John Philip Sousa, Ace
1904 photo of John Philip Sousa's (center, front, in full beard), band’s baseball team, along with his son, John Philip Sousa, Jr., a first baseman at Princeton (back left, in the “Nassau” jersey).
Photo courtesy Jari Villanueva, TapsBugler.com
May 13, 2015, Revised February, 2017
American composer John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was, to put it mildly, a rabid baseball fan. His autobiography, Marching Along, describes his infatuation with the game as lasting from his childhood years in Civil War-era Washington, D.C., all the way through his illustrious career as a bandmaster. Sousa, like his contemporary, composer Charles Ives, was king of the diamond, an ace pitcher for his local squad. The consummate showman, Sousa would continue to toe the rubber many years past his youth, while still plying his trade on the podium. His famous band featured both baseball and basketball teams made up of its performing members, and would engage local nines while on tour, although the bandsmen faired much better on the field than on the hardwood. In the 1920s, as the band continued to grow in size, there were enough members to switch to intra-squad games between the brass and the woodwinds. These bragging-rights games were, according to Sousa, well matched against each other, although “one might expect the brass to win by virtue of long-windedness!” According to members of the band, Sousa loved watching his musicians play against each other, and was never seen laughing harder than the day tuba player Jack Richardson split the seat of his pants while fielding a ball at first base.
Whenever the opportune time arose to attract publicity, especially against a formidable opponent, Sousa would make an appearance on the mound; however, by his later years, he would only last one inning before being replaced by the bullpen. According to noted Sousa scholar Patrick Warfield, “It was this humanizing value of sport that the March King would use throughout his career to reinforce his masculine, American, and accessible image.” Writing in the February, 1909, issue of Baseball magazine, Sousa, waxed poetic about engaging a team from the American Guards on July 4, 1900, while playing at the Paris, France, Exposition Universelle: “What could have been more appropriate for two American organizations in a foreign land to do on the glorious Fourth?” This all-American game in France may have been one of the first baseball games ever played in Europe, on the same concert tour where Sousa introduced American Ragtime to the continent.
His band continued barnstorming, playing other local teams, typically made up of other bandsmen, whenever the Sousa band was employed in one place for long stretches of time. One such annual engagement was at Willow Grove, a park on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a fortuitous location for the Sousa nine. In 1903, Sousa brags in his autobiography, his band challenged Marines stationed at Philadelphia’s League Island Navy Yard. His fastball diminished at the age of 49, and the bandmaster more likely resembling Jamie Moyer than Roy Halladay, he reported, “I surprised the boys and myself by pitching a no-hit first inning.”
Arthur Pryor’s band began making annual trips to Willow Grove in 1904, typically vacating just as the Sousa Band arrived, and it was often possible to stage baseball games between the two superstar bands. Although few records were kept, there is evidence that Sousa appeared on the mound as late as the age of 62, in a charity game that proved to be a particularly tough loss: Pryor 29, Sousa 16. Though these games between the two baseball-mad bandmasters were not particularly intense, there is a story handed down by members of Sousa’s band that reinforces how important they were to the March King. According to the tale, he once went so far as to avenge a bad loss to Pryor’s nine that he covertly paid a pitcher and catcher from Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics to play in the next Sousa-Pryor game. His subterfuge worked, securing an easy Sousa Band victory.
Later in his career, Sousa penned The National Game March, finally combining his two greatest loves. Written in 1925 at the behest of, and dedicated to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball, The National Game March celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the National League, founded in 1876. Interestingly, the original performances of the march featured four baseball bat solos. Sousa’s own musicians were not immune to capitalizing on baseball’s popularity; the brothers Arthur W. and Charles F. Bauer, accomplished popular songwriters in their own right, wrote and published the Three Strikes Two-Step in 1902, dedicating it to the Sousa Band’s baseball team. The Bauer brothers were members of both, but were far better known for their expertise on the concert stage than on the baseball diamond; Arthur, a solo trombonist, and Charles, a solo violinist and cornetist, as can be seen on the cover of their march. Arthur is the credited composer, and Charles is listed as having “revised and arranged” the work for publication. Together, the brothers published the piano two-step through their Bauer Bros. Music Company, in their hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
1. “One night when I had been particularly active in rolling a baseball around the room, to the evident discomfort of our visitors, the old gentleman suggested that a few lessons in solfeggio would do me no harm.” John Philip Sousa, Marching Along, (Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flynt, 1941), 7. Back
2. Ibid.,10. Back
3. Ibid., 337. Back
4. Paul E. Bierley, The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa, (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 52. Back
5. Patrick Warfield, Making the March King: John Philip Sousa’s Washington Years, 1854-1893, (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 96. Back
7. Bierley, Incredible Band, 24. Back
8. Sousa, Marching Along, 240. Back
John Philip Sousa,
The National Game March
Eastman Wind Ensemble,
Frederick Fennell, conductor