Love affair with song at sports events dates to 1918 World Series
CHICAGO » Tuesday afternoon, the fans at Wrigley Field will be asked to stand, reminded to remove their caps for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Fans who can recite the words as easily as the alphabet will sing or listen to the story of a flag that continued to wave throughout one of the most famous battles in American history.
What the fans may not know is that Francis Scott Key, apparently better at lyrics than melody, put his description of the battle of Fort McHenry to an old English tune that had a lot less to do with patriotism than it did with booze and women. Or that this year marks the 100th season since the song was played for the first time at a World Series game — an event that helped cement it in the national consciousness and become the national anthem that is now simply assumed to be part of game day in American sports, from Little League to the Super Bowl to medal ceremonies at the Olympics.
“Certainly the outpouring of sentiment, enthusiasm, and patriotism at the 1918 World Series went a long way to making the (song) the national anthem,” said John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian.
Newspapers on Sept. 5, 1918, were dominated by news of World War I, including the latest American dead. In Chicago, one of the headlines stated: “Chicagoans on the List.” And it was a particularly harrowing moment in the city for another reason: Someone, possibly selfproclaimed anarchists and labor activists, had the day before tossed a bomb into a downtown federal building and post office, killing four people and injuring dozens more.
The World Series was in town, with the Cubs hosting Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox. The Chicago games were played at Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox, instead of their new home at Wrigley Field, what was called Weeghman Park at the time, because it held more fans. But in a city jittery over the bombing and weary from the war, Game 1 that day attracted fewer than 20,000 fans, the smallest World Series crowd in years.
When the fans got there, they didn’t make much noise, though that could have had something to do with the 1-0 masterpiece Ruth was pitching — yes, pitching — for the Red Sox.
“There was no cheering during the contest, nor was there anything like the usual umpire baiting,” reported one Boston newspaper.
Then, in the seventh inning, a band from the Navy training station north of Chicago started to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The song had been played before at majorleague games, from at least 1862 and on opening day in 1897, in Philadelphia, Thorn said. But this time, reported The New York Times, something happened that was “far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball.”
Players took off their caps as they faced a flag that fluttered atop a pole in right field as the 12piece band began to play.
All of them except Red Sox infielder Fred Thomas.
Thomas was in the Navy during the Series — he played on the team fielded by the Great Lakes station that was also home to the band — but was granted furlough so he could play. When the Wisconsin native heard the music, “he turned toward the flag, kept his hat on and gave a military salute,” said Jim Leeke, author of “From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War.”
A few fans began to sing. Then others joined in “and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field,” The Times reported. And when it ended, “onlookers exploded into thunderous applause.”
Second baseman DJ LeMahieu, pitcher Jon Gray and outfielder Ian Desmond stand at attention for the playing of the national anthem before the Rockies’ home game against the Indians on June 7.