Remembering the Controversy Surrounding the Tigers Playing John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” Song at Tiger Stadium

It’s hard to believe, especially now, that the number one song for one week in 1975 on both the Billboard Hot 100 Singles and the Billboard Hot Country Singles was John Denver’s toe-tapper, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” (Now there’s a song to dance to)

The Baltimore Orioles liked it so much that during the seventh inning stretch at their home games that year they played the song and have done so reportedly without interruption since 1994. Denver himself became an Orioles. (Gee, I wonder why?)

And then beginning in 1979 the Tigers started playing the tune at Tiger Stadium in the fifth inning when the groundskeepers came out with their huge brooms to sweep the infield dirt.

Fans would cheer when the dancing groundskeeper, Herbie Redmond, a fan favorite, shook his booty to the song with a big smile in a move  Detroit Free Press sports columnist Mike Downey said reminded him of “Bill Bojangles.”

But when in 1983 the Orioles beat out the Tigers by six games to win the division and Denver performed the song at Memorial Stadium before game one of the World Series, (won by Baltimore) suddenly some Tiger fans and columnists began to think differently about the Denver tune that was so associated with the Orioles.

The following summer as the Tigers tore up the American League with their 35-5 start while fans went crazy doing “the wave”, a campaign of sorts to drop the song took on a life of its own thanks to Mike Downey and later some local DJs.

On May 24, 1984 Downey wrote in his Free Press column:

The suggestion to gong the song was based on three things: a.) It’s a hick tune in a hip town. b.) It’s sung by an acknowledged Baltimore Orioles fan. c.) It even turns the stomachs of the players, including the ones with big stomachs.

Many fans jumped on the Downey bandwagon and appealed to Tiger President Jim Campbell to drop what had basically become an Oriole theme song.

And so Big Jim, who was not especially enamored with Tiger fans in the bleachers, especially those of the pot smoking, beach ball variety, relented and told the country boy to take a hike.

Apparently “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” also created problems for the Texas Rangers, or should say their manager, Billy Martin.

According to MLB.Com writer Dan Cichalski and Martin biographer Bill Pennington (Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius) Martin loved the song and insisted that it be played in the middle of the 7th inning in place of the staple, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” (Talk about sacrilegious).

Rangers owner Dan Corbett disagreed with Martin and the two clashed, and not just about the song.

Believe it or not, the clash over Denver’s number one hit apparently led in part to Martin’s firing.

According to Pennington, on July 20, 1975 during a doubleheader against the Red Sox Martin picked up the dugout phone, called the press box looking for the person in charge of the music. Umpire Ron Luciano stated in his autobiography that when he walked over to the Texas dugout to get a drink between innings he heard Martin scream, “I better hear “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”’ and then slammed down the phone. According to Pennington Corbett “was steamed.”

The next day, the Rangers announced Martin’s dismissal and according to a UPI wire story that with Martin’s firing the song was axed too.

It’s also hard to believe that Denver’s surprising hit had become so controversial.