Before this, the song had occasionally been sung by fans at various baseball games (both amateur and in the Major Leagues), but never as a regular thing nor at any designated time. The first known instance of this was at a Los Angeles high school game in 1934. It was also played before one of the games in the 1934 World Series when Pepper Martin and the St. Louis Cardinals Band played it.
Harry Caray started singing the song during the seventh inning stretch in 1971, with fans within earshot of his booth occasionally joining in.
There are conflicting accounts from those involved (including a story that changed over time from then owner, Bill Veeck) as to how this event transitioned to a White Sox tradition. In one account, after Caray refused to sing over the stadium PA system, Veeck tricked Caray by switching on Caray’s microphone while he was singing. Probably, the more likely tale is another first-hand account that it was all planned out ahead of time. But that’s not nearly as entertaining, so one can see why the colorful Bill Veeck might embellish the story a little.
Whatever the case, in 1976, Caray started singing the song over the stadium PA system and it became a local tradition.
When Caray switched to calling games for the Cubs in 1982, he brought this tradition with him. Thanks to the fact that WGN broadcasted the Cubs games nationally, the masses quickly learned of Harry Caray’s seventh inning tradition. Shortly thereafter, variations on this tradition were adopted at other stadiums, with the song in question varying from team to team. In the end, all teams went ahead and went with Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
Despite the fact that singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh inning stretch is a modern practice, the song itself, about a girl named Katie Case who wants her boyfriend to take her to a baseball game, has been around since 1908 when it was written by famed song writer Jack Norworth (who wrote over 2,500 songs in his lifetime, including a couple dozen that sold more than a million copies each). The music was composed by Albert Von Tilzer.
Funny enough, both of these gentlemen had never actually been to a professional baseball game when they created the song. Norworth claimed the first Major League Baseball game he ever went to wasn’t until June 27, 1940, a Dodgers / Cubs game.
So what inspired this non-baseball fan to write a baseball song? While riding a train to Manhattan, Norworth said he saw a sign that said “Baseball Today – Polo Grounds” and simply decided to write a song about going to a baseball game, so he scribbled it down during his ride.
Once the song was complete, Norworth’s wife, singer-actress Nora Bayes, was the first to sing it publicly. It quickly became a hit at various vaudeville acts and then beyond, becoming one of the most popular songs of 1908.
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You’ll often read that the seventh inning stretch tradition in baseball was thanks to President William Howard Taft in 1910. The general story goes that the extremely overweight President, after throwing out the first pitch on April 14, 1910, in a game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics, was uncomfortable sitting in the small stadium seating and by the seventh inning needed to stretch, so he stood up. When he did this, those in attendance noticed and everyone else stood up out of respect until Taft finally sat back down after thoroughly stretching.
Whether this actually happened or not, we do know that this was not the origin of the seventh inning stretch. The first recorded instance of the seventh inning stretch goes all the way back to the earliest days of professional baseball in 1869, where Harry Wright, who played for the Cincinnati Red Stockings at the time, wrote in a letter,
The 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.
There are also other documented instances of the practice of the seventh inning stretch in both professional and amateur games before Taft. So while it’s true that Taft did indeed throw out the first pitch of the game in question, and given the seventh inning stretch was already around, I’m even willing to buy that he stood up and stretched at the appointed time. But, it would seem the reason the masses stood too was simply because this was already an established practice. That being said, it wasn’t specifically called the “seventh-inning stretch” until the 1920s.