Write What You Don't Know

The Los Angeles Times reveals that when Jack Norworth wrote "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in 1908, he had never attended one, and in fact didn't until 1940:

He was riding the subway in New York when he saw a billboard for the Polo Grounds, the legendary ballpark where San Francisco's Giants then played. He pulled out a pencil and paper and dashed out the lyrics.

The song was a big hit for the prolific Norworth, who followed it up later that year with another: "Shine On, Harvest Moon."

It isn't so unusual for icons to be created at a distance. The author of the lyrics to the tune "Danny Boy" (based on the earlier Londonderry Air) was an Englishman named Frederick Weatherley who had never seen Ireland. But his confusion about its landscape didn't hurt the song's success, as Malachy McCourt, author of a book on the subject, observes: There's no mention [of Ireland] at all. ... We don't talk so much about glens in Ireland as do the Scots. We don't have many mountains in Ireland either."

Karl May, a reformed Saxon con artist who turned his imaginative talents to fiction, created an image of the American West that shaped the imaginations of countless young Europeans—in Communist East Germany, too—before he ever set foot in North America.

Mario Puzo acknowledged: "I'm ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster...." The sociologist Diego Gambetta has studied what he calls "lowlife imitating art." The Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty summarizes his findings:

Well, strip away the mystique and organised crime is a business—one with big handicaps. It may be called "the Firm", but managing a poorly educated, violent workforce is a challenge, advertising job vacancies only attracts the law, and appraisals for underperforming staff can err on the brusque side. The Godfather and other gangster movies plug those holes, says Gambetta. They give criminals an easy-to-follow protocol and a glamour that serves as both corporate feelgood and marketing tool. Uncomfortable though it may be to acknowledge, the underworld is not above taking its cues from the upperworld.

Sometimes a sideways view is most penetrating. Just be sure that, like Norworth on the subway, you always have that pencil and paper with you.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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