The Strange Truth Behind Nine Baseball Traditions
Spring has officially sprung. The days are getting longer, the nights are getting warmer and baseball season is finally underway after a historically brutal winter.
For fans of America's Pastime, it's a glorious time of year as the Detroit Tigers -- and baseball's 29 other, lesser teams -- take the field. (That's a personal opinion, of course.) For those interested in the game's history and culture, a big part of baseball's appeal are the many odd traditions that have accumulated around the sport over the years. The seventh-inning stretch. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The Wave. More than any other game, baseball has a rich and complex system of rules and traditions -- official and unofficial, written and unwritten.
But sifting baseball lore from baseball fact can be tricky. In his two-book series "A Game of Inches," baseball historian Peter Morris tracks down hard evidence about the actual origins of literally hundreds of aspects of the game, on and off the field. We look at the odd origin stories behind nine famous baseball traditions.
Fans sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch of the Colorado Rockies home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 4, 2014.Getty Images
It's an old saw in baseball lore that President William Taft initiated the tradition of the seventh-inning stretch in the early 1900s. The legend holds that Taft stood up and stretched in the middle of the seventh inning at a game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics. The crowd, respectfully, stood up as well. But written records confirm that the tradition dates back to the mid-1800s at least, and in fact has origins in blunt commerce. Ballpark owners often encouraged a 10-minute break late in the game to encourage patrons to visit the concessions one last time.
President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first pitch at a season-opening baseball game in 1916.Corbis
President Taft was, however, responsible for another longstanding baseball tradition -- having the President of the United States throw out the first ball on Opening Day. Taft did just that in 1910, inaugurating a tradition that has endured for more than 100 years and counting. Combing through newspaper reports of the event, Morris found that sportswriters of the day weren't averse to partisanship. The Washington Post praised Taft's "faultless delivery" while the Associated Press wrote: "The president took the ball in his gloved hand as if we were at a loss about what to do with it...."
It's a common belief that baseball borrowed the use of eye black from football in the 1940s, but according to Morris' research, baseball players were using the stuff decades earlier -- all the way back to 1904, at least. The idea of smearing a dark substance under or even all around the eyes, to cut down on glare, started in the country fields of the minor leagues. Early players typically used mud or charcoal, and famously fierce competitor Ty Cobb was said to be a proponent of eye black -- not just to cut down on glare, but to present a menacing visage to the opponent.
Newcomers to a baseball stadium are often puzzled by the series of "K" placards hanging from the top of a wall or overhang. The K cards -- sometimes maintained by ballpark employees, sometimes by dutiful fans -- represent the number of strikeouts the home pitcher accumulates during the game. The "K" designation for strikeout was established by 19th-century sportswriter Henry Chadwick, widely credited as the father of baseball's scorekeeping system. The letter "S" was already in use in the notation system (for "sacrifice"), so Chadwick used "K" as the last letter in "struck," which was a more common term in the 1800s. Inverted or upside-down "K" cards are sometimes used to indicate a "strikeout while looking," or for the third strikeout of the game, to avoid displaying the acronym "KKK."
When a team completes a series sweep -- either in the postseason or during a regular season series -- you'll sometimes see fans brandishing brooms in the stands. The broom is meant to indicate the sweep, of course, but in the earliest days of baseball, bringing a broom to the ballpark had an entirely different connotation. Newspaper reports suggest that, in the 19th-century game, fans from the visiting club would bring brooms when traveling to another ballpark in order to put a hex on the home team.
Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees takes a curtain call after hitting his second home run of the game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 19, 2012.Getty Images
After especially significant heroics on the pitching mound or at the plate, baseball fans often continue a standing ovation until the player comes out from the dugout and tips his hat -- a tradition known as the curtain call. Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych is credited with reviving the tradition in the 1970s, but the written record suggests that curtain calls began in the late 1800s -- in Cuba. It was common in the Cuban game at the time for the manager, not the player, to acknowledge a standing ovation, and sometimes even pass in front of the grandstands to receive flowers and kisses from women in the stands.
The relatively recent tradition of throwing home run balls from the opposing team back onto the field originated in Chicago Cubs' venerable Wrigley Field, where it's still practiced today. Cubs fans in the venue's rowdy bleachers section will boo a spectator mercilessly if he doesn't throw back a visiting team home run ball. While the home run aspect is new, the practice of throwing back balls is as old as the game itself. In the 1800s, baseballs were precious and expensive -- it was expected that any balls that flew into the stands would be immediately returned to the home dugout. During World War II, a custom briefly arose to return balls so they could be donated to overseas military posts.
For a certain strain of baseball purists, no trip to the ballpark is complete without a hot dog from the concession stands. The hot dog as we know it today was introduced at the legendary baseball venue known as The Polo Grounds in New York City, in the early 1900s. But well before that, the large German population in the city of St. Louis prompted the creation of "weiner wurst" sausage stands. No buns, though. The most popular ballpark concession before the advent of the hot dog? Ham and cheese sandwiches.
Talk to any hometown baseball fan in any city in America, and they will assure you that their team was the first to do The Wave -- the strange and enduring custom in which fans stand and throw up their arms in successive groups, creating a wavelike effect around an enclosed stadium. But the custom is a lot older than most people think. According to Morris' research, The Wave goes back at least 150 years.
Morris cites a Brooklyn newspaper account from Oct. 15, 1866, that describes the event in the breathless prose style of the era: "Quite an amusing scene was here enacted. One individual, cramped by sitting for two or three hours … stood up, stretched his body, arms and neck to their fullest tension, and appeared to feel quite refreshed; his neighbor imitated his example, and one after another almost everyone in the crowd stood up, straightened himself, and then resumed his seat. The effect was ludicrous in the extreme."