National anthem

In American sports, the flag—and the National Anthem—is always there.

The lyrics to The Star Spangled Banner come from “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British naval ships in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812.  Key was inspired by the sight of a lone U.S. flag flying above the fort at daybreak after the American victory.  The poem was set to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven—an old English drinking song—and renamed The Star Spangled Banner.  In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the song should be played at all official events and in March 1931, it was voted by U.S. Congress—on the sixth attempt–as the country’s national anthem.

The 1918 World Series was held in early September as the events of World War I forced the premature end of the regular season.  It remains the only World Series to be played entirely in September.  The Series opened in Chicago, with the National League champion Cubs playing host to the Boston Red Sox at Comiskey Park [Daily Dose, 2/12/16] which the Cubs had rented from the White Sox because it had more seating capacity than their home at Weeghman Park [later Wrigley Field].  Game One was played September 5, with Babe Ruth [Daily Dose, 9/24/15] pitching a 1-0 shutout for Boston.  During the seventh inning stretch, a brass band played The Star Spangled Banner—at that time regarding as a patriotic military song but not yet the anthem—and the entire ballpark took notice.  Players turned and faced the flagpole, while the 19,274 fans in attendance sang along and applauded at the end.  When the Series moved to Boston’s Fenway Park for Game 4, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee moved the song to pregame and coupled it with the introduction of wounded soldiers who had been given free game tickets.  Over the next decade, the playing of The Star Spangled Banner became standard on Opening Day, at holiday games and during the World Series.  In subsequent years, it grew into the daily institution we know today.  Officially adopted as the National Anthem by Congress in 1931, the song was the national pastime’s anthem before it was the nation’s.

Our nation honors war.  Our nation loves sports.  Our nation glorifies winning.  Our National Anthem strikes all three cords at the same time.  The Star Spangled Banner and athletics are indissolubly joined.  The song has become so entrenched in our sports identity it is almost impossible to think of one without the other.  At the biggest events, pregame festivities surrounding the song are nearly as big as the games themselves.  The playing of the anthem is a show, complete with military flyovers, flags and a color guard.

Since the early versions played by brass military bands, the Star Spangled Banner has been performed with varying interpretations: some traditional, and some not.  Prior to Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, Jose Feliciano strummed a slow, bluesy rendition that stunned the crowd at Tiger Stadium and millions watching at home.  It was the first nontraditional version seen by mainstream America.  The Vietnam-weary country’s response was fiery, and in a tumultuous year for U.S. patriotism, Feliciano was roundly criticized.  His performance opened the door for the countless interpretations we hear today.  A little over a week before Motown legend Marvin Gaye picked up two Grammy Awards for his classic Sexual Healing, he performed the national anthem before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.  Gaye, who had also performed at the 1968 World Series, was scrutinized after adding elements of soul and funk to his interpretation.  The NBA players were more receptive, especially Julius Erving, who went on to be named the game’s MVP.  Robert Goulet sang the Star Spangled Banner for the first time in his life May 25, 1965, prior to the much-anticipated rematch between Muhammed Ali and Sonny Liston [Daily Dose, 2/25/16] in Lewiston, Maine.  Goulet began, “Oh say, can you see, by the dawn’s early night…” and never recovered.  Carl Lewis’ performance before a 1993 NBA game in East Rutherford, New Jersey, was anything but gold medal-worthy.  After singing off-key and botching the lyrics, Lewis told the sellout crowd mid-song that he would, “Make up for it.”  He never did.  Other horrific performances have come from Steven Tyler, Christina Aguilera, Michael Bolton and Creed’s Scott Stapp.  Rosanne Barr’s shrieking—followed by grabbing her crotch and spitting—at a 1990 San Diego Padres game was so hideous that President George H.W. Bush called it “disgraceful.”

Some of the finest renditions of The Star Spangled Banner have come before Super Bowls.  Whitney Houston’s version at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 has twice been a top 20 single: during the Gulf War and after the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Other epic Super Bowl performances have come from Faith Hill, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and the Dixie Chicks, who sang prior to the game between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Bucs in 2003.

Jim Cornelison is a 6’5” tenor who sings The Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of home games for the Chicago Blackhawks.  Cornelison studied music at Seattle Pacific before earning a Masters from Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music in 1992.  He has been singing full time for the Hawks since 2007.  The anthem in Chicago is like no other.  The crowd stands and cheers wildly while Cornelison, singing in the key of D-flat and accompanied by Frank Pellico on organ, belts his rip-roaring rendition for the sellout crowd at the United Center, which may be the loudest building on the face of the earth during the 1:38 it takes him to sing.  It is the most stirring national anthem in all of American sports, highlighted by Mr. Cornelison directing his left hand toward the American flag hanging from the rafters while proclaiming “and the flag was still THERE!”  Cornelison, who has won several awards for music and belongs to the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, has sung at opera houses around the world and admits that nowhere else does he receive the reaction he does at the United Center before hockey games.  It is a moving tribute to flag and country.  Michael Leighton, who played goalie in Chicago for two seasons, said, “If you don’t get chills watching that or being part of that, then there’s something wrong with you.”

On this date in 1977, Linda Ronstadt—the most successful female singer of the 1970s—sang the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles prior to Game 3 of the World Series between the Dodgers and New York Yankees.  It remains one of the finest performances of all time.

Do you have a favorite version of the “Star Spangled Banner”?  What is the worst rendition you have ever heard?