Score Keeper

Jeff Campbell collects and records baseball songs. It's a way for him to connect with the sport and its fans in his own artistic way.

April 12, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - They're tucked inside a little shell of an abandoned ATM at the corner of Del Ray Avenue and Mount Vernon. Jeff Campbell tests the mike, sucks down a mocha grande and asks Dan Bern to play "If the Dodgers Had Stayed in Brooklyn."

At 2 p.m. it's 42 degrees outside.

The ATM shell houses a miniature Internet radio station, about the size of a double-hole Port-o-Pot, where Campbell records a few original performances for his celebrated collection of baseball songs called Diamond Cuts.

Dan Bern is an itinerant folk singer with a punky buzz cut and maybe 20 years of dusty road in his throat. He is wearing blue jeans stiff as cardboard and a tattered, pea-green sweatshirt stained with red paint. He needs coffee. On the folk circuit, his deft lyrics ("guaranteed to offend and impossible to deny") have been known to agitate the bean-curd-and-poesy crowd. In concert he will proclaim himself the Messiah, or maybe sing about menstruation and Madonna.

But he writes some really dandy baseball songs.

Late night in Chicago - I break into Wrigley Field;

Early spring season isn't starting for a week;

It's a little after midnight I've been playing down the street

At an open mike in a little bar just under the El tracks.

I notice for a couple of days that they've been doin' some work on the ballpark.

They got scaffolding up ... I climb in.

"You didn't tell me about that one," says Campbell. Bern tunes his guitar.

"Yeah, it's from when I was living in Chicago and broke into Wrigley one night."

Plunk, plunk ...

On the four previous Diamond Cut discs, Bern appears four times. "Batting a thousand," Campbell says. His best works memorialize Babe Ruth on his death bed and Fred Merkle's historic base-running lapse in 1908 that cost the Giants the World Series. He has written 25 or 30 baseball songs, including a nice parody of the goofy standard "Talkin' Baseball," which he sings briefly now for Campbell.

"It's like: `Talkin' baseball, all the memories that linger ... Talkin' baseball, Garry Templeton's middle finger ... ' "

Because the Diamond Cut collection contains 87 songs, spanning 5 hours and 18 minutes of swing, folk, big band, country, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, reggae and jazz, you might think there would have been a song for just about everything by now. But there are well over 150 years of baseball history, and there's not yet a place for Garry Templeton, the Cardinal shortstop who became notorious for flipping off at fans in 1981 after he refused to run out a ground ball.

Templeton will just have to wait because what Campbell really wants to record is Bern's pensive plaint about how life might be different "If the Dodgers Had Stayed in Brooklyn."

Breaking into the business

Since 1997, Campbell has recorded songs about Cal Ripken Jr., Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Max Patkin, Jackie Robinson, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Nolan Ryan, Bill Veeck, Ty Cobb, Denny McLain, Dock Ellis, Yogi Berra and Eddie Klepp (the first white player in the Negro Leagues, of course). He's recorded ballads and jumps and sagas that celebrate the wicked and saintly, the ridiculous and sublime.

He's got permission for Bob Dylan's mumbling ballad "Catfish," and Bruce Springsteen wailing anthem, "Glory Days." George Winston offered his piano performances on "Charlie Brown's All Stars" and recorded some new ones just for the series. He's hooked up folkies such as Tom Paxton and Chuck Brodsky, and chased down R&B legends, including Ruth Brown, to record. Then there are the lesser known but still hearty musicians like the Fabulettes, Big Jesse Yawn, the Towering Bouffants, Andi Hoffman and B-Gos, Chip Monk, Eddie From Ohio (famous for "I Rode Fido Home") and, yes, the inimitable Dan Bern.

Tonight I've got the ballpark,

Tonight I've got the ballpark,

Tonight I've got the ballpark

All to myself.

This is the song Bern really wants to sing, and as long as he's passing through and Campbell's been lucky enough to snag him before he heads to the Bottomline in New York and then on to Seattle, not knowing the next time he'll be back in town, Campbell decides to record them both.

"So what did you do after you broke in - run the bases?"

"Run the bases, slid into home, pitching stuff, sat in the clubhouse, sat where [broadcaster] Harry Caray was. You know."

"Did you get arrested?"

"Security guy saw me as I was leaving, but by that time, the fun was had."

It's all in the song.

He knows his stuff

Tim Wiles, director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, thinks Campbell is the most knowledgeable person in the country when it comes to baseball songs.

"It's pretty hard to know more about baseball music than Jeff [does]," Wiles says. "Every once in a while I'll think of a song and call him up and say, `Hey Jeff, have you heard of ... ' And he says, `Oh, yeah, that's a great song. I'm thinking of getting that on No. 7.' "

"No. 7" would be the seventh CD - of 10 planned - which he will probably call "Seventh Inning Stretch."

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