The songs we sing at baseball games

Leon Halip

The National Anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" are sung at every baseball game. HookSlide explains, with minimal research, the story behind these songs and why we sing them.

Baseball has many traditions associated with it. There's the seventh inning stretch. (Or as it has lately come to be known, "last call for alcohol.") There are screaming vendors selling over-priced hot dogs. There's the tradition of peanuts and Cracker Jack. There's long lines at the restroom, because even though the concession vendors sell an estimated 17 bazillion gallons of beer each game, the ball park designers decided to build only one bathroom containing an average of 1.5 toilets.

And then there's music.

At the beginning of every game, the crowd rises to its feet, removes its cap (anyone not wearing a cap will be issued a complimentary cap for the purposes of immediate removal), faces the flag, places its collective hand over its collective heart, and immediately gets a collectively wet shirt, because we always forget to set our collective beer down first.

At this point, in union with generations upon generations of former baseball fans, we perform the traditional Watching of a Wanna Be American Idol Star as They Butcher Our National Anthem. Personally, I believe there should be a Constitutional Law passed that says any performer who takes longer than 2.8 seconds to sing the words "O say can you see" will be subject to the penalty of public execution, or a verbal lashing from Simon Cowell, whichever shall be deemed more painful.

The singing of the National Anthem prior to a baseball game became part of the game's tradition during the 1918 World Series. America was involved in World War I (1576 - 1568) at this point, and during the first game of the series, the military band played the song during the seventh inning stretch. Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, simultaneously experiencing a foot cramp and a heart murmur, leapt to his feet and placed his hand over his heart. The crowd followed his example, spontaneously singing with heartfelt gusto the eight percent of the lyrics they knew, and by game four of the series the band was playing the song prior to the start of the games.

Wikipedia states with obnoxious certainty that the National Anthem was being used at baseball games "as early as 1897 at opening day ceremonies in Philadelphia" and also "more regularly at the Polo Grounds in New York City beginning in 1898," but I'm pretty sure Wikipedia is just being pretentious here and making stuff up.

By the time America was involved in World War II (1901 - present), it had become standard practice to sing the National Anthem prior to the start of every game, even though the song is mostly about kicking Britain's butt in the Revolutionary War (August - November), and Britain was actually an ally of the United States in World War II.

We sing this song of war before every game today, partly to honor our country, but mostly to remind the British that they'd better not be thinking about trying to reincorporate the United States into the United Kingdom, because - as the song reinforces - we have a lot of "ramparts," and we're not afraid to watch "o'er" them again if we have to. In fact, if you happen to be standing near an Englishman at a game during the National Anthem, it is customary to glare at him menacingly while singing in an extra-loud voice.

Another song that is traditionally sung at baseball games is the Goo Goo Dolls' hit song, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Dating back to the early 1900's, this song celebrates the strange relationship between "Katie Casey" and her "young beau," who tries to get Katie out on the town for a date, but finds that she only wants to go to the baseball game. The opening verse of the song goes as follows:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev'ry sou
Katie blew.

I'm not entirely sure what a "sou" is, but I assume that the lyrics here are referring to an act which requires two legally consenting adults, which is probably why Katie's beau finally stepped in and offered to just buy her a damned ticket.

The lyrics take us into the chorus that we all know so well, which are - in context - Katie's description of what she would like to do with her Saturday, after tending to matters with the "sou": she would like to be taken to the ball game, with the crowd, where she will eat enough peanuts and Cracker Jack to achieve a regulation coma, at which point she no longer cares if she ever gets back home. This was obviously written in an age where peanut allergies had not yet been invented, and future versions of the song will surely contain the line, "buy me some soy-nuts and salt-free snacks, then let's leave early to beat the traffic."

Today the song is sung between the top and bottom halves of the seventh inning as part of the "seventh inning stretch," so called because our forefathers knew that it was rude to ever get up and leave your seat during a game for any reason, including stadium fires. (Which there appear to have been a lot of in those days.) That's why they had a built-in moment during every game when it was acceptable to stand up, stretch, purchase another hot dog, and in the case of the aforementioned stadium fires, run like hell for safety.

The late great play-by-play announcer Harry Caray made it part of his regular duties to grab a mic, stand up in the broadcast booth, and lead the fans at Wrigley field in this song - although by the seventh inning he was usually a few Bud Lights over the recommended limit (zero), so it was always a real possibility that he'd fall out of the booth one day and have to call the rest of the game from somewhere between rows BB and DD. He never did, presumably because poor Steve Stone was up in the booth, holding Harry's belt loops with one hand and a doorjamb with the other, all the while telling himself, "there are better days ahead, Steve, one day you'll be the man in charge, calling the games, not playing second fiddle to a half-crazy old man." I was going to end with a joke about Hawk here, but that last sentence just made me terribly sad.

There may be other songs that are traditions at local team levels - the Red Sox play "Sweet Caroline" in the seventh inning, for example, because Neil Diamond has pictures of Ben Cherington with a sou that is not technically his wife - but these are the two songs that are accepted as part of the baseball tradition at the universal level.

Except for maybe "God Bless America," which is an entirely different subject for an entirely different post, when I'm in the mood to feel cranky and irritated.

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