Time to Ditch the Wrigley Celebrity Stretch

by J. M. Pressley
First published: August 27, 2007

With all due respect to the spirit of Harry Caray, the time has come to eliminate the celebrity "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" bit during the seventh inning stretch.

There is a life cycle to nearly everything. Some things take on a life of their own. Harry Caray's sudden death prior to the 1998 baseball season had many fans questioning what would become of the announcer's trademark song during the seventh inning stretch. The Tribune company decided to keep the sing-along and invite guest singers into the booth. What started as a posthumous tribute to a legendary broadcaster, however, has devolved over the past decade into a cheese-coated PR gimmick. With all due respect to the spirit of Harry, the time has come to eliminate the celebrity "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" bit.

First, it completely detracts from two broadcasts. Television viewers have to listen to Len Kasper and Bob Brenly make small talk in the bottom of the inning with whoever sings the tune, but at least the camera can pan to the ballgame still in progress. Unfortunately, in the sixth inning when the crooner-du-jour is with Pat Hughes and Ron Santo for the radio broadcast, there's no such option. For the radio listener, the game call (the only way of knowing what's going on) gets upstaged by the banter.

Second, the nature of the celebrity stretch has turned what used to be a personal signature into—for the most part—a shameless plug opportunity. At least those guests with a Chicago background seem to have a genuine interest in the Cubs and the ballgame. For many of the visitors, however, the stretch is no more about baseball than the average fluff interview piece on Entertainment Tonight. The ensuing banal conversation hawking a book, show, or pet cause is an argument in itself to do away with this segment.

Third, the majority of renditions are overwhelmingly bad. Not just warbly or nervously bad, either. Tone-deaf, tempo-challenged, pass-me-the-wax-earplugs bad. Let's not pretend that Harry would ever be confused with Enrico Caruso, but he was genuine and enthusiastic, and you knew what you were getting. Plus, it was Harry's shtick. Up until his death, you simply couldn't imagine a seventh inning stretch without the singing because that's what Harry did. Now that it's past sacred cow status, there's no excuse for having to hear a song mangled by someone who can't be bothered to stay on pitch or read words from a card.

Since there's no point in bringing up the problem without offering at least a stab at solutions, here goes:

Stop the singing

This is the most drastic course of action. For a generation of fans, you may as well say, "What's with all that ivy? Can't we put up some padding back there?" It's easy to forget that this was a Caray, not a Wrigley, tradition. It could be that his memory is best served by the statue in front of Wrigley, not by having the latest American Idol contestant vapidly botch the lyrics and then blather on for a half-inning. Still, there's something about hearing that crowd bellowing "One! Two! Three strikes you're out at the old ball game!" in unison.

Bring back Harry

With as many recordings as there are of Harry singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" over the years, the Cubs could easily play a genuine Harry rendition during the stretch. Of course, it wouldn't be the same without the old man leaning out of the booth and swinging his microphone. It would also be a better option if Wrigley Field had a JumboTron where they could run clips of Harry while the song was being played. On the other hand, that might seem a tad morbid after all this time.

Make it part of a job description

Harry was a play-by-play announcer. The team could simply make singing the seventh inning stretch one of the ongoing duties of the Cubs play-by-play men. Or have Ron Santo do the duties; he's taken Harry's place as booth fixture at Wrigley. Or you have Wayne Messmer, the Cubs PA announcer, take over the song duties, since Messmer is a professional vocalist and already does a lot of singing at home games as it is. They could hire someone, if need be. But enough with the contrived promotional stunt of bringing in a guest conductor.

There's no reason to expect current Cubs management to make any kind of change in the seventh inning stretch. After all, it's essentially the same marketing team that introduced the guest conductor in the first place. Never mind that it's one more round of ammunition for those who accuse the Tribune company of being more concerned about selling the "Wrigley experience" than fielding a winning baseball team. Perhaps the impending new ownership will be more willing to tell the celebrities to hit the showers.

In the meantime, the only solution seems to be the mute button.