Music

It Took 35 Years, but Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” Is Finally Perfect

The classic anthem was right about nostalgia but wrong about baseball. Luckily, I fixed it.

Springsteen's face is determined, his arms held high, his baseball cap badly creased
The Boss, preparing to pitch one of his famous “speedballs.” Screengrab from the official video for “Glory Days”

Thirty-five years ago today, Bruce Springsteen released the single “Glory Days.” The fifth of a record-tying seven Top 10 singles released from Springsteen’s album Born in the U.S.A., “Glory Days” is a comic reverie about the power of nostalgia to make us laugh instead of cry. It’s funny, touching, rousing, catchy. It’s a nearly perfect pop song.

Nearly. “Glory Days,” unfortunately, includes one extremely incorrect lyric. A line so wrong that it’s bothered me for 35 years. I’m happy to say that finally, for the song’s 35th anniversary, I have solved the error and fixed the song. You’re welcome, American cultural treasure Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce’s songs are among the best-documented in the rock ’n’ roll canon, with decades of amateur and pro historians cataloging his every demo, recording session, and lyric change. So we know a lot about “Glory Days.” We know Springsteen recorded it in May 1982, years before its actual release, during “an extraordinary burst of creativity,” as Geoffrey Himes puts it in his 33⅓ book about Born in the U.S.A. (In those few weeks at the Power Station on West 53rd Street in New York City, Bruce and the E Street Band also recorded “I’m on Fire,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” the album’s title track, and a half-dozen other songs.) We know there was once a fourth verse, less comic and more tragic, about the narrator’s dad who “ain’t never had” glory days, which Bruce wisely cut. And we know that the song was based on a real-life encounter Bruce had in 1973 with an old Freehold, New Jersey, buddy, Joe DePugh, in which the two men drank all night and reminisced about their days playing youth baseball.

You remember the story:

I had a friend was a big baseball player

Back in high school

He could throw that speedball by ya

Make you look like a fool

… Wait a minute. He’d throw a what by ya? A speedball?

I was 10 when I first heard “Glory Days,” and even then I knew that no one who plays baseball or watches baseball calls any pitch a speedball. The pitch that a pitcher throws that is fast is called, obviously, a fastball. It’s the most important pitch in the sport. Everyone calls it a fastball.

Of course, speedball has a whole different meaning: It’s a combination of cocaine and heroin, the very drug cocktail that, three years before “Glory Days” was released, famously killed John Belushi. In the context of baseball, speedball feels a little old-timey, and indeed Paul Dickson’s comprehensive Baseball Dictionary does include a couple of mentions of speedball from 1918 and 1955. Baseball writer Craig Calcaterra may think that justifies Springsteen’s use of the term, but come on. I know the song is about nostalgia for the past, but the halcyon days the narrator of “Glory Days” is referring to are not the era of Dizzy Trout or that of Jim Vaughn and his “buzzer.” The glory days are the 1960s, when high schoolers, like everyone else, called fastballs fastballs.

A Google Books search backs this up. “Only God can give you the fastball,” Herb Score said in 1966’s Great Rookies of the Major Leagues. “Sign number one is the sign for the fastball,” explained a 1968 American Legion Magazine guide to catchers’ signs. A 1969 issue of Ebony referred to Satchel Paige’s “sneaky fastball.” Meanwhile, references to speedball in 1960s sources—as no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary agrees—refer either to doses of drugs or to an unrelated playground game, a combination of soccer, handball, and basketball, that I vaguely recall playing during gym class. That Bruce Springsteen had his working-class Joe—a guy who once played baseball and who certainly knows the game—refer to a baseball pitch as a “speedball” has seemed, for 35 years now, wrong, wrong, wrong.

At first, I thought I would just have to live with this flaw in an otherwise great song. But over the years I couldn’t help but wonder: I’m a professional editor. Shouldn’t I try to fix it? Seeing an injustice in the world, like a pop song approaching perfection but not quite reaching it, isn’t it the honest man’s duty to remedy the situation?

At first it seemed so simple: Replace the odious “speedball” with “fastball,” right? But something else nagged at me. The issue isn’t just that Springsteen misnamed the pitch. It’s that he named the wrong pitch. It’s in the second half of the couplet that the baseball story falls apart:

He could throw that [fastball] by ya

Make you look like a fool

Does whiffing on a fastball make a hitter “look like a fool”? I’d argue no. Especially in high school, any pitcher known for his fastball will have opponents coming to the plate looking for that fastball, gearing up to hit it, and swinging hard. If a pitcher’s great, you’ll still miss, but you’ll be taking big hacks. And when it’s done, you’ll tip your cap that the pitcher was able to blow you away in an honest battle.

“Make you look like a fool” implies subterfuge, trickery. The fastball doesn’t deceive anyone. Now, a curveball is another story. A great curveball freezes a batter, makes him take a silly half swing—makes him look well, foolish. Think of the terrible swings big-league hitters took at Mike Mussina curveballs, the way they shook their heads after a called strike three. Then think how dumbfounding it would have been to face that pitch in high school.

As I listened to “Glory Days” and the decades went by, I realized that the pitch that the narrator’s friend in “Glory Days” ought to be remembered for is his curve. Fastball doesn’t solve the problem. A more extensive revision was needed.

Behold, the new lyrics to the first verse of “Glory Days”:

I had a friend was a big baseball player

Back in high school

He could drop that curveball in there

Make you look like a fool

More accurate, yes. But also, I would argue, a better rhyme! Now I admit I haven’t been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nor have I won 20 Grammy awards, sold more than 100 million records, or received the Presidential Medal of Freedom—but it seems to me that “by ya” was always no better than a half-rhyme with “player.” Tweaking that line to “in there” gives you an -er sound at the end of both lines.

So now that I had solved the problem in “Glory Days,” the obvious next step was to let Bruce Springsteen know about the change. It’s too late to edit the album, of course, but Bruce has played the song live more than 500 times, and given his energy level, he might play it 500 more, so he might as well let the E Street Band know about the new lyrics. I emailed his publicist and told her I’d like to interview the rock ’n’ roll legend so I could explain how I had fixed one of his most beloved, popular songs. “Unfortunately I am not going to be able to set up an interview with him or to get a comment on this, I’m sorry,” she replied.

Hopefully Bruce will read this blog post, nod his head in agreement, and send an email out to the rest of the guys. At the very least, you know about the new lyrics now. When the time comes that you can finally head back to the well and drink ’til you’ve had your fill, throw “Glory Days” on the old jukebox, kick back, and sing along—with the confidence that finally, now, the song is perfect.