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The Star Spangled Banner

Many Americans think that we play “The Star Spangled Banner” at the start of baseball games because it is our National Anthem. In reality, it is our National Anthem largely because it was played at the start of baseball games.

The United States entered World War I in 1917. As it dragged on, it started to seem improper to be playing games at all.  By the next year, many felt that that baseball should be canceled out of respect for the troops dying by the thousands in Europe.  President Wilson, a big fan, encouraged a compromise that included a shortened season ending on Labor Day.

Comiskey Park (1910 - 1990)

Comiskey Park (1910 – 1990)

So it came to be that on September 5th, 1918 the first game of the World Series was played between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. The field was Comiskey Park, normally home to the White Sox but pressed into service in anticipation of a large crowd.

The game was memorable for the shutout pitching of Red Sox lefty Babe Ruth, just starting his career. But what led the coverage in the New York Times the next day was this account of the seventh inning stretch:

As the crowd of 19,274 spectators – the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years – stood up to take their afternoon yawn, that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner”.

The yawn was checked and heads were bared as ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the US Navy was at full attention, as he stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. 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.

Old Glory.

Old Glory.

It’s not entirely clear why the band chose that patriotic tune, but legend says that it was a favorite of stadium owner Charles Comiskey. What is clear that the great patriotic fervor of the event was a big hit, and it was repeated throughout the World Series that year.

The next year the practice was taken up at stadiums all across the nation. But it was felt that the celebrations interrupted the game, and gradually the practice of playing “The Star Spangled Banner” was moved to the start of the game. It made for a good lead-in to the game and everyone was happy.

After the war, this practice continued. It was picked up by other sports as they came along, most notably the rise of football in the 1920s.

It was not until 1931 that a resolution in Congress named it our National Anthem. By that time, it was one of the best known of all patriotic tunes because anyone who had ever attended a ballgame had heard it.

The Home Plate of Old Comiskey, now in the parking lot north of New Comiskey.

The Home Plate of Old Comiskey, now in the parking lot north of New Comiskey.

When old Comiskey Park was torn down in 1990 a plaque was placed in what is now the parking lot of New Comisky showing where home plate once was. If you stand on it and look down the first base line, you can imagine the bleachers just behind on the right. There, behind first base, was where the band was seated on the day when the Star Spangled Banner started on a journey that would take it deep into the hearts of Americans.

It is a place almost as important as Fort McHenry in the story of our national anthem, because without this single event the tune may not be very well known today – and it likely would not be our national anthem.

And, of course, while it may seem obvious that two things closely related to each other must have happened in a certain order, the opposite can also be true. Baseball games are forever linked to the Star Spangled Banner, but it was love of sports which came first in the hearts of Americans.

11 thoughts on “The Star Spangled Banner

  1. Most people do not even know that it has 4 stanzas. The song has nothing to do with baseball; but was rather an inspirational song, written by Francis Scott Key to recognize the great relief and pride of the American defense at Fort McHenry; only known to have happened as the sun rose on the day he wrote it. It was s a key battle in the War of 1812 that saved the city of Baltimore.
    Baseball had not even been invented at that time.
    And with today’s societies limited attention span; I doubt that anyone would even want to sit though the entire song without getting restless and booing the singer, just to get on with the game or go to get a hot dog and a beer.

    The Star Spangled Banner

    Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light 
    What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? 
    Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight, 
    O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? 
    And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, 
    Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. 
    Oh, say does that star­spangled banner yet wave 
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? 

    On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep, 
    Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes, 
    What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep, 
    As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses? 
    Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, 
    In full glory reflected now shines in the stream: 
    ‘Tis the star­spangled banner! Oh long may it wave 
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave! 

    And where is that band who so vauntingly swore 
    That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion, 
    A home and a country should leave us no more! 
    Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. 
    No refuge could save the hireling and slave 
    From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: 
    And the star­spangled banner in triumph doth wave 
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave! 

    Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand 
    Between their loved home and the war’s desolation! 
    Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land 
    Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. 
    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, 
    And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.” 
    And the star­spangled banner in triumph shall wave 
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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