Friday, September 26, 2008

Flashback Friday: Thank God I'm a Country Boy Edition

Revisiting the origins of an Orioles tradition

by Matthew Taylor

Dan Connolly posed a question on his blog this week that has a seemingly obvious answer: Do you still like Thank God I'm a Country Boy? Connolly used the posting as an excuse to raise the possibility of there being a John Denver Curse on the Orioles.

"I passed this observation to Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck, who was sitting next to me at the game. And Schmuck said that a reader of his blog recently told him that the Orioles hadn’t won a playoff game since Denver was killed in a plane crash.

We checked on it, and technically Denver died on October 12, 1997. And the Orioles beat Cleveland in Game 5 of the ALCS -- their last postseason victory -- on Oct. 13, 1997. But Denver’s death wasn’t confirmed until that day, a Monday.

Pretty weird, huh? Maybe the Orioles’ 11-year losing drought is The Curse of John Denver. Maybe they need to get rid of the song for a while and put something else on during the seventh-inning stretch."

Roar from 34 will now use Connolly's posting as an excuse to revisit the history of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" at Orioles games.

I first posed the "Why?" question surrounding "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" while I was a reporter in the late '90s. I was writing a story about a local resident who was employed as the Birds' music man, and I used the occasion to engage my curiosity surrounding a great tradition employed by the team I love. (Clearly, I held a favorable bias during my lone opportunity to write an O's-related story.)

The response I received from an Orioles official centered on two theories:

1. That the team used "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" to define itself relative to a loathed "other" - the New York Yankees. They were city boys, and this was to serve as a musical retort to their haughty, big city ways.

2. That shortstop Mark Belanger asked the O's to play the song as a favor to his friend, John Denver.

The latter was the favored theory and has since come to be identified as the true reason behind the musical selection. Mike Gibbons explained as much in his 2007 story on the topic, "
Baltimore's Seventh Inning Tradition Within a Tradition."

"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"

Perhaps the most intriguing portion of Gibbons' story is that the demand for "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" led fans to boo - yes, boo - the playing of "Oriole Magic."
"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.'"

John Sommers, the fiddler who wrote the lyrics to the John Denver classic, affirms in a story posted on his web site that Belanger's influence led to the song's inclusion as part of the Birds' seventh inning stretch routine.

"Sommers' song would become not just a momentary pop sensation, but an enduring piece of American music. Mark Belanger, shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles whose wife, Dee, was a John Denver fan, pushed to have 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy' played over the P.A. at Orioles games at Memorial Stadium. From the mid-'70s through today, the song has been played at most every Orioles home game; whenever the practice has been interrupted, fans have made enough of a clamor to have the ritual reinstated. The song has helped make Baltimore a John Denver hotbed. In the Babe Ruth Museum, near Baltimore's Camden Yards ballpark, there is a 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy' display, complete with Sommers' original handwritten notes for the song, scratched out on paper."

"Thank God I'm a Country Boy" became a true fixture in Orange and Black lore when John Denver, fresh off a visit to Fort McHenry, sang the tune atop the Birds' dugout during the 1983 World Series. The song is so connected to the franchise that even the team's minor league affiliates utilize it.

Consider the Norfolk Tides' change of heart following their change of affiliation.

"You'd never know that this time last year fans were embracing the Big Apple and singing 'New York, New York' at the end of every game.

Now it's all Charm City, crab races on the video screen and 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy.' They even let loose with an 'O' during the national anthem."

The song is even a part of Spring Training, as related in 2003 by John Rosenthal in The New York Times. (A fact check is in order: Rosenthal uses the word "inexplicable" to describe the song choice.)

"Years later, you can read the stadium's history like sediment. The extremely roomy box seats are still Yankee blue, but the reserved seats behind the aisle are the same hunter green found in Camden Yards, the Orioles' home field in Baltimore. On the outfield wall is an ad for Riggin's Crabhouse, an 'Authentic Maryland-Style Crabhouse.' A Baltimore tradition accompanies the seventh-inning stretch: the inexplicable playing of 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy' instead of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'"
So on this Flashback Friday, the answer to Dan Connolly's query is clear.

Do you still like Thank God I'm a Country Boy?

Without a doubt, yes.

Here are some other fans of the song in action at the ballpark ...

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