Willie Mays. Mickey Mantle. Duke Snider. Magical memories for a city boy.
"A number of times I met them all, and they were all very nice to me," said Cashman, 69 and a New Yorker still. "They seemed to really like the idea of the song and recalling [the rivalries of] those days, which were a reality when I was a teenager. That's all anybody ever talked about -- Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Who was better; who was gonna be better? With the three teams here and all [three] playing the same position, it was a natural. They cherished those days and appreciated the fact someone wrote a song about them."
On Feb. 27, the Dodgers announced the passing of Snider, their Hall of Famer, at the age of 84. Cashman said Bill Madden, the veteran New York scribe who was inducted into the Hall's writer wing two years ago, telephoned him with the news.
"I wasn't surprised, because I was up at the Hall of Fame inductions last summer. I said to someone, 'Where's Duke?' They said, 'He's not here this year.' Then I heard he wasn't there the year before, and I knew he always had gone to the Hall of Fame inductions," Cashman said. "It didn't look good. I hadn't been hearing from him at card shows. ... Bill called me, and I was saddened, of course, but not shocked."
Cashman had learned in August 1995 that Mantle was gone, and now there is one, the Say Hey Kid. There are many players mentioned in the song -- Stan "The Man" Musial, Ted Williams, Roy Campanella, among them -- but so many people think of those three contemporary neighbors in center field.
"Willie's gonna be 80 in May," Cashman said, flashing back. "Duke, it was funny what happened. Rusty Staub was a friend of mine. I played the song for Rusty when I finished it. He was in it, and I wanted him to hear it. He was with the Mets at the time. He took a little cassette with him up to Montreal, and as it turned out, Duke Snider was announcing for the Expos at the time. Rusty played the song for Duke, and he liked it. I got a phone call from Rusty, and he said, 'I'm up in Montreal; someone wants to talk to you.' Sure enough, Duke Snider gets on, and says, 'This is Duke Snider; thanks for the song.' He really liked it.
"Duke had dinner at my apartment in subsequent years, and we stayed somewhat in touch. He was always a real gentleman and very nice to me. One of the funny things he said to me was, 'You owe a debt of gratitude to my uncle; otherwise, you would have had to name the song "Willie, Mickey and the Edwin." He often used that line in speeches."
The Whiz Kids had won it,
Bobby Thomson had done it,
And Yogi read the comics all the while.
Rock 'n roll was being born,
Marijuana, we would scorn,
So down on the corner,
The national past-time went on trial ...
The "Balladeer of Baseball" was born to sing about New York center fielders, because he came into the world the same day Joe DiMaggio extended his hitting streak to 46 games -- July 5, 1941. Cashman, known then as Dennis Minogue, grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, just a few long balls away from the Polo Grounds. He was taken to Giants games by his two older brothers. His sister adopted Brooklyn's Dodgers because Snider flashed that smile. Mantle, you had to watch every at-bat because he might knock one 600 feet. The "trial" happened every day in that golden age, and the boy saw the arguments pleaded amid a big-city din.
"It was an amazing time for baseball in New York," Cashman said. "The Yankees were good every year, the Dodgers were good every year, the Giants were in the '51 and '54 World Series. From 1949 to 1958, a New York team was always in the World Series.
"When I thought about those days right before I wrote the song, I recalled that every night you would go down to the corner to the candy store, and everybody would be waiting for the early editions of the Mirror and the News -- all these arguments. It wasn't always Willie, Mickey and the Duke, but also, 'Who's better, Newcombe or Ford? Campanella or Berra? Williams or Musial?' All these arguments, and everyone was talking baseball."
They still were in 1981, when Cashman's musical ode to those halcyon days was written, but it was a different world, a crowded sports scene. Four major pro sports, major college sports, big TV contracts, and a "Miracle on Ice" one year earlier stretching the collective imagination further. Cashman was in the music business, having been a producer for Jim Croce, among other artists, and he still clung to his memory of the heyday.
Then came the inspiration for a ballad that stood the test of time.
Thornton Geary, a former Mets exec and the son-in-law of longtime New York columnist Dick Young, had given his friend Cashman a copy of a photograph taken by then-Mets photographer Dennis Burke at a Shea Stadium Old-Timers Game. Geary once said of Cashman, an ephemeral Minor Leaguer turned musician, "He knows baseball better than anybody I've ever met."
Everyone Cashman knew got that photo. He made sure of it.
"They introduced Mays, Mantle, Snider and Joe DiMaggio in that game," Cashman said. "Someone had the idea they would all walk in from center field in their uniforms to home plate. So all you saw were their numbers. 24, 7, 4, 5. I bought the rights to the picture. I loved it. I had a number of them printed, and I gave them to people who I knew who would know what this meant and what it signified. I gave them out as gifts as Christmas in 1980. Of course, I had my own copy. I was looking at it one day, and I said, 'Gee, there has to be a song here someplace.'
"I tried to fit DiMaggio in. And finally it dawned on me that DiMaggio retired in '51, and he really wasn't linked, except that Mantle took over for him. It's really Willie, Mickey and the Duke. When I said that to myself, I thought, 'Oh, my' -- just saying those names meant so much. That night, I went to sleep and I was thinking about those days and about those streetcorner arguments waiting for the papers to come out. I went to sleep, and I picked up the guitar the next morning and I wrote the song in 20 minutes."
It was written that January, and recorded the same month at a studio called Counterpoint in Manhattan, on Broadway and 48th Street. That was a well-known studio owned by Jerry Ragavoy, perhaps best known for writing the Rolling Stones' hit "Time Is On My Side" and Janis Joplin's "Piece Of My Heart."
That was a big songwriting talent alongside him, but Cashman said there was no other input for The Song. It just flowed as he strummed that morning:
Well, Casey was winning,
Hank Aaron was beginning,
One Robbie going out, one coming in.
Kiner and Midget Gaedel,
The Thumper and Mel Parnell,
And Ike was the only one winning down in Washington ...
It was planned as a Spring Training release to get attention, the same way baseball books usually come out in the spring. "Talkin' Baseball" came out as a single -- a great baseball word. To Pete Franklin, it was a grand slam. He was the popular host on 50,000-watt WWWE in Cleveland, a fan voice at a time of bad baseball there and perhaps even an inspiration for Bob Uecker's character in the movie "Major League." Franklin longed for baseball's glory days, and now a possible baseball strike was looming in 1981. Losses and high salaries made the song a feel-good ballad there. He got ahold of the 45, listened to it and then played it about 15 times in a row on his show.
"That got tremendous amount of publicity all over the Midwest, because it was such a big station," Cashman said. "I got a phone call that this had happened, and Pete wanted to have me on his show. I was in Spring Training that year. The whole thing just snowballed. It wasn't a top-40 hit, but easy listening and sports stations [played it].
"It was before the strike. What happened [was], it had kind of run its course for a few months, which is what most records do. The strike occurred around the beginning of June that year, and now all of a sudden, Warner Wolf had a 6 and 11 p.m. newscast on WCBS in New York, and he had a producer named Carmine Cincotta, who created this video to the song."
"Warner Wolf played the video, and all of a sudden, the song had a rebirth, because now this video existed, showing the faces of Kluszewski and Campanella and so forth. Everyone on TV wanted a copy of this when it was played. It really became popular all over again."
When the strike ended, Cashman was asked to appear at the old Kingdome in Seattle for the Mariners' "Re-opening Day." Their manager, Rene Lachemann, told him: "You're the only person the fans won't boo." They asked him to include some Mariners players, and if that meant having to rhyme names like Zisk, Bochte and Paciorek, so be it. That theme spread, and over the years, Cashman has recorded customized versions for each club. He even did a "Talkin' Softball" version for "The Simpsons."
The Man and Bobby Feller,
The Scooter, the Barber, and the Newk,
They knew 'em all from Boston to Dubuque,
Especially Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
Bob Feller left us last December. Duke is gone now. Stan the Man just received the Congressional Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Baseball continues to weave through time as a thread, and "Talkin' Baseball" continues to play in the background.
When Cashman wrote his song, three decades had passed since the era Cashman was celebrating. Now, three more decades have washed by, and the songwriter celebrates an anniversary he never could have expected.
"You feel like it went by fairly quickly, but a lot of things have happened over those 30 years," Cashman said. "As great a baseball fan as I am, I thought Willie, Mickey and the Duke would be good for one song. Now, there are probably 30 or 40 versions of 'Talkin' Baseball,' and I've written over 30 other songs. It's become part of my life. It's something I'm very proud of and something I really enjoy doing. Through different celebrations of players and teams over the years, I've gotten to really be a part of baseball."