By Mike Gibbons
Well, life on the farm is kinda laid back, ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack…
Legend has it that baseball’s seventh-inning stretch tradition goes all the way back to Cincinnati in 1869. That’s when pockets of fans (or “cranks,” as they were called back then) reportedly first rose, perhaps to sweep off the dust, shake out the splinters or maybe to reenergize their baseball juices for roughly the last third of the old ballgame.
As Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth warmed up on the mound, fans rose in unison, standing at attention. So did the players. And everyone sang along, enjoying the musical interlude so much that they tried it again in Game 2 and then for the rest of the Series.
The tradition became so well ensconced that every major league ballpark now plays music to help fans stretch away, game in and game out. And that, of course, includes Baltimore, where we have enjoyed a seventh-inning tradition within a tradition for 32 years and counting.
It’s early to rise, early in the sack, Thank God I’m a country boy.
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy” was composed by young songwriter John Sommers on Dec. 31, 1973, as the guitar/fiddle player in John Denver’s backup band was driving from his home in Aspen to Los Angeles. Sommers recalls that at the time he was feeling “peaceful, happy and content” with his lot in life, and started scribbling some notes about his blissful state along the way. They served as the inspiration for “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” which Sommers wrote and John Denver recorded as part of his "Back Home Again" album in 1974.
In the summer of ’74, Denver performed the song live at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles as part of a set that was recorded and released in 1975 as the two-record album, "An Evening With John Denver." Fans liked the live version of “Country Boy” enough that the song was released as a single that February. By June it reached No. 1 on the charts where it stayed for the next 22 weeks.
Coincidently, 1975 was the year the Orioles, at the suggestion of general manager Frank Cashen, began playing pop music to reach out to younger fans. Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s the Orioles played “old folks” and organ music, and Cashen felt it was time for a change. So that season, public relations director Bob Brown began playing pop tunes during the seventh-inning stretch to see if anything would “take.”
Late that season, shortstop Mark Belanger and his wife, Dee, went to Brown and suggested he try “Country Boy.” The Belangers were fans and friends of Denver; they felt the song might catch on.
A simple kind of life never did me no harm, raisin’ me a family and workin’ on the farm…
And catch on it did. Fans seemed to like its peppy, toe-tapping attitude, and so did the players. Orioles’ current general manager Mike Flanagan, a Cy Young Award winner for Baltimore in 1979, said his teammates liked the song because it served as a daily wakeup call. It reminded them that if they were down, they still had nine outs and plenty of time to come back.
Flanagan remembered the song as inspirational. “The guys felt like, ‘We can do this,’ and a lot of times we did,” he said.
The fans seemed to sense their team was responding to “Country Boy” as well, and that added to its allure, enough to make it a resident seventh-inning stretch fixture at Orioles games from then on. On several occasions, the Orioles felt their fans might be growing tired of their popular foot-stomper, and suggested changing it. On Opening Day in 1980, they played “Oriole Magic," a popular jingle the team had produced during the ’79 campaign.
“We got booed; I mean we really got booed,” Brown said. “People had been waiting all winter to hear their ‘Country Boy.’ It was very humbling.”
In 1994, the team offered baseball’s anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” only to generate a similarly negative response. Today, the team plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a warmup to “Country Boy,” and the fans seem accepting.
So for more than three decades, Orioles fans and players alike have been inspired by the odd-fellow marriage of baseball, Baltimore and “Thank God I’m A Country Boy.” It gives the Birds a home-field advantage that, as Dee Belanger puts it, “still has a long, long way to go.”
My days are filled with an easy country charm, thank God I’m a country boy.
Issue 2.27: July 5, 2007