Thank Caray, Chicago for popularity of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame'

CHICAGO -- For Joe Rios, the nerves show up 81 times a year. And always in the seventh inning. He's usually standing in a Wrigley Field hallway, listening to Jeff Gordon, Ozzy Osbourne or some other celebrity lead 40,000 Cubs fans in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," worrying about everything that could go wrong.

What if the mike stops working? What if the singer forgets to cue the crowd and the organist with "a one, a two, a three?" What if he or she forgets the words? Or refers to the ballpark as "Wrigley Stadium"? But the man who has spent the past 10 seasons in charge of Wrigley's seventh-inning show never worries about one thing: the performance itself.

"If they sound great, that's a bonus," Rios said. "If they sound bad, well, that can be pretty funny. You could say it adds to the Harry way of doing things."

And that, after all, is the reason why, since 1998, Bea Arthur, Horatio Sanz, Muhammad Ali, Richard Petty, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Hank Stram and so many others have stood in that television booth and belted the famous baseball jingle -- as a tribute to Harry Caray.

Although baseball is celebrating the 100th birthday of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" this summer, to hear Tim Wiles, director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame tell it, without Caray and Chicago's two baseball teams, the song never would have become what it is today.

"Maybe you would have heard the Andrews Sisters version or something, but it would have been in the fifth inning or during a pitching change or on your way out to the parking lot," said Wiles, author of "Baseball's Greatest Hit: The Story of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'" "Harry took that song and made it an event."

It wasn't by choice. When Caray joined the Chicago White Sox in 1976, team owner Bill Veeck noticed the announcer liked to hum the song with Comiskey Park organist Nancy Faust. Veeck asked Caray if he could give him a microphone so he could sing for the entire park. The announcer wanted no part of it.

"Harry was very vain," said Bill's son, Mike Veeck, who worked with his dad at the time. "He really didn't understand the concept that the people in the extreme bowels of the stadium, the people in the left-field upper deck … because he was one of their own, how he would bring them together. He didn't quite get that if he could sing it, everybody could sing it."

Bill Veeck explained to Caray that he had already taped the announcer singing during commercial breaks and said he could play that recording if Caray preferred. Instead, Caray agreed to sing with Faust's organ.

"And from the first time, the place lit up," Wiles said. "It quickly became a very big deal."

Said Mike Veeck: "It had exactly the reaction that Harry didn't think it would. But give him credit -- Dad and Harry both realized that the most important people in the park were the fans. I mean, imagine Tom Yawkey or Mr. Wrigley or Mr. Steinbrenner leading a stadium in that song. It never would have worked."

And when Caray left the White Sox and joined the Cubs in 1982, the Harry Caray seventh-inning show went national, thanks to cable superstation WGN.

For some of these well-traveled professional entertainers, you would think this is nothing to them. It's a baseball game. But they are scared out of their wits. And then the second they're done, they don't want to leave. They want to do it again.

--Joe Rios, the man in charge of Wrigley Field's seventh-inning entertainment, on those who sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

"And all of the sudden, anyone coming to a Cubs game wanted to know who we were playing, who's pitching and who was singing the seventh-inning stretch," Rios said. "And not necessarily in that order."

Other teams quickly followed the lead of the Cubs and White Sox, substituting or supplementing the "Mexican Hat Dance" or "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the seventh. And now, all 30 major league clubs play the song in the seventh inning, as do all minor league teams and many college and high school teams.

"And while most people think this has been going on since 1908, it's a relatively recent phenomenon," Wiles said. "And probably one of the few things the Cubs and White Sox can take credit for together."

While Faust still performs the song during the seventh inning of Sox games, the Cubs have gone in a completely different direction by inviting celebrities to sing. What started as a way to honor Caray by inviting famous friends of his to sing has become a must-stop for visiting celebrities and as big a part of the Wrigley production as the ivy-covered walls, the hand-operated scoreboard and the ballpark organ.

The team doesn't pay for the performances, nor does it fly anyone to a game to sing. The perk is game tickets and -- on the seldom days when one might be available -- a suite.

"For some of these well-traveled professional entertainers, you would think this is nothing to them," Rios said. "It's a baseball game. But they are scared out of their wits. And then the second they're done, they don't want to leave. They want to do it again."

Rios is a man with countless behind-the-scenes stories. Like the time Gordon refused to practice the song before the seventh inning and then referred to the venerable ballpark as "Wrigley Stadium." Or the time Osbourne butchered the song by stringing together sounds like "bluhhh" and "duhhhh" in place of "crowd" and "Cracker Jack." That performance is one of Rios' favorites.

"I don't think anyone can top that," Rios said. "I really thought Ozzie didn't think anybody could hear him. I don't think he realized what all was going on."

Part of the reason, Rios believes, is that Osbourne was battling a toe injury. He also needed to go to the bathroom.

"With one out in the seventh, he tells [his wife] Sharon he needs to use the bathroom," Rios said. "And I'm like, 'He's not going anywhere.' So maybe that was part of it -- maybe he was thinking about going to the bathroom."

With the Cubs up for sale, Rios is unsure what the future will hold for the song at Wrigley. Maybe the new ownership group will sell naming rights, turning the tradition into something like the "Budweiser seventh-inning stretch." Maybe the new owners will end the celebrity visits and instead ask legendary Cub Ron Santo or television play-by-play man Len Kasper to do the honors. But whatever changes take place under a new regime, Rios believes the song is here to stay.

"In one form or another, I think it's safe to say this will always be part of our tradition," Rios said. "I can't see it any other way."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.