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History of the National Anthem

The Grand Tradition begins with baseball

By Professor Joseph L. Price, Professor of Religious Studies, Whittier College

Since I love to sing and since I love baseball, singing the national anthem at Major League games has provided a chance to combine my passions. -- Joseph L. Price

The National Anthem

According to some, the earliest connection between "The Star Spangled Banner" and baseball occurred on May 15, 1862, when a band is thought to have played the tune at the opening of the Capitolene Grounds in New York. Association of "The Star Spangled Banner" with Major League games began, according to others, when the New York Highlanders (Yankees) played on April 30, 1903. Although the song was occasionally played at important public events at the turn of the twentieth century, "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean" was much more popular for bands to play at ballparks.

The era was one that featured live brass bands because public address systems and amplification technology had not yet been developed and would not be installed at a ballpark until 1929, again in New York, again associated with the Yankees - in "The House that Ruth Built." Anecdotal accounts indicate that "The Star Spangled Banner" was played at a ballgame in 1916 following a request by President Woodrow Wilson. And at least one other report identifies that the song was played by a band at the opening game between Cleveland and New York for the 1917 season.

The first indisputable record of the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" for a Major League game was for a unique World Series. The premature series in 1918 featured Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox winning their last Series against the even more hapless Cubs. A year earlier the World Series had been unaffected by the United States' entry into the World War. But following the completion of the 1917 season, players enlisted and were drafted into the armed services. At the height of the 1918 season, baseball was classified as a non - essential occupation. Consequently, the government cut the season short, requiring the end of regular season play by Labor Day and the completion of the World Series by mid - September.

The playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" can first be verified by a New York Times report of the 1918 World Series. In the inning-by-inning recap of the first game, the report of the bottom of the seventh - inning notes that as the Cubs came to bat the band delayed play by playing "The Star Spangled Banner.'" Players and fans stood in civilian salute, most holding their caps over their hearts, while Red Sox' third baseman Fred Thomas, a Great Lakes sailor, assumed "the military pose" (NY Times, 9/06/1918, p. 14). The pre - game ceremony on that afternoon had been minimal. While the managers and umpires were exchanging line - up cards at home plate and going over the ground rules, a huge horseshoe of roses was presented to Cubs manager Fred Mitchell, and a big bouquet of roses was handed to Cubs third baseman Charles Deal.

Since the end of the Spanish American War two decades earlier, bands had played "The Star Spangled Banner" on festive public occasions as part of a patriotic repertoire that included "America" and "Yankee Doodle." The "The Star Spangled Banner" had steadily gained popularity in the intervening years because of its rousing patriotic character, and in the year of Red Sox - Cubs World Series, a formal proposal was made in Congress to adopt it as the National Anthem. But the expansive melodic range of "The Star Spangled Banner" prompted enough objections for the bill to be defeated that year, and again in 1921, 1923, and 1925. Prompted by a petition with six million signatures, the bill was submitted to Congress again in 1931 and signed into law on May 3rd by Herbert Hoover.

Unlike its timing at Wrigley Field, the band at Fenway started the fourth game of the 1918 World Series with "The Star Spangled Banner." The New York Times referred to it as "The National Anthem" the following day - a designation it had earlier received from Woodrow Wilson. Despite the delay in play on this occasion, the patriotic crowd greeted wounded soldiers in uniform with wild applause and enthusiastic cheers when the men, most of whom were bandaged and on crutches, were shown to their seats.

During the next few years, "The Star Spangled Banner" was played at World Series games and on holiday occasions. Beginning in World War II, however, the National Anthem, as it had become officially designated by then, began to be played and performed regularly at games. Since then, it has been associated with the exchange of line - up cards at home plate and the cry of the home plate umpire, "Play ball."

Joseph L. Price is a Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College. He has performed the National Anthem at 18 ballparks across the United States. This article first appeared in the Fall edition of the American Academy of Religion's newsletter Religious Studies News, p. 16, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.