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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.