Hours after being stuck on a ship in Baltimore Harbor as the British pounded Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore, Key saw the skies clear from the smoke and the indelible image that “our flag was still there.”
The poem was called “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” and it was put to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British drinking song purportedly written by John Stafford Smith that had been composed more than 30 years earlier and served as the theme of the Anacreontic Society of London, a men’s club of amateur musicians.
Soon after Key wrote the poem, a local newspaper gave it the title “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and in 1931, it became our official anthem. All the while, another grand tradition steeped in collective nostalgia and American togetherness — the game of baseball — was steaming along, gaining prominence in our country’s conscience.
Not surprisingly, the national anthem and the National Pastime became stitched together forever, like red laces in white horsehide.
According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, the playing of the national anthem before big league games did not become an everyday tradition until 1942. Taking that into account (and including a slight margin of error based on the lack of documentation regarding split doubleheaders in the earlier days), the Star-Spangled Banner has been heard right before the first pitch of at least the last 121,000 games. Oh, say can you see, indeed.
So with that in mind, 200 years after the night a 35-year-old Washington, D.C.-based attorney known to friends as Frank found himself under a war-torn sky, with honor in his heart and a pen in his hand, we go around the horn with nine things to know about “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its now-eternal link to the national pastime.
1. A first for everything
The first time the song was played at a baseball game was May 15, 1862, at William Cammeyer’s Union Grounds park in Brooklyn. It had been converted from an ice skating venue into a field for summer sports, including what, at the time, was known as “base ball.” In the midst of the Civil War, a band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The first big league Opening Day to feature the eventual anthem took place in Philadelphia on April 22, 1897. The New York Tribune newspaper included a brief and lyrical account of the game: “Opening Day here was a great success. The weather was delightful and the attendance numbered 17,074. The players paraded across the field, company front, and then raised the new flag, while the band played ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ “
In spite of all the pageantry, there had to be some accounting for the four errors that led the Phillies to a 5-1 victory over the Giants at the Baker Bowl.
“The game was rather dull and long-drawn out,” the article read, “and on the part of the New-Yorkers was somewhat unsteadily played.”
2. An unforgettable rendition
The first national anthem played at a World Series game occurred on Sept. 5, 1918, during World War I, when Major League players were in the midst of being drafted into service. The regular season was ordered by the government to be completed by Labor Day, hence the Fall Classic that year was played in September.
The Cubs borrowed Comiskey Park from the White Sox to take advantage of the larger seating capacity, but things got quiet in Game 1, a 1-0 shutout by Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth. But that game will be forever remembered for what occurred in the seventh inning.
That was when the military band on hand struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the song took on a different meaning. Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, for example, was on furlough from the Navy, and he saluted the flag during the playing of the song.
And then the crowd caught on. The New York Times opened its account of the game by writing, “Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world’s series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch” and then continued with the play-by-play ? of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”
The Cubs and Red Sox repeated the tradition for the rest of the Series.
3. Making it official
Even though the Secretary of the Navy in 1889 had designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official song to be played at the raising of the flag, and even though President Woodrow Wilson, a huge baseball fan himself, treated it and referred to it as our national anthem, it had failed to stick in Congress after numerous attempts in the 1920s.
Baseball’s increased use of the song prior to games, a petition with millions of signatures, and a nice little push from noted composer John Philip Sousa helped finally get the job done on March 3, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed into law the establishment of the song as the official national anthem of the United States of America.
4. A lasting tradition
“The Star-Spangled Banner” still wasn’t being played before every baseball game in 1941, but on April 26, 1941, the ball got rolling in the Bronx. As The New York Times reported, “With more war new in the making, president Ed Barrow of the Yankees ordered that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ be played before all games at the Stadium.
“Meanwhile, all continued to go well for the Yankees and [Joe] DiMaggio. He singled home a run in the first and scored twice as New York beat Washington 8-3 for its fourth straight victory.”
By the following year, with the country deep in World War II, the anthem became the daily staple of baseball that we know today.
And DiMaggio was still hitting.
5. Controversy hits the field
It was October 1968, and the country was fighting in Vietnam and had already lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that year. Protests were boiling over in the streets at home, and the Detroit Tigers were hosting the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Jose Feliciano was a 23-year-old blind folk singer from Puerto Rico who had scored a hit on the U.S. charts with a cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and Tigers radio legend Ernie Harwell invited him to sing the national anthem at Tiger Stadium prior to Game 5.
Feliciano was accompanied in left field by his acoustic guitar and his guide dog, Trudy, and he launched into an emotional, heartfelt, and, well, different version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He strummed the guitar in a slightly syncopated, Latin-influenced rhythm, careened back and forth from the traditional vocal melody to something more adventurous, and offered the finishing flourish of “Yeah, yeah.”
It was bold and innovative and fresh, but it was also many years ahead of its time. Feliciano was booed heartily by the crowd and caused a public uproar that took years to live down.
“Back then, when the anthem was done at ballgames, people couldn’t wait for it to be over,” Feliciano told The Guardian last month. “And I wanted to make them sit up and take notice and respect the song. I was shocked when I was booed. I felt, ‘God, what have I done wrong?’ All I was trying to do was create a soulful rendition. I never in my wildest dreams thought I was going to have the country against me, radio stations stop playing me.
“But in part, it was good — because I ended up meeting my wife. She couldn’t understand the injustice and started a fan club, even though we’d never met. We fell in love and the rest is history.”
On Oct. 14, 2012, prior to Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at AT&T Park in San Francisco, the same stylized, heartfelt version of the national anthem was performed by Feliciano on his acoustic guitar.
This time the crowd roared.
6. “O”-dience participation
The anthem itself is a tradition, and at Oriole Park in Camden Yards in Baltimore, there’s a tradition baked into the tradition. When the song rounds third base and heads for home with, “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” the crowd screams the “O” together, celebrating their beloved O’s.
This started at the old Memorial Stadium in the club’s pennant-winning season of 1979. Out in Section 34 of the upper deck, Orioles superfan Wild Bill Hagy would lead fans in chants of O-R-I-O-L-E-S, with the emphasis on the “O.” Mary Powers sat nearby and took the inspiration to another level.
“We would accentuate the ‘O’ in any word that would have an ‘O,’ and one night when they were playing the anthem, I thought, ‘There’s an ‘O!’ in this song,’ and the first time I did it, I remember people turning around and looking like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe she just did that,’ ” Powers recently told WBAL-TV.
“Well, Wild Bill had a little grin on his face, so the next night, he did it with me, and once he put his blessing on it, everybody started to do it.”
Orioles fans still do it — loudly — and will likely be doing it in October this year.
7. Setting the (low) Barr
We all know now that Feliciano’s rendition was eventually respected, if not appreciated. We all also know now that the version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed by comedian Roseanne Barr before a Padres-Reds doubleheader at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego on July 25, 1990, was not.
Barr screeched a fast, off-key rendition of the anthem that drew loud boos midway through, and when she was finished, she grabbed her crotch and spit, as if to mimic a ballplayer. The joke bombed, she was lambasted all over TV and in the newspapers, and she inspired President George H. W. Bush to call the whole act “disgraceful.”
Bush’s comment was met with bipartisan approval.
8. A hymn of healing
The horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the United States forever, but not only in tragic ways. The courage, brotherhood and human decency shown that day in New York, Washington, D.C., and on a hijacked airplane that would crash in a Pennsylvania field showed our country’s strength and will to persevere.
The emotion was palpable 10 days later when the Mets played the Braves at Shea Stadium in the first professional sporting event in New York City since the attacks. Marc Anthony delivered a somber rendition without musical accompaniment and the game was played quietly until the eighth inning, when Piazza’s two-run home run gave the Mets the lead and got the crowd going again.
“I remember standing on the line during the national anthem — actually when the bagpipes and band came out — I said to myself, ‘Please, God, give me the strength to get through this,’ ” Piazza told the New York Daily News in 2008. “I was fortunate to find the strength to hit a home run in that situation. I’m flattered, I’m honored that people put that moment as a time where it helped the city at least have a little bit of joy in a really tough week.”
9. 200 and many more
Every year now, we’re treated to incredible musical talent on the baseball field. From the seasoned operatic pipes of longtime Yankees national anthem singer Robert Merrill to commercial acts James Taylor, Paul Simon, Sammy Davis Jr., John Legend, Lyle Lovett, the Grateful Dead, Slash from Guns N’ Roses, Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, Idina Menzel, Kelly Clarkson and countless others, it’s now a grand American tradition to bring out the best in the business to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the biggest baseball games.
But Sunday, the song itself will shine.
At Fort McHenry in Baltimore, a real-time anniversary program will kick off, with artillery salutes, a reading of the song’s four stanzas and a replica 15-star, 15-stripe flag raising at precisely 9 a.m. to commemorate the history that Key had witnessed.
And MLB teams playing at home will show a special video montage of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the program Great Performances, Maryland Public Television has provided the montage originally seen in the PBS production Star-Spangled Banner: The Bicentennial of our National Anthem to the ballparks and to MLB.com and all 30 club websites and official MLB social media channels.
Fittingly, the last game on Sunday will be played at Camden Yards, about three miles away from Fort McHenry, and fittingly, the Orioles will play the Yankees.
We all know what song we’ll hear right before the first pitch.
Key connections: Star-Spangled Banner, baseball forever linked – MLB.com