Oh Say Can You Hear?: Singing the National Anthem
In my decade as a play-by-play broadcaster and sports reporter, I’ve covered more than 1,300 games in sports ranging from high school football to Major League Baseball. Every one of those games has been preceded by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States of America. One season, I was responsible for selecting the national anthem singers for all the home games of a minor-league basketball team I worked for. I’m about as familiar with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as someone who’s never performed the song can be. Yet, I wonder why anyone would want to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a sporting event.
For starters, it’s a very difficult song to sing, which isn’t surprising when you consider that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t originally designed to be sung. What we now know as our national anthem started off as part of a poem written by lawyer and author Francis Scott Key. The poem, titled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” was Key’s thoughts on a battle he witnessed during the War of 1812. [See guest blogger Jeb Middlebrook’s post “Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America” for more on the Star Spangled-Banner as a prison song.–Editor] Key’s brother-in-law noticed that the poem’s words could be set to the music of “The Anacreontic Song“, a popular English drinking song. Within weeks, Key’s words were printed in newspapers throughout the country, the name changed to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Although all four verses of Key’s poem were converted to song, only the first verse was designated as the official national anthem of the United States of America in 1931.
No one has pinpointed the first sporting event that had “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung before it. However, there’s evidence the song was sung both before and during Major League Baseball games while World War I was going on. During the first game of the 1918 World Series between the visiting Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs at Weeghman Park (known today as Wrigley Field), a band performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was ten years old in 1918, but the Tin Pan Alley song had yet to become a seventh-inning stretch standard). It wasn’t until World War II when the national anthem was performed before every baseball game, an affirmation of the American spirit during such a difficult time.
It’s fitting that baseball was the first sport whose games were preceded by the national anthem; baseball’s status as America’s national pastime and as one of its defining cultural institutions was undisputed for most of the 20th century. Also, in the 1940s, professional basketball was just getting off the ground, professional football was barely 20 years old, and professional hockey was dominated by Canadians and only played in a handful of American markets. If the tradition of pre-game anthem singing had begun in one of those sports, it would’ve taken much longer to catch on, if it caught on at all. Eventually, all the other professional leagues followed baseball’s example.
When I was an account executive for the Yakima (Washington) Sun Kings of the Continental Basketball Association during their 2002-2003 season, my boss assigned me the responsibility of choosing our pre-game national anthem singers. Fortunately, it proved to be an easy task, since folks who were interested in singing regularly called the team’s offices, and as long as they could hold a tune I booked them. All I could give the singers were tickets to the game at which they were performing, but no one ever bemoaned the lack of compensation.
When I think about all of the games I’ve covered, I honestly can’t remember any vocal renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that stand out because of their greatness. However, I remember all of the terrible singers I’ve heard. There was the raven-haired woman in Keizer, Oregon who got halfway through the song, screwed up the lyrics and started over. There was a middle-aged man in Binghamton, New York who messed up the song’s pitch and pacing so badly, there was a good three seconds of stunned silence when he finished, followed by polite applause. There was the teenager in Kalamazoo, Michigan whose voice cracked every time she hit a high note. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, you work your butt off to sing an extremely difficult song, you manage not to mess it up, you get some nice applause once you’re done and then you’re forgotten right after the first pitch. Singing the national anthem is a thankless job, yet there’s no shortage of people willing to do it.
When I think about the people who volunteered to sing at Yakima Sun Kings games, I don’t recall anyone who who looked at singing the anthem as a way to honor their country. There was one woman who lived an hour and a half away who volunteered her anthem-singing services to every professional and college team within three or four hours of her home. I asked her why she put in all this effort and she said “I just like to sing.” The one singer I rejected was an eight-year-old girl whose mother bragged over the phone about her daughter being such an outstanding singer that “she brings people to tears.” Her mother seemed to think singing the national anthem before about 3,000 people in the middle of nowhere would lead her daughter to stardom. I was out of the office when a CD arrived with 10 tracks and the young lady’s picture on the cover (her mother called the office twice to make sure her husband had dropped off the CD and that I had received it). I listened to the one track that featured her singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and I didn’t think it was very good; she had a nice voice but she was trying way too hard. Thankfully, I never heard from her mother again.
Other than that young lady (or, more accurately, her mother), none of the aspiring anthem singers I encountered seemed to be seeking stardom. Perhaps these singers were more patriotic than they – or I – realized. Perhaps they just wanted to cross an item off their bucket list. Or, they were big sports fans and relished an opportunity to go to a game free of charge. Maybe they just thought it would be a cool thing to do and a great way to gain the admiration of their family and friends; many people are petrified of doing anything in front of an audience and those who aren’t are often seen as heroic, even if their anthem singing is immediately forgotten.
However, the best way to get your rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be noticed and remembered is not to sing it but to play it on a musical instrument. Live instrumental performances of the national anthem are rare, so even an average instrumental rendition is more memorable than a great sung rendition. In my stint as national anthem booker for the Yakima Sun Kings, I encountered just one non-singer: a 13-year-old boy who taught himself how to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his saxophone. The amount of positive feedback I received from the fans on his rendition was easily double or triple the feedback on all the anthem singers combined; he was one of only two performers I booked for multiple games. When I lived in Binghamton, New York, my favorite national anthem performers were a pair of trumpeters; they played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a variety of sporting events in the area. I still get chills when I think about the exceptional national anthem rendition performed by trumpeter Jesse McGuire – the former lead trumpeter for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York City – prior to the seventh game of the 2001 World Series in Phoenix, Arizona, the only World Series I’ve covered.
Nowadays, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is far from the only song sung at many American sporting events. In games featuring teams from Canada (the NBA, MLB and NHL all have Canadian franchises), “O Canada”, the Canadian national anthem, is sung pre-game along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “O Canada” is a much easier – and shorter – song to sing. Many baseball teams also recruit singers for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. You don’t even have to sing as much as you have to lead the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and being an expert singer isn’t required. However, my guess is more people would rather sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over anything else at a sporting event. Singers aren’t looking for easy or simple. They’re looking to showcase their talents singing a song we all learned growing up, a song we’ve heard countless others sing on big and small stages and a song that demands the utmost respect and importance requiring both fans and participants alike to stop what they’re doing and to salute the American flag.
Robert Ford is currently a reporter and radio pre- and post-game show host covering Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals. He has also been a radio play-by-play broadcaster for several minor league baseball, college and high school teams, allowing him to call places like Yakima, WA, Kalamazoo, MI and Binghamton, NY home at various points in his life. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/raford3 and read his blog: http://radioguydiaries.wordpress.com/
Closing Time, or What’s In a Song?
Ever since the Chicago Cubs installed an organ at Wrigley Field in 1941, music has been a part of the baseball ballpark experience. Unlike basketball, hockey or football, baseball doesn’t have non-stop action, and its frequent periods of inaction give an organist or stadium DJ a broad canvas on which to improvise. Initially, ballpark music was strictly organ music, as organs were present at every ballpark by the middle of the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, the organist was complemented by the stadium DJ, who played recorded music over the stadium sound system. Gradually, the DJ overtook the organist and many stadiums no longer play live organ music; a little less than half of the 30 ballparks that host Major League Baseball games today don’t employ an organist.
As technology improved, allowing stadium DJs to play music on the computer rather than on the record or 8-track player, teams began allowing baseball players to choose the music they wanted to hear. And, in the 1990s, the phrase “walk-up music” entered the sports fan’s vernacular. Position players chose songs for the stadium DJ to play when they walked from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. Pitchers picked music to be played while they warmed up at the start of their outing.
Players select their music in a variety of ways. Some pick a song from their favorite artists, artists that often originate from their corner of the world (e.g. a lefthanded pitcher from Texas warming up to country music or Southern hip-hop; a utility infielder from the Dominican Republic opting for a merengue or bachata tune). Others will choose music they feel helps motivate them to perform better on the field, choosing a new song whenever they enter a slump. Some players will even allow the stadium DJ to pick their music. In 2007, New York Mets third baseman David Wright gave the fans the opportunity to vote for his walk-up song online, giving them list of 50 of his favorites to choose from (the fans choice: “Me & U,” the only hit by Cassie, a hip-hop artist).
While almost every baseball player has walk-up music, only a handful of players have had their music become an iconic part of their image and legacy. The best example of a player who’s become closely identified with his entrance music is New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera.
Rivera has been the Yankees’ closer for more than a decade and a half, called upon to get the last three outs in the ninth inning when the Yankees are ahead by a handful of runs. The closer’s role is one of the most pressure-packed in all of team sports. Do it well, and your opponents often feel defeated as soon as you come into the game. Do it poorly, and you’ll frustrate your teammates, your manager and your team’s fan base. After all, nothing’s more demoralizing than losing a game you’ve all but won, and a closer’s job is to turn almost-certain wins into definite victories. Rivera is arguably the best closer in baseball history, an integral part of a Yankees team that’s won five championships and advanced to the playoffs in all but one of his 16 seasons.
During Rivera’s rise to prominence in the late 1990s, the DJ at Yankee Stadium, his home ballpark, began playing “Enter Sandman” by Metallica when Rivera came into the game. To a certain extent, “Enter Sandman” seems like a strange choice for Rivera’s entrance. While it does start off softly before building to a eardrum-thumping crescendo of guitars, “Enter Sandman” is a loud, heavy-metal song. Rivera, the most reserved of the Yankees superstars developed over the last two decades, is serene and soft-spoken. To the untrained ear, “Enter Sandman” sounds arrogant and boastful, two words that have never been used to describe Rivera.
However, in many ways, “Enter Sandman” does compliment Rivera. Its lyrics, about a child battling nightmares as he tries to sleep, are a perfect metaphor for Rivera, whose job is to gives opposing hitters nightmares while trying to put the game to bed in the Yankees’ favor. Rivera, a deeply religious man by all accounts, probably approves of the song’s encouragement to “Say your prayers little one” and its recitation of a classic children’s bedtime prayer (“Now I lay me down to sleep/Pray the Lord my soul to keep…”). In addition, Rivera may also get a kick out of the idea of opposing hitters saying their prayers before facing the dancing and darting fastballs that he throws with ruthless efficiency and pinpoint accuracy.
It also helps that Yankee Stadium is one of the loudest outdoor venues anywhere. Its combination of rabid fans and their New York-style obnoxiousness and hubris combined with an ear-splitting sound system that could wake the dead already makes the Bronx, NY stadium one of the toughest venues for visiting teams to compete. Combine those elements with a song that’s loud, even before you raise the volume, being played while an indomitable closer jogs to the pitcher’s mound from the bullpen behind the outfield fence and makes his warm-up throws and it isn’t hard to understand why many enemy teams are mentally vanquished before they even take their cuts against Rivera, whose entrance routine serves to both whip the Yankee Stadium crowd into a frenzy and intimidate opponents.
Would Rivera be as dominant without such scene-setter is a legitimate question. While baseball is a very technical sport, requiring precision whether you’re fielding a ground ball or laying down a bunt, emotion and superstition has a prominent place in the sport. Yankee Stadium is already one of the most hostile stadiums for opponents; throw in a great closer coming out to a ominous, foreboding song and it’s understandable how an opponent’s anxiety would be heightened. You could also argue that, Rivera is so good, what’s playing over the sound system is immaterial. After all, Rivera does play half his games on the road, away from Yankee Stadium and “Enter Sandman,” and he has managed to excel in those contests as well.
Rivera is now 40 years old and still among the best at an age when most baseball players are retired or on the downward slope. Upon retirement (and the requisite five-year waiting period), Rivera will almost certainly be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the other greats. And, while “Enter Sandman” hasn’t been the sole reason for his success, it will always be an indelible part of Rivera’s legacy.
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