Day 566: The 566th-Day Stretch

originally published July 19, 2013

Regular readers know I don’t devote a lot of my sports-watching time to anything other than NFL football and Olympic shot-put trials. Nothing against the other sports out there – I simply like the fact that I can cram all my vicarious thrill-gaming into Sunday. Well, and Monday night. Thursday Night Football still messes me up.

But I am a lover of all sports, in that I love the drama that comes bundled with them. When my hometown Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup finals back in ’06, I cheered them on. When the Boston Red Sox finally conquered the Curse of the Bambino, I celebrated. And when the Swedish women just barely bested Denmark in the 1997 European Curling Championships I… no, I’m joking.  I’d rather watch Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, dubbed with a painfully nasal, even Drescher-esque Korean soundtrack than watch curling on television.

Baseball is one sport I truly respect. Here’s a sport with maybe a minute and a half of pure action in any game, yet still it can be riveting to watch. It’s a sport based on tension; the Alfred Hitchcock of sports. And it’s the only sport to incorporate well-being and proper circulation right into the game, in the form of a mandated late-game stretch.

Like any piece of baseball tradition, the seventh inning stretch dates back to the 19th century. And like any piece of history from the 19th century that wasn’t recorded in an official Congressional record, the specific details are a little sketchy. One story claims that Brother Jasper, the holy man credited with bringing baseball to Manhattan College, decreed during a particularly suspenseful game that all players and fans should give their muscles some much-needed movement.

That’s about as dull an origin story as anyone could come up with.

I prefer the 1869 letter written by Harry Wright, centerfielder for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. He makes note of the odd behavior of fans who stand up and stretch in the seventh inning. This credits the tradition’s origin to some strange group-think that emerged as a result of the uncomfortable wooden benches in every park’s bleachers. A less likely story tells of President William Howard Taft standing up and stretching in the seventh inning of a 1910 game, with the spectators all following suit.

The tradition as we know it today features a rousing refrain of the 1908 Tin Pan Alley hit, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”. Most people know the words to this song, even if they’ve never been to a pro game or even tasted a Cracker Jack. And while I can’t speak to their Cracker Jack experience, it is an oft-repeated piece of trivia that Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, the two men responsible for writing the song, had never actually attended a baseball game.

The song itself has two verses that never get sung during a ball game, telling the story of Katie Casey, a girl obsessed with baseball. Another version was written by the same duo in 1927, changing the girl’s name to Nelly Kelly and making her a bit more of a pouty brat about her favourite sport. This is the version Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra sing in the MGM musical named after the song.

Chicago White Sox play-caller Harry Carey used to sing the tune to himself in the booth, until one day the club’s owner encouraged Carey to turn on the microphone and let all of Comiskey Park hear him sing. From there, the tradition was born. Celebrities often belt out the tune for an extra thrill, finishing off with a rousing “Let’s get some runs!” Well, except for the time rapper Nelly muffed that final lyric, yelling, “Let’s get some lunch!”

Most teams have their own little traditions in addition to the Norworth/Von Tilzer tune. The Cincinnati Reds also play the Beatles’ version of “Twist And Shout”, possibly as an encouragement to fans to stretch out their vertebrae. The Seattle Mariners honor their hometown heroes by blaring the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” Perhaps taking things a bit too literally, Health Canada officials step in during Toronto Blue Jays’ seventh inning stretches and walk the fans through a series of health-conscious stretching exercises.

Because the St. Louis Cardinals were once owned by Anheuser-Busch, it was common to hear “Here Comes The King”, a Budweiser jingle, during the stretch. On opening day and on special occasions, the Budweiser Clydesdales also make an appearance.

For some reason that probably makes sense to someone, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim fans are treated to “Build Me Up Buttercup” during the stretch. The Mets’ organ player is known for playing a song called “Lazy Mary”. The Brewers take advantage of Milwaukee’s beer history by playing “The Beer Barrel Polka”, though I think the theme song from Laverne & Shirley would also be appropriate.

My pick of parks would probably be the Washington Nationals, whose fans get treated to A-ha’s “Take On Me”, in honor of Michael Morse, who likes to warm up to the tune. When the Miami Marlins brought on a group of dancers to lead the fans in some stretches, Toronto-style, they were booed off the field while Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” played through the speakers. Fickle crowd, that Miami bunch.

Of course, “God Bless America” has also become a staple of the stretch for many teams, ever since 9/11. But some parks are also looking to establish an eighth-inning tradition. No stretching is necessary, but a specific song is chosen to represent their team as the final nine outs approach. Red Sox fans at Fenway sing along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” because why the hell not?

The Kansas City Royals are known for their singalong of “Friends In Low Places” in the middle of the eighth – again, no idea why. Journey shows up all over the place during this inning break. “Lights” gets played often for San Francisco Giants fans. “Don’t Stop Believin’” used to be an L.A. Dodgers staple, until Journey’s Steve Perry – born in San Francisco, and a huge Giants fan – asked them to stop. Actually, they kept playing the song. “Take that, Steve,” they declared. “Who’s crying now, bitch?”

The Detroit Tigers also made use of that song, as fans would raucously belt along with the lyric “Born and raised in South Detroit.” It’s a proud moment. Of course, there isn’t actually an area known as South Detroit; technically the city’s downtown business district is at the southernmost point, geographically speaking.

Who cares? It’s tradition. It’s baseball. Shut up.

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