In 1968, Jose Feliciano singing the national anthem at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. His non-traditional, folksy, acoustic arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner sparked huge controversy. People wanted the singer deported, they threw shoes at their TVs, they stopped playing his songs on the radio.
So when Michael Bennett refused to stand for the national anthem, well, it was not the song’s first controversy.
But it did make me wonder: when and why did sports become so intertwined with the national anthem? Why don’t we sing it before a concert or a play? And why do we get upset with football players who don’t stand for it, when we have never questioned why it’s playing in the first place?
Marc Ferris wrote the book “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem.”
“The Star spangled Banner has been played for sporting events at least since 1862,” Ferris said. “That is the first documented reference. It was a baseball game in Brooklyn, New York. That is, of course, in the middle of the Civil War. It was not played every day because owners had to hire bands. Remember there was no electricity, so that became expensive. They usually played baseball games, opening day, maybe on a holiday and during World Series games.”
A lot of people think the tradition started at the World Series in 1918.
“During World War I, Babe Ruth was involved, it was a dramatic performance during the 7th inning stretch. Not before the game. It was spontaneous, the band on hand decided to play it and everybody spontaneously stood. People say it was the first time it was ever played and that is completely wrong.”
But it wasn’t until World War II, when they had sound systems, that the anthem was played at every game. I asked Ferris if it was ever played before other forms of non-sports-related entertainment.
“Absolutely. During World War I there were a lot of calls by citizens to enforce conformity. Everyone should stand, and they did. They played it before theater events, they played it before movies, they played it before civic events.”
So why don’t we still hear the anthem when we take in the arts? Why did it only stick to the sports world?
“It just seemed like overload. In the 1950s, after it became established to play it before every game, there was a backlash. Even in Baltimore, which is the birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner. The GM of the Baltimore Orioles, they decided that playing the anthem before every game cheapened its effect. So he decided: no more anthem every day! Let’s save it for special occasions. [But] the city of Baltimore was not having it. So very quickly he had to abandon that idea. The Chicago Cubs did not play it after World War II. But he did reinstate it during Vietnam. So there have been experiments to do away with the ritual, but they never held. One baseball player in the 50’s, asked why we do this, said, ‘Well, we can get together and enjoy ourselves in peace and national harmony.’ So it’s something to just be thankful for, in a way.”
The NFL has no official rule forcing players to stand for the anthem. They merely recommend they do so. But is there official etiquette attached to how Americans are supposed to treat the anthem, like there is for the flag?
“There’s the 1942 Flag Code. It’s not enforceable, congress passed it and it’s really is just a suggestion. There were silly, silly things that people thought you should do back in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Like, if you’re driving and the anthem comes on the radio, you’re supposed to stop the car, get out, salute. It was insane, the debates some people had over what should be the proper etiquette towards the Star Spangled Banner.”
The Star Spangled Banner was written in 1814 by Frances Scott Key and it didn’t become the country’s official anthem until 1931. Key didn’t put any legal claims on the song, so it can be sung by anyone in any style.
“There is no official version, musically, of the song, which is beautiful. We’re the United States! What do you want? Everyone to play the exact same version? Should we only have a military band play it? No blues, no nothing. It would be absurd! That’s the beauty of the country. We are individual and we should all have the freedom to interpret the song as we want to and to determine what our proper response, as far as etiquette, should be.”
Ferris thinks the same American freedom should transfer to Michael Bennett’s decision to sit during the anthem.