Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is one of the most iconic sports games ever made. Released in 1994 during the MLB lockout, it only was able to license Ken Griffey Jr. himself, while the teams were stacked with fictional players patterned after specific themes for each individual ball club. The character models themselves all resembled a muscular, heroic — or steroid-abusing, if you looked at them from a certain angle — corresponding real-life player. The game was far zippier and more aggressive than actual baseball, and was propelled by its outrageously groovy, funk rock soundtrack. Its MIDI guitar and organ-heavy sound has always stuck in my head as one of the most memorable and catchy soundtracks in games. And so, I decided to reach out the lead composer, Christopher Jojo, to find out exactly what went into its genesis.
Oh! That’s a Baseball!
Back in the early 90s, Jojo was a 19-year-old cinephile and sci-fi nut who was trying to get into a prominent London film program. He had directed and edited short films, which had received some positive notice, but was told he needed a stronger reel to get into the program he wanted. He took an HND course — the UK version of vocational school or an associate’s degree — and got a gig doing storyboards for Palace Pictures, where he even got to work with legendary cult director Richard Stanley on Dust Devil and Hardware. He was playing in a band, and later moved to Hong Kong to work on contract editing for Hong Kong television stations. Then, he was offered a gig through a film festival connection to work on illustrations for Software Creations.
Ken Griffey Jr. was the brainchild of its American producer, Brian Ullrich, who joined the Manchester-based Software Creations in 1992. “When I got over there, I was really the only one who knew baseball,” Ullrich told The Athletic earlier this year.
“Brian is a really good producer,” Jojo tells me. “He knew what he wanted. You would have to go through iterations. The sound of the baseball bat. Hitting the ball. Whistle of the ball going up and down. We’d have to create that sound effect from scratch.” According to Jojo, Ullrich also had an interest in criminal pathology, and was communicating with John Wayne Gacey. He gave the Manchester studio a crash course on American culture, and got Jojo into Ren & Stimpy. At the time, Nintendo had just opened an office in Seattle, and also bought a minority stake in the Mariners franchise, so it was motivated to make a game for the SNES that would appeal to American audiences.
Software Creations had just lost its two wunderkind sibling MIDI composers, Jeff and Tim Follin, but the company was really taking off. “They were moving on. Tim didn’t see eye to eye with Richard Kaye [the managing director at the time]. He knew his worth, and I think he was after a bit more money. I think he wanted more control.” While Jojo had initially joined to do artwork, he had to quickly learn the MIDI-sampling and programming ropes from 19-year-old Matthew Cannon.
Baseball Party Anthem
While Cannon was a classically trained musician, who was listening to people like Richard Wagner and Alban Berg, Jojo was listening to film scores and funk rock. “I thought baseball — it’s going to be a bit rock-y. But because it’s Ken Griffey, let’s make it a bit more interesting, Jojo described the impetus for the style. “I love funk and hip-hop. I was listening to a lot of funk rock crossovers that were very prevalent in the 90’s — the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Doug Wimbish, Bootsy Collins.”
Ullrich also wanted to license Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 1 & 2),” but the audio team felt that it would be a bit ambitious to try to fit into the game. Cannon and Jojo bonded while messing around on different instruments and putting different songs in the sampler, until they eventually lifted riffs from “Peace Frog” by The Doors and “I’m Free” by Bootsy Collins. They used a Hammond B3 Organ to add what they thought were baseball-y sounds to the affair.
“We used a lot of [Tim Follin’s] sample library — there were some bits and pieces there that we sort of lifted — and then we made some samples of our own, Jojo says. “And then the guitar. Matt was doing the organ. It was a very collaborative affair. Once we had the momentum, and Richard [Kaye] was starting to get happier, it was really good. It was a really happy period for me.”
The turnaround on games in 1994 was rather short, and the development of Griffey lasted about a year, though Jojo remembers having to finish the music in a couple of months, even pulling an all night on New Year’s Eve to send the final track in the game over to the States.
“Tim [Follin] is erroneously credited with writing the music for Ken Griffey, and that is not the case. This is a tiny little homespun software outfit,” Jojo says. “If Tim was getting the credit, it might be because we were making use of his samples. Jeff might have done some coding.” Indeed, both Follin brothers still ended up in the credits for the game, and are often mentioned in the YouTube comments for the game’s soundtrack. But, Jojo notes, “There was nobody involved with the music outside of [me, Matt, and Brian] and Paul Tong, who did the conversion.”
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A Bright Future
Ken Griffey Jr. was a massive hit, selling 1.2 million copies. Software Creations grew and was eventually acquired by Acclaim. Jojo worked on other games, most featuring his signature crunchy, distorted, guitar sound like Spiderman / Venom: Maximum Carnage and — his favorite — Foreman For Real. He even got to work on the cancelled PS1 Waterworld game.
Jojo is now Senior Sound Designer at Codemasters, doing on-track and licensed vehicle sound design for the Grid, F1, and DiRT Rally series. He recently had to rush out after lockdowns ended to different garages to record cars for the new games. I ask whether he preferred the limitations of scoring for cartridge where you have to worry about how many kilobytes your MIDI is or the “non-linear, enormous” demands of modern sound-design. “It’s funny you ask,” he says. “As much as I love it, this is harder because you have to get it right. Whereas, I love creating. I love fantasy games.”
Listening to the Ken Griffey Jr. soundtrack now, I can still recall those sweaty-palmed afternoons trying to beat my brother with a bubblegum-chewing meatheat named after some Software Creations employee or a literary hero. The clamoring of the drums, the momentum of the organ, the sample of a man yelling “Play Ball!” at me. I realized that I never even got to hear the end credits song because I never played single-player, and therefore never got to see the game’s “ending.” It’s funny to think that this jangly, solo-driven, MIDI masterpiece was written by a sleepless 20-year-old jamming out, creating in his mind the mood of a sport that he was barely familiar with.