“When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” — Gerald Early talking to Ken Burns.
In this clip unearthed by the Smithsonian earlier this year, we find two great American traditions intertwined — baseball and jazz. As John Edward Hasse explains in his online essay, jazz and baseball grew up together. According to some, the first documented use of the word “jazz” came from a 1913 newspaper article where a reporter, writing about the San Francisco Seals minor league team, said “The poor old Seals have lost their ‘jazz’ and don’t know where to find it.” “It’s a fact … that the ‘jazz,’ the pepper, the old life, has been either lost or stolen, and that the San Francisco club of today is made up of jazzless Seals.” Or, if you listen to this public radio report, another use of the word can be traced back to 1912. That’s when a washed-up pitcher named Ben Henderson claimed that he had invented a new pitch — the “jazz ball.”
During the Swing Era, jazz musicians often took a keen interest in baseball. Writes Ryan Whirty in Offbeat, Louis Armstrong’s “passion for America’s pastime was so intense that, in the early ’30s, he owned his own team, the Secret Nine, in his hometown of New Orleans, even decking the players out in the finest, whitest uniforms ever seen on the sandlots of the Big Easy.” (See them in the photo above.) And then other band leaders like Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington formed baseball teams with members of their groups.
Above, you can watch Ellington playing ball in some home videos, both hitting and pitching. When the Duke was a kid, he imagined himself becoming a professional baseball player one day. But the youngster eventually got hit in the head with a bat during a game, and that’s where his baseball career ended. He later noted, “The mark is still there, but I soon got over it. With that, however, my mother decided I should take piano lessons.”
Note: The Duke Ellington Center writes on Youtube that “The appearance of Ben Webster at the end of the clip times the video to around 1940-41.”