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The Seventh-Inning Stretch

The Seventh-Inning Stretch

Origin (or not) of a baseball tradition

By David Emery

Popular memory has been unkind to William Howard Taft, twenty-seventh President of the United States, who surely would have wished to be remembered for something nobler than his weight. At 300 pounds, he is the heaviest commander-in-chief on record. It’s the rare biographical sketch that doesn’t mention the giant bathtub — spacious enough to accommodate four average-sized men — specially built for him in the White House.

Baseball history has accorded him somewhat more dignity, for it was Taft, some 100 years ago, who launched the tradition of the Presidential first pitch on opening day. The occasion was a game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics on April 14, 1910 at Griffith Stadium. Apparently on the spur of the moment, umpire Billy Evans handed Taft the ball after the rival managers had been introduced and asked him to throw it over home plate. The President did so with delight. Nearly every chief executive since Taft (the sole exception being Jimmy Carter) has opened at least one baseball season during their tenure by tossing out the first ball.

Taft and the seventh-inning stretch

Legend has it that Taft inspired another baseball tradition on that same day, quite by accident. As the face-off between the Senators and the Athletics wore on, the rotund, six-foot-two president reportedly grew more and more uncomfortable in his small wooden chair. By the middle of the seventh inning he could bear it no longer and stood up to stretch his aching legs — whereupon everyone else in the stadium, thinking the president was about to leave, rose to show their respect. A few minutes later Taft returned to his seat, the crowd followed suit, and the “seventh-inning stretch” was born.

A charming tale, but folklorists have a saying: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

Brother Jasper

Consider the story of Brother Jasper of Mary, F.S.C., the man credited with bringing baseball to Manhattan College in the late 1800s. Being the Prefect of Discipline as well as the coach of the team, it fell to Brother Jasper to supervise the student fans at every home game. On one very muggy day in 1882, during the seventh inning of play against the semi-pro Metropolitans, the Prefect saw his charges were becoming restless and called a time-out, instructing everyone in the bleachers to stand up and unwind. It worked so well he began calling for a seventh-inning rest period every game. The Manhattan College custom spread to the major leagues after the New York Giants were charmed by it at an exhibition game, and the rest is history.

Or not. As it turns out, baseball historians have located a manuscript dated 1869 (13 years before Brother Jasper’s inspired time-out) documenting what can only be described as a seventh-inning stretch. It’s a letter written by Harry Wright of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first pro baseball team. In it, he makes the following observation about the fans’ ballpark behavior: “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.”

Truth be known, we have no idea where and when the custom of the seventh-inning stretch began. Based on the evidence that exists, it’s doubtful the phenomenon originated with William Howard Taft, or even Brother Jasper. We know it’s at least as old as 1869, that it cropped up in various places afterward and that it eventually became a solid tradition. No record of the phrase “seventh-inning stretch” exists before 1920, by which time the practice was already at least 50 years old.

Where history cannot tell the whole story, folklore arises to fill in the gaps.

One of the most celebrated events of the Seventh-Inning Stretch is the traditional singing of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”. It was written by a very successful songwriter named Jack Norworth who scribbled the lyrics on a scrap piece of paper while riding the train to Manhattan in New York. Norworth then provided those paper scrap lyrics to Albert Von Tilzer who composed the music which in turn was published by the York Music Company and before the year was over, a hit song was born. For decades both real singers and celebrity “wannabe’s” have belted out the tune with thousands of fans in the bleachers providing backup.

Following the attack on America on September 11th, Major League Baseball rose to the occasion as part of the healing process and added “God Bless America” to its song list. After taking center stage with patriotic tributes throughout the remainder of the regular season, the national pastime returned to the Big Apple to host the World Series. With the city’s emotions running high and the American flag pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center flying overhead, President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch symbolizing the unwavering strength of America. In the seventh, world-renowned Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan stepped forward to sing, as a giant American Flag was unfurled on the field. In that instant, the mysterious and “meaningless stretch” of a baseball game became a symbolic vigil for all.

Today, the Seventh-Inning Stretch has returned in part to a fun and carefree event that features blaring “jock jam” music, hot dog races, team mascots shooting t-shirts into the crowd and the opportunity to grab a fresh beer, some nachos and “hit the can.”

Was it an overweight president or simply a group of fans looking for a break? Nobody knows for sure. Still, despite the debate over its origin, we can all agree that it always feels good to get up and “stretch.”

Sources:

  • “Baseball History.” Official Site of Major League Baseball.
  • Dickson, Paul. The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary. New York: Harvest Books, 1999.
  • Schlossberg, Dan. The New Baseball Catalog. New York: Jonathan David, 1998.
  • “What’s a Jasper?” Manhattan College Website.
  • “William Howard Taft.” White House History

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