Dick Heller, the famous and resourceful reporter, provides us with this wonderful story:
MAGIC MOMENTS / Dick Heller
‘Oh, say, can you see . . . ‘
Trick question: When was the national anthem first played at a major league baseball game?
Straight answer: Thirteen years before it became the national anthem.
Technically, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was just another tune when the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs opened the 1918 World Series at Wrigley Field. The Sox were leading 1-0 in the middle of the seventh inning as a military band unexpectedly broke into Francis Scott Key’s rousing number.
The United States was embroiled in the Great War, as it was then called, and this was a patriotic time. On the mound, a slender 23-year-old Boston left-hander named George Herman Ruth doffed his cap and held it over his heart. So did all the other players and most of the derby-hatted men and umbrella-toting women in the crowd of 30,511. Many sang or spoke the words as the band played on.
The date was Sept. 5, and the Series had started nearly a month early following a shortened regular season resulting from Secretary of War Newton D. Baker’s “work or fight” decree. Before Game 1, players had marched in military formations with bats over their shoulder — a frequent scene in ballparks during 1917 and 1918.
The tune, adopted by Francis Scott Key in 1814 from an old English drinking song, did not become the national anthem until President Herbert Hoover signed an executive order to that effect in 1931. Nonetheless, a precedent had been set. When the 1918 Series moved to Fenway Park on Sept. 9, another band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the start of Game 4.
Until the United States entered World War II in December 1941, “The Star-Spangled Banner” usually preceded only special sporting events, such as Opening Day in baseball. During the second war, renditions became standard before most professional and college games, and thus it has remained.
Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford once observed that many fans think the last two words of the anthem are “play ball!” If we attended a sports event and didn’t hear it, we might think we were in another country. At all games of the Toronto Blue Jays (and the Montreal Expos before they moved to Washington in 2005), both the U.S. and Canadian anthems are played.
The question remains whether fans take the anthem seriously or whether repetition has dulled its impact. In Baltimore, of course, fans screech “O!” as it nears an end with the line, “O, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” At Nationals Park in Washington, within sight of the Capitol dome, most observers stand at attention — even journalists working on deadline in the press box. Yet some younger fans can be seen resting on their rumps and/or failing to take off their caps — whether because of disrespect or ignorance, who knows?
In my case, I stand for standing and for removing any headgear I might be wearing. That’s the way I was brought up — to honor the country and the flag. It’s sort of like respecting the president of the United States even if you didn’t vote for him. (Oh wait a minute, some folks don’t do that anymore either.)
Back in the 1950s, a more-or-less musical aggregation called Goldman’s Band performed the anthem every Opening Day at Griffith Stadium before the Senators embarked on another losing season. Usually the president — Truman or Eisenhower — would toss the first ball into a gaggle of players gathered near his box. Miraculously perhaps, the ensuing scrambles never resulted in injuries.
And when the Redskins played at Griffith, the anthem culminated a dramatic musical prelude to games. The team band, founded in 1938, would march down the field playing “Hail to the Redskins” and segue into “Dixie” as the multitudes cheered. Then the bandleader would hop onto a little stand at the 50-yard-line and wave his baton to start “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In that simpler era, this was stirring stuff indeed.
At most stadiums nowadays,, a recording of the anthem is used. The Nationals and Orioles often invite local singers or groups to do it, a nice touch. “But they warned us not to be thrown off when the fans yell ‘O!’ ” said Marilyn Levitt of Chevy Chase, Md., who has warbled with the Capital Accord Chorus at Camden Yards. At some venues, “God Bless America” has been played during the seventh-inning stretch (along with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game“ since September 11).
As nearly everybody knows, the national anthem is difficult to sing properly -= and often isn’t. Baritone George London once told Time magazine the song is “impossible to sing if you’re sober” because its high notes are too high and its low notes too low.
Then there’s the problem of remembering the words. Country singer Johnny Paycheck, attempting it at an Atlanta Falcons game, offered this addled version: “Oh, say, can you see, it’s cloudy at night/what so loudly we sang as the daylight’s last cleaning.”
An immigrant opera singer from Hungary included the Father of Our Country thusly: “Bombs bursting in air, George Washington was there.” A former Miss Bloomington (Minn.) doing the number at a Twins game got so confused that she muttered “aw nuts” into the microphone and gave up on the spot.
Other singers have offered intentionally unorthodox versions. Folkie Jose Feliciano caused a furor when he did a slow, bluesy number before a game of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Motown icon Marvin Gaye tried a “soul and funky” interpretation at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. And Roseanne Barr, the often smutty comedian, was painfully off key at a San Diego Padres game in 1990.
But when the anthem is sung well and traditionally, it can be beautiful and inspiring. Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill’s version used to be a fixture at Yankee Stadium before big games. (Ronan Tynan, formerly of the Irish Tenors, often does the gentler “God Bless America,” which some think should be the anthem, during the seventh inning at the new Bronx ballyard.)
So take note when the P.A. announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise . . . ” Possibly forevermore, the national anthem is a familiar and welcome part of our national pastime and other games people play
Dick Heller is copy chief of The National Pastime Baseball Museum