Home Movies of Duke Ellington Playing Baseball (And How Baseball Coined the Word “Jazz”)

“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.”

via The Smith­son­ian and That Eric Alper

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Video: Fidel Cas­tro Plays Base­ball (1959)

Free: Watch Jack­ie Robin­son Star in The Jack­ie Robin­son Sto­ry (1950)

The Grate­ful Dead Rock the Nation­al Anthem at Can­dle­stick Park: Open­ing Day, 1993

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.