The sense and nonsense of ballpark traditions: From sausage races to ‘Sweet Caroline’

Since professional baseball’s earliest years, a day at the park has included all sorts of entertaining gimmicks and rituals. They come and go.

But every once in a while, an idea is so innovative (an “exploding” scoreboard) or cathartic (chucking back opponents’ home run balls) or downright silly (racing meat products) that it becomes a bona fide ballpark tradition.

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‘Let me hear you good and loud!’

Ballpark music is nearly as old as ballparks, but mass singalongs took a while to evolve.

The first documented baseball tune was an 1858 polka with no lyrics, and the first song came along in 1870. “Base Ball!” praised “the health-giving zest” of “the manliest game” while mocking the sports of cricket and curling. It didn’t catch on.

Harry Caray led fans in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field.
Harry Caray led fans in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

What did catch on was a 1908 earworm by two songwriters who had never attended a game.

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” by Jack Norworth and Albert von Tilzer, was an instant commercial hit about a woman who wanted her boyfriend to take her to a baseball game. It was also an obvious choice to be played at ballparks, especially during the seventh-inning stretch.

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However, it didn’t become a belt-it-out-at-the-top-of-your-lungs tradition until 1976, when Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck put a live mic in front of jovial broadcaster Harry Caray — who normally warbled only to himself and his boothmates — as organist Nancy Faust played the song.

“[Harry] said it surprised him to hear his voice all over the ballpark,” Caray’s wife, Dutchie, later told the Chicago Tribune. “And then he asked Bill Veeck … ‘What did you do? I can’t sing.’ ”

Veeck’s answer? “If you could sing, nobody would sing with you. This way everyone will sing.”

Everyone sang, and from then on, Caray led White Sox fans and then Chicago Cubs fans with great gusto until his death in 1998.

This year, fans will belt out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch in every major league park except two: New York Yankees fans will sing “God Bless America,” and Astros fans will still do (clap clap clap clap) “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

Some teams add a regional tune, such as Lou Monte’s “Lazy Mary” for the New York Mets, “Louie Louie” in Seattle and “La Gozadera” in Miami. Toronto fans actually stretch to “OK Blue Jays.”

Other ritual songs just happened to catch on, such as “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” in Baltimore and “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth inning in Boston. And the association of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with sports dates at least to a Brooklyn baseball park in 1862, nearly seven decades before it became the national anthem.

Each team’s seventh-inning stretch song(s)

... and other signature songs

[What does baseball sound like during a pandemic? Loneliness — and hope.]

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‘Real frenetic and crazy’

The oversized furry creatures that dance on dugouts these days have roots more disturbing than delighting. According to John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, the sport’s first “mascottes” in the 19th century were people who were thought to be literal good luck charms, often men or boys with physical disabilities who wore uniforms like the players.

In the early 1900s, the Detroit Tigers and Cubs had live animal mascots and sometimes a person dressed in a semi-realistic animal suit that was more terrifying than cuddly.

The San Diego Chicken is not an official mascot but is associated with the Padres.
The San Diego Chicken is not an official mascot but is associated with the Padres.
Perogies race in Pittsburgh.
Perogies race in Pittsburgh.

LEFT: The San Diego Chicken is not an official mascot but is associated with the Padres. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images) RIGHT: Perogies race in Pittsburgh. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The first modern mascot in the major leagues was Mr. Met, a baseball-headed cartoon that sprung from the Mets’ 1963 yearbook to three-dimensional life in 1964 and still represents the team.

But it was a San Diego creature a decade later that altered the mascot universe.

The manic, umpire-pranking San Diego Chicken was created by a radio station and brought to life by college student Ted Giannoulas in 1974. It was reborn … er, rehatched in 1979 before a Padres game at San Diego Stadium. Although the Chicken was not an official mascot, it was most closely associated with the Padres.

The Chicken’s shtick was far more elaborate and edgy than previous mascots; sportswriter Jack Murphy once called it “an embryonic Charles Chaplin in chicken feathers.”

One of the Chicken’s challengers for mascot supremacy was the Phillie Phanatic. Philadelphia Phillies intern Dave Raymond debuted the furry green suit in 1978 and wore it for over a decade.

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He modeled the Phanatic’s behavior after Daffy Duck, who “was real frenetic and crazy, jumping over railings and picnic tables,” Raymond told the Delco Times in 2014, then would “lay a big fat kiss on someone.”

Each team’s mascot

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Racing characters

Something ‘to kill a minute and a half’

Once upon a time in 1986, three computer-generated dots — Red, Yellow and Green — raced around a track on the video scoreboard in Arlington Stadium during a Texas Rangers game.

Public address announcer Chuck Morgan said he was always looking to fill time between innings and created the Dot Race after a Fort Worth sportswriter mentioned seeing lights race around a scoreboard in a minor league park.

It was a hit with fans, and soon other teams copied it — most notably, the Milwaukee Brewers.

The famous racing sausages in Milwaukee.
The famous racing sausages in Milwaukee.
Teddy, one of Washington's Racing Presidents, sometimes wins now.
Teddy, one of Washington's Racing Presidents, sometimes wins now.

LEFT: The famous racing sausages in Milwaukee. (Morry Gash/Associated Press) RIGHT: Teddy, one of Washington's Racing Presidents, sometimes wins now. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Their version was sponsored by a local sausage maker and was more elaborate, featuring animated sausages racing through Milwaukee streets and into County Stadium.

But on June 27, 1993, just as the animated meat cylinders arrived at the animated park, the scoreboard went dark. Out of the left field corner of the actual park sprinted three sausage mascots to finish the race. The crowd went bananas, and a tradition was born.

This year, 15 clubs plan to have some sort of live costumed character races, plus Seattle has gone high-tech retro with its Hydro Challenge, a boat race in 3D on the video board.

A few others are so beloved that games wouldn’t be the same without them, such as Pittsburgh’s Great Pierogi Race and Washington’s Racing Presidents. Cleveland has its condiment-laden racing hot dogs; Ketchup is a notorious cheater.

Atlanta has two races: a fairly standard tools race and the much more exciting “Beat the Freeze” contest in which a fan tries — almost always unsuccessfully — to outrun a goggled, body-suited superhero around the warning track.

[Who is ‘The Freeze’? Meet the former college track star racing Braves fans between innings.]

And fear not — the Rangers’ dots live on (except Yellow, which was carted off long ago via electronic ambulance and replaced by Blue). The Dot Race now occurs live with people dressed as dots, but Morgan, who has announced every home Rangers game since 1983 and is now a vice president for the team, said he occasionally dusts off the scoreboard version for a bit of nostalgia.

“I never thought about it taking off like it did,” he said. “It was totally done out of the need to kill a minute and a half between innings — plus it sold a sponsorship.”

Character races at each ballpark

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Home run celebrations

Changing the game

A batter’s trot around the bases is just the beginning of the post-homer theatrics in many parks, thanks to promotional wizard Veeck, the White Sox owner, and his “exploding scoreboard,” which debuted at Comiskey Park in 1960.

Inspired by the cacophony of a pinball machine, the scoreboard was 130 feet wide and included fireworks, strobe lights, sirens, twirling pinwheels and a “Soxogram” message board, according to the Chicago Tribune. The stadium crew could add a variety of earsplitting sound effects, such as thunder or stampeding horses.

The “exploding scoreboard” was inspired by pinball machines.
The “exploding scoreboard” was inspired by pinball machines. (Chicago White Sox/Chicago White Sox)

It was completely over-the-top, and not everyone was thrilled. Yankees Manager Casey Stengel mocked it by lighting and waving sparklers in the dugout after one of his players hit a home run in Chicago.

It was also a bit hazardous. A flaming rocket once landed on second base, the Tribune reported, and the grounds crew had to douse it with fire extinguishers.

Thorn, the MLB historian, called Veeck’s gimmick “a monument in the evolution of the game” that helped elevate the importance of home runs in people’s minds. Now 21 teams have some kind of distinctive home run celebration.

In Milwaukee, lederhosen-clad Bernie Brewer used to come out of his chalet at the top of old County Stadium and slide down into a beer stein. Now he slides from his right field perch — which has been newly renovated to look more like the old chalet — to a platform below in American Family Field. Bernie’s journey commemorates an original Brewers super fan, retired aviation engineer Milt Mason, who in 1970 lived for 40 days in a camper on a scoreboard platform until the new team finally drew a crowd of 40,000 people. Mason slid down a rope after the game in celebration, burning his hands on the way down.

Since 1980, the Mets’ Home Run Apple has risen in center field. The current version is 18 feet tall; the 9-foot original sits outside Citi Field.

How every team celebrates home runs

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Fan-made traditions

‘I just threw it back’

Sometimes the fans do the innovating, such as the unofficial Wrigley Field mandate to chuck opponents’ home run balls back onto the field.

The first to throw one back was bartender Ron Grousl, the leader of the Left Field Bleacher Bums, in 1970, according to the Tribune. That summer, he caught a Hank Aaron home run — a fairly common occurrence, because Aaron hit more homers at Wrigley Field (50) than in any other visiting park — and Grousl made the snap decision to throw it back to the umpire.

A Chicago Cubs fan throws back a home run in 2010.
A Chicago Cubs fan throws back a home run in 2010. (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)

“I just thought: ‘Get this out of here. I don’t want it,’ ” Grousl told the New York Times in 2016. “I just threw it back.”

Soon others began to do the same, prodded by fellow Bleacher Bums and compensated by money nearby fans collected in a beer cup or by an autographed ball tossed up from the bullpen by a relief pitcher.

By the 1980s, it was Wrigley tradition, and now anyone who hangs on to an opponent’s home run ball too long will hear a relentless chant of: “Throw. It. Back!” (Savvy veterans bring a dummy ball to throw in case they catch one they want to keep.)

Some traditions exploit a park’s quirks. Washington football and baseball fans in the early 1960s figured out that jumping on the movable left side stands at D.C. Stadium, later known as RFK Stadium, would cause them to rebound like crazy, creating a racket and terrifying newbies who found themselves rhythmically bounced off their seats. Fans were happy to continue the tradition when the Nationals arrived in 2005 until the team moved to Nationals Park in 2008, where the seats are much sturdier.

Other traditions spread rapidly to many places.

The first recorded rendition of “The Wave” almost certainly occurred at the A’s-Yankees playoff game on Oct. 15, 1981, in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and it was broadcast to a national TV audience. It showed up again at a University of Washington football game 16 days later and soon undulated through stadiums all over the country.

Occasionally, a die-hard fan creates a one-person tradition.

Baltimore cab driver “Wild Bill” Hagy spelled out O-R-I-O-L-E-S in dramatic contortions atop the Memorial Stadium dugout in the 1970s and ’80s. “With his sloping gut, fluffy beard and straw hat, he cut a striking visual,” read his Baltimore Sun obituary in 2007, which said he was “the emotional fulcrum as crowds at Memorial urged the baseball team to improbable comebacks.”

William “Wild Bill” Hagy was an Orioles fan.
William “Wild Bill” Hagy was an Orioles fan. (Baltimore Sun via AP)

Similarly, Cleveland die-hard John Adams has played his bass drum at nearly every Indians home game since 1973. Because of coronavirus precautions, he couldn’t show up last year, but sound mixers included his drumbeat in the park’s piped-in crowd noise.

Other relevant ballpark traditions

Note: Several teams have the tradition to honor and recognize military members in different forms. Because these honors are common, they are not specifically named in this list.

Baseball has many traditions, perhaps because its innovations and silly ideas have had more than 150 years to percolate.

Thorn said the professional game itself — adults playing a kids’ game to entertain other adults — was once an innovation. And he has a ready answer for anyone who says all the ballpark hoopla detracts from a pristine game.

“The idea, which is perhaps abroad in the land today, that baseball is once pure and is now sullied, is ridiculous,” he said. “It was always sullied, and that’s why we liked it.”

Information on 2021 activities, mascots and traditions in MLB came from team spokespeople. Activities may be curtailed because of coronavirus restrictions.

Chiqui Esteban contributed to this report.

Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the Graphics department at The Washington Post who often focuses on Health & Science topics.