by Steven Dugan
With baseball well into the second half of its season, millions of fans are enjoying all the sport has to offer. One interesting thing about baseball is that it’s filled with long-standing traditions. One is not talking about a no-hitter in progress (you don’t want to jinx the pitcher!). Another is keeping score at a ball game. And while I can only speak from my own experiences growing up, tradition was bringing a transistor radio to Dodger Stadium so we could listen to legendary Dodger announcer Vin Scully give the play-by-play. Last, and by no means least, one of the most popular traditions in baseball is the seventh-inning stretch. The history of this tradition is quite interesting, with many claims to its origins, and surprising side stories.
There are at least three claims of how and when the seventh-inning stretch began. According to Michael Aubrecht, the most popular story comes from Opening Day 1910, in a game between the Philadelphia Athletics and the hometown Washington Senators. President William Howard Taft was in attendance to throw out the first pitch (another baseball tradition). Around the seventh inning, the President stood up to stretch. Once fans saw the President stand, they stood too as a sign of respect, and a tradition was born. Well, maybe.
Roger Weber writes of another claim that comes from Boston, whose fans would stand up in the seventh inning to cheer on their team because they often scored in the later innings. One last story from the 1880s gives credit to Manhattan College in New York. The story goes that students in the stands created the break to promote fitness and calisthenics. While some of these stories might have some truth to them, we may never know exactly when or how the tradition began. But we are only half-way done with our study of this tradition.
The seventh-inning stretch isn’t complete without singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a song created in 1908 by Tin Pan Alley lyricist Jack Norworth and composer Albert Von Tilzer. Tin Pan Alley was a section of New York City on West 28th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. It was a hangout for publishing companies and songwriters. Reportedly, Jack Norworth (who also wrote the famous “Shine On, Harvest Moon”) penned one of the most familiar songs in the history of sports while on a train to Manhattan after seeing a poster that said “Baseball Today—Polo Grounds” (the home of the New York Giants). Norworth then gave the lyrics to Von Tilzer who put his words to music, cementing their place in baseball history, even though neither of them attended a baseball game until the 1940s!
The history of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is also a combination of baseball lore, incomplete stories, and various claims of being “first.” After the song was published in 1908, it gained popularity in Vaudeville shows and was later sung in movie theaters during intermissions. But when did the song become part of the tradition of the seventh-inning stretch? Paulo Camacho cites the song was first played at a ballgame at a Los Angeles high school in 1934. Unfortunately, the name of the school and other details appear lost to history. He adds that the song was played later that year during game four of the 1934 World Series. The song was sung sporadically throughout the 1900s, but little evidence exists to the regular singing of the song until the early to mid-1970s.
In 1971, Chicago White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray would sing along to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch because, according to him, “That’s the only song I knew the words to.” In 1976, White Sox owner Bill Veeck, also known for his unusual baseball promotions, noticed Harry singing the song and fans sitting near the announcer’s booth singing along with him. Baseball Almanac explains that Veeck then secretly recorded Caray singing, so everyone in the stadium could hear. Caray was eventually convinced to lead the entire crowd. Fans would soon see Harry sticking his head out of the booth directing the sing-along. Caray continued this tradition after he became the broadcaster for the crosstown Cubs until his death in 1998. Famous Chicagoans have filled in for Harry at every home game since. Occasionally Cubs fans are treated to a video recording of Carey leading them in song in the middle of the seventh inning.
Did you know that Norworth wrote two verses to accompany the song? At one time, the entire song was sung at ball games, but only the chorus is sung today. By only singing the chorus, however, most baseball fans might not know that Norworth wrote the verses of the song from the perspective of a young woman! During a time in history when many women didn’t attend ball games, the heroine in the song is young Katie Casey, whose only obsession was baseball. To win Katie’s heart, all a young man needed to do was take her to the ball game. She is both a passionate student and fan of the game—the ultimate fanatic! In 1927, Norworth wrote new lyrics featuring Nelly Kelly. The basic story was the same, Nelly was just as much a fan as Katie, yet Nelly was a bit more assertive, perhaps a nod to the strides women made during the 1920s, including the right to vote in national elections. We may never know why Norworth chose a woman as the subject of his song, but whatever the reason, for those fans “who have the fever and have it bad,” going to a ball game is just what the doctor ordered. So the next time you attend a game, share your new knowledge of this great tradition with your fellow fans. You know which inning.
You can listen to a recording of the original 1908 song, sung by Edward Meeker, here.
Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou [a slang word for a low-denomination coin]
On a Saturday her young beau,
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said, “No
I’ll tell you what you can do.”
Take me out to the ball game,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.
Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song: