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.
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.
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.
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.