On May 12, 2003, an episode of Curb was shot at a game at Dodgers Stadium.
During that game, in another part of Los Angeles, a 16-year-old girl was killed in an execution-style murder. The suspect was Juan Catalan whose brother was on trial for a murder witnessed by the girl. A bystander identified Juan as the girl’s killer. Juan claimed he was at the Dodgers game and remembered a film crew in his section. His lawyer checked with the Dodgers and they put him in touch with the Curb Your Enthusiasm crew. The lawyer viewed several hours of film and found shots of his client at the game. Juan was exonerated and became the subject of a 2017 Netflix 40-minute film titled Long Shot. Click here for the trailer.
Some Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good Curb News: Curb Your Enthusiasm last aired in 2017, but thankfully will return for a new season in early 2020. I look forward to the theme song kicking off each episode (click here).
Lonnie’s Jukebox – The Organ Chronicles: As November came to a close in 1969, the #1 record was the two-sided hit by the Beatles: “Come Together” and “Something.” In early December, it lost the #1 spot to “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by Steam, a made-up name for the group of studio musicians and songwriter performing the song. Mercury Records released the song as the B-side of a record on its Fontana label, and to their surprise, the B-side gained momentum. Mercury then bought 100,000 copies of its own record to get it on the Billboard charts, increasing the airplay, and leading to a #1 gold record. You can listen to it here (4:05).
Fast forward to 1977. The Royals and the White Sox met in July for a key four-game series at Comiskey Park. When a Royals pitcher got knocked out of one of the games, White Sox organist Nancy Faust played him off the field with the melody of “Na Na Hey Hey…Goodbye”. And then, in Nancy’s words, “That night, the fans were responding to everything, and they started chanting along. It just happened.”
And a new tradition in sports music was born. Before long, fans were singing along at baseball stadiums around the country. It was used for many occasions – outgoing pitchers, home run balls, the end of winning games, etc. It also crossed over to other sports, often to serenade players ejected from games.
Faust began her career with the White Sox in 1970. She was a popular fixture at Comiskey, and her work gained special attention after Bill Veeck began his second stint as the owner of the White Sox in 1976. Veeck noticed that fans around announcer Harry Carey enjoyed singing along with Harry while Nancy played the organ for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” After some initial resistance from Caray, Veeck talked his announcer into singing the song over the stadium sound system for all the fans to hear and join in. Caray continued this tradition when he moved over to the Cubs in 1982.
Click here to see Harry singing the song at Comiskey; he refers to Nancy, and the video includes a clip of her playing the organ (1:16).
Nancy’s role in the popularity of “Na Na Hey Hey…” did not go unnoticed. As the use of song spread across the country, Mercury rereleased the record, and sales jumped significantly. Over the years, some 6.5 million copies have been sold. Mercury recognized Nancy’s role by awarding her a gold record.
An especially poignant moment of Nancy playing the song was when the fans and players said “Na Na Hey Hey…Goodbye” to Comiskey Park in the last game played there in 1990 (click here – 3:45). The next year, Nancy moved with the team to the new stadium and continued to play until her retirement in 2010. She was known as the team’s “key player” and Sports Illustrated called her baseball’s “MVO” – Most Valuable Organist. In her last year, the White Sox had a “Nancy Faust Night” and gave out Nancy bobbleheads. Below, her photo from a Cooperstown Hall of Fame series on legendary and pioneering women in baseball.
In local organ news, Jan Kraybill of Kansas City was just nominated for a Grammy for the Best Classical Instrumental Solo for her album The Orchestral Organ. Kraybill is the Organ Conservator for the Kauffman Center and organist-in-residence at the Community of Christ church headquarters in Independence.
I recently read another classical music item related to the organ. Booker T. Jones is quoted in his new autobiography on what made his biggest hit special – it used “the contrapuntal chord triad structural rules from the eighteenth-century Baroque Bach.” Did not know that. But we all know the song and his organ playing. From 1962, “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MGs. (click here – 2:53).
All of this organ talk leads me to a record that dates back to my senior year in high school: “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez. The record hit #1 in May of 1959, ending a 4-week run by the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me.” “The Happy Organ” was in the top spot for only one week before being replaced by the Wilbert Harrison classic, “Kansas City.” If you want to play them on the jukebox, just click on the song titles in bold.
[Guitar Trivia: “The Happy Organ” and “Kansas City” have guitar solos by the same session musician, Wild Jimmy Spruill.]
[Billboard Magazine Trivia: The Billboard Hot 100 pop chart dates back to August of 1958. The first instrumental to hit #1 on the Hot 100 was “The Happy Organ.” The next two were “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny (September, 1959) and “Theme from A Summer Place” by Percy Faith (February, 1960).]
Enjoy your Thanksgiving.