Famous fans stretch their pipes at Wrigley
'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' renditions a strong Cubs tradition
CHICAGO -- "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was 165 days old when the Cubs last won the World Series. The United States Copyright Office received two copies of the tune from composer Albert von Tilzer and lyricist Jack Norworth on May 2, 1908, about a young girl who insists her beau take her to the ballpark rather than the theater.
One hundred and eight years later, a stadium full of fans will instinctively turn and raise their gaze toward the press box during the seventh-inning stretch of Game 3 of the World Series at Wrigley Field tonight. Baseball's unofficial anthem is as much a part of attending a game here as the peanuts and Cracker Jack.
"Whenever you come to Wrigley Field, you have two questions," said Jim Oboikowitch, a 14-year veteran of the Cubs' front office who manages game and event production. "Who is the starting pitcher? And who is singing the seventh-inning stretch?"
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The tradition began during bombastic, Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Caray's tenure calling games for the White Sox, and it continued when he moved to the Cubs. It has lived on as a tribute since his death in 1998, with Cubs fans famous and otherwise taking the mic, leaning out the open window and beginning, "Ah one, ah two, ah three…"
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Both of this year's presidential candidates have done it -- Hillary Clinton as First Lady in 1994 and Donald Trump in 2000.
Diehard Cubs fan Bill Murray, who will have the honor for Game 3 of the World Series, arguably does it best, and fellow celebrity fans Jim Belushi, Vince Vaughn, John Cusack and Jeremy Piven have all followed.
Actor Will Ferrell and former Cub Ryan Dempster have sung in character as Caray. Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ryne Sandberg are among the former players to show their pipes.
But the bad renditions are the best renditions.
Former Bears coach Mike Ditka's rushed version is one of the most memorable. NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon was in trouble before he sang a note, referring to the old yard as "Wrigley Stadium." Rock 'n' roller Ozzy Osbourne didn't need the lyric sheet; he opened with, "Let's go out to the ballgame" and made it up the rest of the way.
An inning before there was Steve Bartman, comedian Bernie Mac sang, "Root, root, root for the CHAMPS" in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. It was a bad omen for what was to come.
And in Game 6 of this year's NLCS, there was former Bulls forward Scottie Pippen, completely forgetting the words two lines into the song.
Thankfully for long-suffering Cubs fans, there was no on-field repeat of '03.
"Sometimes it's so bad it's good, if that makes any sense," said Cubs TV analyst Jim Deshaies, who along with broadcast partner Len Kasper, steps aside to make way for the performer. "If someone comes up and just sells it, it works, even if their singing voice is terrible. I like when people turn it loose and get loud."
Kasper watches to see whether the conductor studies the lyrics before the first note. If he or she does, it often signals trouble.
"That third out happens, and sometimes it's a great diving play or a strikeout and the fans go crazy, and then all of a sudden, 40,000 people turn at you all at once," Oboikowitch said, a few hours before Pippen arrived at the pressbox. "That bright light comes on, they hand you that hot mic, and it's a little intimidating."
When Wrigley Field became the last Major League stadium to get a massive video board, it opened new possibilities for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." When a scheduled guest backs out, the Cubs air video of a Caray performance. The idea was spawned when the Cubs opened their new bleachers last year; it seemed fitting, given Caray's connection to those fans during his lifetime, that he should be part of the occasion.
Fans loved it. Other vintage performances from Banks, Williams, Santo and Sandberg have since joined the rotation. A Vin Scully rendition aired this season when the Dodgers were in town.
"I tell everyone who comes in there, even if you sing it slowly, it's only 29 seconds," Kasper said. "If you forget the words, if you don't hit the right key, you're going to have 40,000 people who will help you sing it. You almost can't go wrong. That's the part of it that's really great.
"And then if it really goes badly, you'll be a YouTube sensation. That's OK, too."