How ‘Sweet Caroline’ became Fenway’s beloved (and detested) ballpark anthem

Neil Diamond sings "Sweet Caroline" during the middle of the eighth inning of the Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston Saturday, April 20, 2013. –Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

For a younger generation of Red Sox of fans, Fenway Park is synonymous with “Sweet Caroline.” Yet the famous tradition of the entire stadium belting out Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit during the 8th inning — a custom both beloved and loathed, depending on who you ask — is a fairly recent phenomenon.

The cheesy song didn’t arrive on the scene until 1997, the same year that Wally the Green Monster and the giant Coke bottles made their debut.

So how did a nearly 50-year-old song with no apparent local ties become an integral part of the Fenway game experience? And can it survive a perpetual tide of scorn from both music snobs and sports purists alike to preserve its eighth-inning dominance? To examine the song’s future, it’s best to return to the beginning.

Where it began

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It all started with a baby named Caroline.

During a 1997 game at Fenway, Amy Tobey, who was one of the employees in charge of music at the ballpark during that season, played “Sweet Caroline” because someone she knew had recently given birth to a baby of that name, according to MLB.com.

Tobey became superstitious about its use over the next several years, only playing the song between the seventh and ninth innings when the Red Sox were winning the game. In that way, the song served the same purpose as “Gino Time,” a video mashup of American Bandstand dancers grooving to the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” that started playing at the TD Garden (then known as the Fleet Center) in 1996, but only during the last TV timeout of games the Celtics were almost assured to win.

But when Dr. Charles Steinberg became the Red Sox executive vice president of public affairs in 2002, he quickly seized on the song as an integral part of the Fenway experience.

Former Red Sox senior advisor Charles Steinberg plays the guitar in his Fenway Park office in 2012. —John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“The Red Sox would play it once in a while,” Steinberg told MLB.com. “They would play it from time to time. It wasn’t an anthem. In 2002, they were still doing that. I could hear that the fans were singing responsively.

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“So I said to Danny Kischel, who was working the control room at the time, I said, ‘Are you going to play ‘Sweet Caroline’ today?’ He said, ‘Oh no, we can’t play it. It’s not a ‘Sweet Caroline’ day.’ I said, ‘What’s a ‘Sweet Caroline’ day?’ He said, ‘We only play ‘Sweet Caroline’ when the team is ahead and the crowd is festive and the atmosphere is already very upbeat.’”

Steinberg theorized that the song may have “transformative powers,” and would thus be able to lift the spirits of a crowd even when victory wasn’t imminent. He also believed that standardizing the song by always playing it in the middle of the eighth inning would give it staying power.

“I wanted it to be the middle of the eighth, because you want your more festive songs to occur when the home team is coming up to bat,” Steinberg said in the interview. “So we started playing it each day in 2002.”

As the song’s popularity at Fenway Park began to grow, its creator became increasingly tied to the team — and to Boston itself. Diamond cemented that tie in 2007 by revealing that the song was about New England’s own Caroline Kennedy, for whom he performed it on her 50th birthday.

“It was a No. 1 record and probably is the biggest, most important song of my career, and I have to thank her for the inspiration,” Diamond told the Associated Press. “I’m happy to have gotten it off my chest and to have expressed it to Caroline. I thought she might be embarrassed, but she seemed to be struck by it and really, really happy.”

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Diamond claimed he was inspired by a photograph of the then nine-year-old Kennedy that he saw in a magazine while staying at a hotel in Memphis.

“It was a picture of a little girl dressed to the nines in her riding gear, next to her pony,” Diamond said. “It was such an innocent, wonderful picture, I immediately felt there was a song in there.”

Diamond has backed away from that claim in recent years, saying that the song was about his then-wife, Marsha, during an appearance on Today in 2014.

“I was writing a song in Memphis, Tennessee, for a session. I needed a three-syllable name. The song was about my wife at the time — her name was Marsha — and I couldn’t get a ‘Marsha’ rhyme.”

Regardless of the song’s inspiration, it has staying power as part of quintessential Boston culture. In 2013, Diamond appeared at Fenway to perform the song after the Boston Marathon bombings, and said he would donate royalties from the song to One Fund Boston. Other baseball teams around the country also played it in solidarity with Boston in the aftermath of the attacks.

As Steinberg told the Globe in 2013, for some, the song is “as much a part of a visit to Boston and Fenway Park as having clam chowder or a lobster roll.”

Neil Diamond singing “Sweet Caroline” on April 20, 2013 at the first home game at Fenway following the Boston Marathon bombings. —AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, file

Hurting runs off my shoulders

Even in its adopted home ballpark, however, “Sweet Caroline” doesn’t enjoy universal appeal. Local baseball purists and music fans are some of the song’s biggest detractors, as Geoff Edgers found out in his 2013 Boston Globe piece on the song’s Fenway ubiquity. Among the Caroline haters were radio host Tony Massarotti (“I hate the ‘tradition’”), Globe columnist Bob Ryan (he called the playing of the song during Boston’s 69-93 season in 2012 a “national disgrace”), and Buffalo Tom lead singer Bill Janovitz, who, when asked what song should replace “Sweet Caroline,” simply responded: “Anything.”

Some of the grievances stem from the baseball purist’s notion that “Sweet Caroline” is a bellwether of “pink hat” fandom — in other words, baseball treated as a social outing, not as a competitive game. During the tumultuous Bobby Valentine-managed season of 2012, MassLive’s Nick Underhill blasted the fans for singing and swaying away as the Sox squandered a 9-0 lead against the Yankees, lost the game 15-9 and fell to 4-10 on the season.

“Each night they shamefully scream out the words to “Sweet Caroline” as if everything is all good even when it isn’t,” Underhill wrote. “Hey, you spent $400 to bring your family to a game and they just blew a nine-run lead to your most hated rival. How do you feel right now? ‘So good! So good!’”

Jared Carrabis, a baseball writer for Barstool Sports, tweeted that the song is the “I’m not a diehard but I think diehards sing this so if I sing it then people will think I am but I’m still not” anthem. (He also said, more succinctly: “Sweet Caroline sucks.”)

Even Fenway employees have damned the song with faint praise. Megan Kaiser, a music programmer at the park in 2005, noted that “any idiot” can sing along to it in a 2005 NPR interview. In the same piece, Fenway organ player Josh Cantor said it was a “silly, cheesy song,” before adding that it was fun for everyone to sing along with.

Edgers, a veteran music journalist who now works for The Washington Post, was especially harsh in his assessment of the song’s musical qualities, writing, “It’s a largely forgettable, three-minute slab of Velveeta with a distinct creepiness (‘Warm, touchin’ warm’) when you consider it was written by Neil Diamond, pushing 30 at the time, about Caroline Kennedy, then a preteen.”

After the 2012 season, the team’s worst record this millennium, Red Sox brass briefly discussed removing the song from the park playlist, according to The Globe. But in the end, tradition won out. The next season, the Red Sox won the World Series, and the times were once again “So good! so good!”

Fans singing along to “Sweet Caroline” on April 21, 2013. —Mattthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Touching me, touching you

These days, the Red Sox aren’t the only team appropriating the song as a stadium soundtrack staple. The Carolina Panthers play it after every victory at Bank of America Stadium. The Pitt Panthers play it during the 4th quarter of every home game, with fans punctuating the pauses with “Let’s go, Pitt!” instead of “ba ba baaa.” Even the New York Mets experimented with using the song during later innings for a few years. (The Yankees, aside from their post-Marathon bombing tribute, mercifully have not.)

Across the pond, England’s Oxford United Football Club plays the song after every victory. On the other side of the planet, the Sydney Swans — an Australian rules football club — play the song every game as well. (The Swans recently rebuffed a fan-led petition to remove the song from games, saying it was “a fan favorite for many.”) Even non-sports fans have gotten a heavy dose of Diamond recently in the form of a Hyundai commercial that aired across America.

“Sweet Caroline” isn’t about Boston (and might not even be about the area’s most famous Caroline), is written by someone who’s not a local, and features dreamy, uplifting lyrics that seem to fly in the face of Boston’s self-professed cynical, tough-guy image. Will the team ever move away from Diamond, perhaps putting “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys in the rotation instead? The future remains unclear. But to quote Mr. Diamond, “I’d be inclined (ba ba baaa) to believe they never would.”

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