It's a silly baseball ritual. Yet everyone does it and almost no one knows why. Moments after the third out is made in the top half of the seventh inning, fans stand up. wriggle a little and sing along with the music. The seventh-inning stretch is virtually instinctive. "Everybody gets up from habit," says baseball clown Max Patkin, who has performed at more than 4.000 games in the last 45 seasons. "It's automatic."
The stretch has become part of our vocabulary. Several years ago California Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, after swearing in six new judges, encouraged them to let jurors have a "seventh-inning stretch" during tedious trials. In Lethal Weapon 2, Mel Gibson turns to the supine Patsy Kensit after the two have made love and says, "It's time for the seventh-inning stretch." There are more poetic ways to tell a lover that it's time for a respite from romance, but there is none more American.
The routine is simple. A fan removes his posterior from his seat, stands up and checks in with his bladder and stomach. If the former doesn't need emptying and the latter doesn't demand filling, the fan continues to stand, listening to the music or singing along. In all of sports, there is nothing analogous to the stretch; the one parallel to it is found in music. During Handel's Messiah, it is customary for the audience to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus. This tradition started after George II stood during the London debut of Messiah in 1743. Some music historians claim the English king sprang to his feet because he was moved by Handel's music. Others believe that His Highness, tired by the lengthy performance, rose to stretch his legs.
As with the genesis of many things, man and baseball included, the origins of the seventh-inning stretch are wrapped, albeit not too tightly, in mystery and are the subject of debate. The most popular—and least supportable—tale of how the seventh-inning stretch began dates back to Opening Day in 1910, when President William Howard Taft came to National Park in Washington, D.C., to throw out the first ball. According to legend, between the top and bottom of the seventh, Taft rose in his flag-draped box to stretch his elephantine limbs. Fans thought the President was leaving and stood out of respect. Respectful or otherwise, some nearby fans would certainly have had to get to their feet to see over or around a standing Taft. A giant of a man at six feet and more than 300 pounds, the President would have blocked more lines of vision than a basketball team taking in a movie at the Bijou.
April 15, 1990
But the stretch predates by at least two decades the story of Taft's exercise of his presidential prerogative. Consider the following account, taken from The Sporting News, of the first game of the 1889 World Series between New York's Giants of the National League and Brooklyn's Bridegrooms of the American Association: "As the seventh opened somebody cried, 'Stretch for luck!' And instantly the vast throng on the grand stand rose gradually and then settled down, just as long grass bends to the breath of the zephyr."
This account not only undermines the Taft tale, but it lends support to Manhattan College's claim that a Christian Brother by the name of Jasper Brennan initiated the stretch. According to the Manhattan story, which has been floating around for some 30 years, during an extended game between Manhattan and the New York Metropolitans in June of 1882, Brother Jasper, the team's coach, noticed that his charges were becoming restless, squirming on their wooden perches under the broiling midday sun. As Manhattan came off the field to take its turn at bat in the seventh, the good brother encouraged the students to stand and stretch.
Apparently this simple act quelled the student unrest and thereafter became, if you will, Brother Jasper's standing order. The stretch was supposedly adopted by New York Giants fans who first saw it performed when their club played its annual exhibition game with the college.
Manhattan College, which has since moved to the Bronx, has staunchly defended its role in introducing this baseball custom. At a Manhattan alumni dinner held in the spring of 1982, everyone rose and stretched near the end of the program to commemorate the supposed 100th anniversary of the stretch.
Manhattan and the Metropolitans did, in fact, play one another in 1882. They met on May 31 at the Polo Grounds, and the Metropolitans won 6-0. But other important details do not support the story. The game didn't last long—one hour and 45 minutes—and most of the action was in the eighth and ninth, when the Metropolitans scored five of their six runs. The weather was pleasant, with an afternoon high of 81°. Warm, but hardly unbearable.
Even if Brother Jasper had issued his standing order in 1882, he was years too late to earn credit for coming up with the stretch. In June 1869, The New York Herald reported on a game between the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Brooklyn Eagles: "At the close of the long second inning, the laughable stand up and stretch was indulged in all round the field." The "laughable stand up and stretch"? It certainly sounds like the same silly ritual, if somewhat earlier in the game. Later in the year the Cincinnati Commercial reported on a game that was played on the West Coast between the Red Stockings and the Eagle Club of San Francisco: "One thing noticeable in this game was a ten minutes' intermission at the end of the sixth inning—a dodge to advertise and have the crowd patronize the bar."
The clincher, however, is a letter Cincinnati manager Harry Wright wrote to a friend that year. "The [Cincinnati] spectators all arise between halves of the seventh inning, extend their legs and arms, and sometimes walk about. In so doing they enjoy the relief afforded by relaxation from a long posture upon hard benches." Commoners had hit upon a way to stretch their legs just as the restless royal, George II, had 126 years earlier. Interestingly, the Hallelujah Chorus and the seventh-inning stretch both come at the same time, roughly three quarters of the way into a typical performance or game.
But why not stretch after the second inning, as had apparently been the custom in Brooklyn? Or in the fifth, the game's midpoint, as they began doing in Louisville in 1876? Why the seventh? Because sports fans, like ballplayers, are a superstitious lot and seven has been considered a lucky number since antiquity. From the 1870s—and possibly earlier—until at least World War I, the seventh was frequently referred to as the "lucky seventh." By the seventh inning, too, the benches—nothing more than wooden planks, really—of early ballparks began to deaden fans' derrieres. It was a serendipitous meeting of hard wood with the (knock-on-wood) lucky seventh inning that gave rise to the stretch, although exactly when or where it first occurred is left to a more resolute baseball archaeologist to unearth.
Nowhere do fans head into the stretch with as much zeal as they do at Wrigley Field, where Cub broadcaster Harry Caray presides over the seventh-inning festivities. As soon as the last out is made in the top half of the inning, everyone in the park rises and lifts eyes to the WGN booth, which hangs from the second deck a little way down the third-base line. When Caray reaches the window, he looks out at the crowd and exhorts, "Let me hear ya! A-one! A-two! A-three!" and then with a voice that is three-parts gravel and two-parts Budweiser, leads the standing Cub fans through Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
Other cities have their own traditions. In Milwaukee, for example. Brewers fans sing along with the Andrews Sisters' rollicking rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. "Then," explains an employee in the Brewers' front office, "just because we're Milwaukee, we play Roll Out the Barrel." In Kansas City, the words to Take Me Out to the Ball Game are put up on the scoreboard and a bouncing ball helps those few souls who aren't familiar with the song to follow the lyrics.
The minor league scene is much the same. In Jacksonville, home of the Southern League Expos, owner Peter Bragan Sr. and his daughter Bonita grab microphones. On the field, half a dozen Expoettes wave red, white and blue pom-poms. "We couldn't be more patriotic," says Bonita. Then everyone sings Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
"We think it's part of the game," Bonita says. "Honey, in some parks in the league they don't even play Take Me Out to the Ball Game." True, in Huntsville they play Sweet Home Alabama.
Huntsville is not the only town guilty of such heresy. In the early 1980s, the Bristol (Conn.) Red Sox of the Eastern League played the Bristol Stomp, an early '60s rock 'n' roll number performed by the Dovells. Today in Arlington, the Texas Rangers play Cotton-Eye Joe, an old folk song, during the stretch. In Oakland and Baltimore, the clubs have lengthy playlists for the seventh-inning break, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game makes only infrequent weekend appearances. In the early '70s, the Orioles played The Mexican Hat Dance. Then from 1975 to 1986, Baltimoreans rocked out to John Denver's Thank God I'm a Country Boy. Captain Granola himself sang the song at the 1983 World Series, sending Oriole fans into ecstasy and the O's to a five-game victory.
In Toronto, the stretch has been taken to its absurd conclusion. Eight to 10 students supplied by the Ministry of Tourism and Recreation lead stretching exercises—"Feel the burn, eh!"—to that Canadian standard OK Blue Jays. Farther south, the St. Louis Cardinals have made the stretch part of their nine-inning deluge of beer commercials. During the stretch, the club plays the Budweiser song, Here Comes the King, and shows a video of the Clydesdales on the scoreboard.
Normally, the stretch is reserved for exercising legs and vocal chords. But not always. In 1984, fans in Anaheim Stadium's cheap seats decided to stretch their throwing arms, tossing tortillas around the bleachers and onto the field. The tortilla tossers quickly settled on corn tortillas because they had superior aerodynamics—''Look at the rotation on that one!"—and cost less than flour tortillas. Stadium police expelled the most ardent denizens of Tortilla Flats, yet the cops were largely unruffled by the food fights. They were "not nearly as strange as something else we've seen out at the stadium this year," said Sergeant Bill Donoghue of the Anaheim police. "For a while, some guy would sit up there and eat big moths."
Fans have also considered the stretch to be the perfect time to exercise their freedom of speech. In the fall of '88, two disgruntled San Diego Padres fans, unhappy with club president Chub Feeney, paraded along a stadium walkway with a sign that encouraged team owner Joan Kroc to SCRUB CHUB. Feeney responded with an uplifted middle finger, an unusual salute to the fans, coming as it did on Fan Appreciation Night. The next day Feeney resigned.
It's late in the story, so you can all take a break. Stand up, stretch, rub the sleep out of your eyes and hustle to the fridge. Grab a cold one, then hum "Take Me Out to the Ball Game, " applaud yourself and settle back into your seat.
Here's the wind up and the pitch....
Harry Caray started leading Chicago fans in Take Me Out to the Ball Game in 1976, when he was broadcasting for the White Sox. Owner Bill Veeck noticed that spectators who sat below the broadcast booth sang along with Caray as he serenaded his co-announcer, Jimmy Piersall,
"One day without me knowing it, Veeck hid a public-address microphone in the booth," Caray says. "I'm there singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and all of a sudden I hear my voice booming back at me along with about 15.000 others."
Caray recalls that Veeck explained: "I knew you would be the right guy because any guy sitting in the ballpark who hears you sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game knows that he can sing as well as you, probably better. Therefore he freely joins in. Hell, if you had a really good singing voice you'd intimidate them."
At the beginning of the '87 season, fans turned to the WGN booth, but Caray wasn't there. He had been laid low a month and a half earlier by a stroke, and would miss the first six weeks of the season. Game after game, Cub fans stood and looked up to the window of Caray's booth and sang along with a recording of the bedridden broadcaster. Caray recovered and returned to the booth for a game against the Reds. "The President called me at the beginning of the game," Caray says. "Then, before the bottom of the seventh, you could tell how eager the fans were because all through the ballpark they began chanting, "Har-REE, Har-REE.' "
As soon as Reds shortstop Barry Larkin flied out to right to end the top of the seventh, the fans began cheering wildly. The Cubs stepped out of the dugout to watch, and even a few of the Reds sneaked a peek. "I really felt it," Caray says. Caray says he was afraid that his voice wouldn't be strong enough to sing the whole song, but he sailed through it. "Just as off-key as ever," he adds with a laugh.
It's a silly ritual, all this standing around and singing. But it also adds texture to the rich fabric of baseball. "I don't know about other places, but in Chicago, they don't care what's been going on before in the game or after in the game," Caray says of the stretch. But many fans in Chicago and elsewhere leave the park after the stretch. The rule book says the game is official after five innings. But" any fan knows the game is not really official until the top half of the seventh is in the scorebook and they've touched their toes in Toronto, or waved their pom-poms in Jacksonville, or in the cozy confines of Wrigley Field they've sung along with Harry.
San Francisco-based Bruce Anderson is a former SI writer-reporter.