This weekend’s Memorial Day festivities are sure to include renditions of our national anthem in parks and parades, but we usually hear the song in stadiums and arenas. “The Star Spangled Banner” is as much a part of our games as the crack of a bat or the umpire’s whistle. While the song didn’t officially become our national anthem until 1931, professional baseball stadiums played it on opening day as far back as the 1870s, when brass bands provided the musical entertainment.
Author Troy Soos' book "Before the Curse" is about the early days of New England baseball. He said that a variety of songs were used, like “Hail, Columbia!”—the song that now introduces the vice president at official events. Like the song itself, the tradition of playing the song at games was likely inspired by the flag. “By the 1890s already, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was used on opening day. And I think part of the reason for that is that ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is about the flag. And so before the game, they would have the raising of the flag, and play the Star Spangled Banner along with that,” he said.
World War I proved pivotal. In the war-shortened 1918 season, fans at Game 1 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs heard a band play “The Star Spangled Banner” during the 7th inning stretch. Sportswriter and SUNY Plattsburgh Journalism Professor Luke Cyphers has written about this connection for ESPN the Magazine. One particular player may have had a big influence on the baseball-anthem link. “Fred Thomas, who was as Red Sox third baseman who had been on furlough actually from the Navy to play in the series—he was training nearby at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago—snapped to attention. And it created really a stir among the fans,” said Cyphers.
But the media was also instrumental. “One thing about this game particularly that I think helped make the national anthem something that we see today,” he said, “was the fact that The New York Times, which back then was also the paper of record, broadcast this to their audience. It was the lead to the game recap the next day. And so I think it caught a lot of attention of the eastern media as well, which is something every good sports publicist tries to do, even today.”
Later on in that series, the anthem was moved to the game’s opening. Soos, whose novel "Murder at Wrigley Field" is set against the backdrop of the 1918 season, said that professional baseball was trying to be a good team player. “Baseball was really trying to present itself as contributing to the war effort by providing entertainment, they would have benefit games to sell war bonds, and they would do whatever they can to show what a patriotic spirit organized baseball had.”
The use of the song grew gradually. According to Soos, the anthem was not played at every major league game until World War II. More contemporary conflicts have further tied the anthem to sports. “At the opening of the first Gulf War it was tied very closely to a Super Bowl, and Whitney Houston’s performance of the national anthem really moved people, partly because it had been awhile since this country had sent any soldiers into battle,” said Cyphers. Recent opening day games included military flyovers, but federal sequestration cuts have caused the Pentagon to limit those shows.
Fans at a recent Orioles game said that the anthem had several roles. One was purely functional—it let everyone know that the game was about to begin. The song also served to remind people of our veterans and our common bond as Americans. Overall, most fans felt like Adill Tabedy, 18, from Baltimore City. He said simply, “Makes you feel good man. When everyone finally does something together, it feels good.”
Whitney Houston's performance at 1991 Super Bowl:
This story is part of our series “Rockets’ Red Glare: The War, the Song and Their Legacies,” made possible by a grant from Star Spangled 200, a national bicentennial in Maryland.