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.
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."