A Sportingly Brief History of “The Star Spangled Banner”

by ekramer on May 1, 2009

The Early and Not-So-Early Years

Birth of a Song: In 1812, Francis Scott Key wrote new lyrics for a popular song.

World War I: Patriotic ceremonies were common at baseball games.

Official, Take 1: In 1916, Woodrow Wilson decreed a presidential order that made the song the official anthem of the United States.

The First: Some historians trace the singing of this back to game one of the 1918 World Series, when, during the seventh-inning stretch, the band broke out into song. The players faced the flag while the crowd sang along. (During World War I, which ended in 1918, many had people accused Major League Baseball players of avoiding military duty.)

Make Song, Not War: After World War I ended in 1918, bands played the anthem during opening day, the World Series and other special occasions.

Official, Take 2: In 1931, Congress passed a resolution making the song the national anthem.

WW II Sentiments Fuse Song and Sport

Great White North: Canadians regularly played their anthem on their turf at National Hockey League games after they entered World War II in September 1939. Later, American hockey teams adapted the practice followed by baseball teams.

Call for Song: The United States was on the brink of entering World War II in 1940, and The Sporting News and the president of the International League called for the song to be played before all baseball games.

Widespread Song: Playing the national anthem became common practice in 1941.

Years Reeling with Renditions

1965: Robert Goulet sings the song for the first time (the guy grew up in Canada) prior to the rematch of boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. He started it with, “Oh say, can you see, by the dawn’s early night…” (No rolling of the eyes. How many of you can sing all the words to “O Canada,” eeh?)

1968: Before a World Series game at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, Jose Feliciano sang a slow and bluesy version that stymied many people in the crowd and those watching the televised performance.

1969: Jimi Hendrix played his now infamous variation at Woodstock.

1983: Marvin Gaye added a soulful sound to the song when he sang it before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. The event made VH1’s “100 Greatest Rock and Roll Moments on TV.”

1990: Bleeding Gums Murphy sings his version on an episode of “The Simpsons.”

1990: Roseanne Barr got a lot of scathing reactions (including one from then-President George Bush) to her off-key (to put it mildly) singing of the song before a baseball game in San Diego. She wrapped up the performance by spitting and grabbing her crotch, much like some baseball players.

1991: Whitney Houston belted out the song in front of a crowd and television viewers before Super Bowl XXV at a time when the Persian Gulf War was drawing down. A recorded version sold 750,000 copies.

1993: The Olympic track-and-field gold medallist Carl Lewis primed his pipes to sing the tune, but before a Chicago Bulls–New Jersey Nets basketball game he mangled the song.

2001: Before the cars roared at that year’s Indianapolis 500, Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler sang the song, but changed the last line from “home of the brave” to “home of the Indianapolis 500.” Criticism evoked a later apology from Tyler.

2005: NASCAR fans got angry after hearing country singer and Kentucky native John Michael Montgomery sing the song in a performance that made many think he was drunk. He later said he had a non-cancerous growth in his head. The next year, he was arrested in Lexington, Ky. for driving under the influence and possession of a controlled substance.

2009: LeAnn Rimes is the first national recording artist to sing the national anthem at the Kentucky Derby. The reviews? You be the judge.

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