Monday, September 5, 2016

A Stand-Up History and Origin of the National Anthem at Sporting Events

During the pre-season leading into the 2016 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick came under fire for not standing during the ritual pre-game playing of the National Anthem.  

He was not the first person to experience such a backlash.  It first happened more than a century earlier; at a time before popular history  places the beginning of the practice of playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at professional sporting events.  In the early days, the anthem appears to have been saved for special occasions, like opening day, raising newly won championship pennant, or games in a championship series.  The practice appears to have picked up pace during and after the Spanish-American War and again during World War I.

It is unclear how or why the anthem became a staple at the beginning of nearly every high school, college and professional sporting event, but perhaps the some promoter somewhere was familiar with the old Vaudeville trick:

A "finish," wherein the drop curtain is raised, revealing a special drop in the rear showing a battle scene, the performers meanwhile singing or playing "The Star Spangled Banner," cannot possibly fail.

Puck, Volume 75, Number 1948, Week Ending July 4, 1914, page 9.

[Note: This article is about the history of playing the National Anthem at sporting events.  I previously wrote about the history of National Anthem ettiquette, including the customs of removing the hat, placing a hand over the heart, and standing.  I recommend reading both articles for a fuller picture of events. See, Jazzed Up National Anthems, Hats, Hearts and a Wartime World Series - a Big League History of National Anthem Ettiquette.]

The Popular Story

Popular history places the origin of the tradition of playing the National Anthem at American sporting events at game 1 of the 1918 World’s Series.  A band, it is said, played the anthem during the “seventh inning stretch” of game one in Boston.  Patriotic feelings were running high because of the United States’ recent entry into World War I; and a tradition was born.  Babe Ruth played in the game, making the story that much more appealing to pop-historians.

The story is not true.  All of those events may have happened as they say, but it was not the start of any tradition.  They played the anthem to open the seventh inning of games in Boston during the 1916 World Series too; and even then, they were breaking with the tradition of playing it before the game:

Until this year it has been the custom to start each game of the world’s series by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  During this series, the Boston rooters asked that they be allowed to open the seventh inning with the national anthem.  That might have been good form in Boston, but Brooklyn citizens missed the usual opening.

The Washington Times (DC), October 12, 1916, page 10 (see video of the 1916 World Series between the Red Sox and the Brooklyn Dodgers here).

The practice of playing the national anthem at major league baseball games, at least on certain special occasions, dates to at least twenty-five years before 1916.  The popular history is correct on one score, however; patriotic fever may have helped transform an occasional practice into a well-known tradition – but during an earlier war.

Early Anthem “Heretics”

The tradition of playing the Star Spangled Banner to open baseball games was well established in 1905 when the “bleacherites” (people in the cheap seats) didn’t stand with the rest of the crowd:

[A]s the members of the two organizations laid hands on the ropes which raised the flag to the pole, the band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  In an instant the entire 10,000 persons present were on their feet singing the national anthem, while the Stars and Stripes were slowly hoisted to their place on top of the grand stand, directly back of the catcher’s position.

The Brooklyn Eagle, April 15, 1905, page 8, column 1.

Once inside, the bleacherites quickly settled themselves and began singing songs and cracking jokes while waiting for the ceremonies to begin.  As a general thing they were not much interested in the parade of the Elks and the members of the Superba Bowling Club, which led the flag raising ceremonies.

The Brooklyn Eagle, April 15, 1905, page 8, column 3.

It was a source of comment that the bleacherites refused to rise when the “Star Spangled Banner” was sung earlier in the day, but when Batch and Owens tore off safe drives fenceward at certain stages of the subsequent proceedings, the railbirds arose en masse and applauded.  As popular idols, Batch and Owens beat an every day flag raising from every point of view, according to the dyed in the wool fans.

The Brooklyn Eagle, April 15, 1905, page 8, column 2.

When Philadelphia built an insurmountable lead late in the game, one urchin was heard to say (in what may be the earliest recorded example of a precursor to the disappointed Dodgers fan’s lament –  “dem Bums!”):

“Ain’t dey a nice lot of dubs?” chirped a rooter in the first row.  “Dat bunch can’t play ball a little bit; dere bum. Dis is de last time dey gets me quarter.”

The Brooklyn Eagle, April 15, 1905, page 8, column 3.

In a widely reported incident in 1912, a group of students from a “socialistic” ward of Milwaukee received national attention for refusing to stand for the anthem:
Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California), April 4, 1912, page 8.

Anthem at the First World Series[i]

“The Star Spangled Banner” was played before game seven of the first World Series between the National League and the American League in 1903.  The game, played at Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park, was not the decisive game because the series that year was a best-of-nine affair.The National League Pirates and Boston’s American League team (the “Americans” - to distinguish them from Boston’s National League team) were tied up at three games apiece.  

The teams’ bands engaged in a friendly “battle of the bands” before the game:

The rival bands in the grand stand challenged each other to the different national airs before the game began and the crowd, of course, appreciated it very much.  The Pittsburgh band, which was in the right wing of the stand, opened with” America.”  The Boston band came back with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Other airs were exchanged, the Pittsburgh band finally getting the last “say” by playing “Marching Through Georgia” and “The Wearing of the Green”[ii]

Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, October 3, 1903, page 18.

The record is silent on whether anyone stood or not. 

It seems likely, however, that many of the fans who mobbed the field when the Bostons clinched the series in game eight were not standing at attention when they played "The Star Spangled Banner" - AFTER the game:

When Hans Wagner struck out, ending the world’s championship series and placing the Bostons in the front rank, the 8,000 Boston people present did not run for the exits as they usually do after a game.  They began dropping into the field from the grandstand and bleachers, shouting and yelling like mad. . . .

Suddenly the band struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” and everybody who could bellow caught the tune until even the bass drum could not be heard.  It was a stirring scene – a whole baseball populace worked up to a high pitch of enthusiasm.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 14, 1903, page 8.

It would not have been surprising, however, for any number of people to not stand when the song was played before or after the game.  National Anthem etiquette was, at the time, in a period of flux (see my earlier piece, A Big League History of National Anthem Etiquette).  It was not even clear which song, “America” “(My Country ‘tis of Thee”) or “The Star Spangled Banner,” was or should be the “national anthem.”

In October 1903, the United States Navy had only recently designated an official national song for its purposes:

The Navy Department has finally settled the question of the “National Naval Anthem.”  It is the Star Spangled Banner.  The Powers that be have settled the question and have directed that it shall be played at all times when a National musical composition is to be presented by the Marine Band.  The Navy Department has gone further and declared that when the star Spangled Banner is played, that all officers and men shall stand at attention. 

The National Tribune (Washington DC), October 1, 1903, page 5.

An editorial in the New York Times published earlier that summer, and written by a German-Canadian-American music professor, advocated in favor of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

If his assessment of the situation was correct, most Americans at the time favored “America” over “The Star Spangled Banner,” although the latter had been gaining adherents since the Spanish-American War:

I have seen lately much matter in the editorial columns and correspondence of The New York Times treating upon our National air.  To me it has always been a puzzle why we should designate the tune to which we sing “America” as our “National Air.”  Being a native of Germany, I find it, to say the least, unoriginal to sing “America” to the tune of “Heil dir im Siegeskranz.”  Having also lived for fourteen years in Canada, where I became a naturalized British subject, I found upon settling in “God’s country” it also not a little strange to hear “America harmonizing with the tune to which Britishers sing “God Save the King.”

Our regularly constituted National air, to which we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” seems to be eschewed by the ordinary American citizen.  Since the Spanish-American war, however, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has come more in evidence.

The New York Times, July 12, 1903, page 8.

The practice of playing the “Star Spangled Banner” or other “national air” did, in fact, pick up in the wake of the Spanish-American War; but it also happened on occasion, before the war.

Early Baseball Anthems

There had been a pro-Union flag-raising ceremony at a baseball diamond in Washington DC in 1861, one week before the outbreak of the Civil War, although the report of the game does not mention any music. 

The National Republican (Washington DC), April 06, 1861, page 3.

Writing on, Doug Miller dates the earliest known example of the "Star-Spangled Banner" played at a baseball game one year later, on May 15, 1862. See, "Key Connections: Star-Spangled Banner, Baseball Forever Linked,, September 14, 2014.

Contemporary accounts of the game suggest that playing the anthem may not have been a standard feature of regular games, as this was no ordinary game.  It was a game played by two picked-nines, each made up of select players from three of Brooklyn's best clubs, Eckford, Putnam and Constellation.  It was the inaugural game of a fancy new, enclosed baseball field, "the first of its kind in Brooklyn."

They needed a new stadium for better crowd control - to protect the women-folk.

The chief object of the Association is to provide a suitable place for ball playing, where ladies can witness the game without being annoyed by the indecorous behavior of the rowdies who attend some of the first-class matches. . . . 

[A] long wooden shed has been erected, capable of accommodating several hundred persons, and benches provided for the convenience of the fair sex, and wherever their presence enlivens the scene, there gentlemanly conduct will follow.  Indecorous proceedings will cause the offenders to be instantly expelled from the grounds.

. . .

At 3 o'clock the music arrived and the proceeding commenced, opening by playing the "Star Spangled Banner," continuing to play at intervals throughout the contest.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 16, 1862, page 2.

Throughout the late-1800s, there are numerous reports of "The Star Spangled Banner" being played at events where baseball was played; but, for the most part, the game was not the main attraction.  Most of those examples relate to picnics, fairs, or holiday events, that might feature orators, races, a band concert and, incidentally, a baseball game.

It is possible that the "Star Spangled Banner" could have been sung before or during any number of games throughout the 1800s, but for which records do not survive, have not been found, or went unrecorded because it was not all that noteworthy.  After the one example in 1862, I could only find a few scattered references to the song being played before baseball games (or any other sporting event) before 1898; the earliest in 1890. 

All of the early examples suggest that the song was not played routinely, but was saved for special occasions - like raising a championship pennant, a championship series game, or opening day.  

In October 1890, the champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the National League played the champion Louisville Colonels of the American Association in the World's Series (a precursor to today's World Series between the National and American Leagues).  After four games in Louisville, and with the series standing at 2-1-1 in favor of Brooklyn, the teams prepared to return to Brooklyn.  Plans for the first game in Brooklyn included a parade from the Brooklyn Bridge to the ballpark, a brass band, a pennant-raising ceremony and the playing of unspecified, "National Airs" - presumably the "Star Spangled Banner" was among them:

Previous to beginning the game the new national league pennant will be flung to the breeze, accompanied by national airs by the band.  

After the flag raising Conterno's band will give a concert on the grounds until 3 P. M., when the game will commence.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 22, 1890, page 1.

In November of 1891, Portland, champions of the Northwest, faced the San Jose Dukes, champions of California, in the first game of the "Coast Series" - to determine the champions of the Pacific Slope:

The Colonel escorted the California champions to their seat . . . Finn also marched with his men, accompanied by Dave Bryant, Major Nogle, Doc Rosa and "Soap," the mascott, while the band played the “Star-spangled Banner.”

The Morning Call (San Francisco), November 27, 1891, page 2.

In 1894, the defending champion Boston Bean-Eaters faced off against the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (one year before they were first called the Trolley Dodgers) in their home opener:

The Brooklyns marched down left field and the Bostons down the right, four abreast.  Near the fence they wheeled into single file, meeting in the center.  Then they wheeled again, coming up the field toward the plate in one line, with the band in front.  They showed up remarkably well and were roundly applauded.  At the home base they separated, the Brooklyns marching in Indian file to the visitors’ bench and the Bostons to theirs in the same way.  Then the championship pennant was raised to the top of the center field flag pole, while the band played “The Star spangled Banner.”

The Brooklyn Eagle, May 11, 1894, page 9.

When the defending National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies started their 1897 campaign against the New York Giants, the Giants inadvertently missed the flag-raising ceremony:

With Beck’s Band in front the men lined up in company front with one of Sousa’s soul-stirring quick steps to march by and 20,000 people cheering a picture was presented that cannot be fully appreciated unless seen.  In perfect line they swept across the field to the centre of the diamond and wheeling advanced towards the flag pole in deep centre field. . . .

The New York players misunderstood the arrangements and turned the wrong way.  Before the error was discovered the Phillies were well on their way down the field and the visitors became demoralized, thus failing to take part in the flag raising. 

But it went up just the same and as it was unfurled to the breezes, which shook out its folds, displaying the stars and stripes in all their beauty and with the “Star Spangled Banner” as an accompaniment from the band, it is little wonder that the crowd cheered itself hoarse.  They cheered and cheered again and again, every one giving full vent to his patriotic feelings.

The Times (Philadelphia), April 23, 1897, page 8.

A description of opening day for the Larchmont Yacht Club’s racing season in 1897 suggests that such patriotic displays may not have been unique to baseball:

Brooklyn Life, June 5, 1897, page 19.

1898 appears to have been a watershed year in the development of the tradition.  Although I could only find a few scattered examples of the National Anthem being played before baseball games in all of the years before 1898, I found no fewer than four examples, spread out across the entire country, to start the 1898 season – the very moment that war with Spain became inevitable.  The accounts of those games reflect the patriotic mood of a country on a war footing.

The Spanish-American War

On April 11, 1898, President McKinley asked congress for authority to send troops to Cuba to help end a civil war there.   That very same day, the President of the California League interrupted a game between San Francisco and the Fresno for a noteworthy patriotic demonstration:

The players may have had an excuse [(for not playing well)], however, as Colonel T. P. Robinson introduced a patriotic act in the second inning that enthused the players with a desire to go to war with Spain and injured their keen eye for the ball.

At 2:30 o’clock President H. H. McPike of the California League and Manager Robinson of the park, marched on the grounds at the head of a brass band playing national airs and moved on a tall flagpole in deep center field.  As President McPike raised and unfurled a large American flag the band played “The Star Spangled Banner,” and the large crowd present broke into cheers.  When the flag floated freely at the top of the pole the band played “The Red, White and Blue,” and the game proceeded.

The San Francisco Chronicle, April 11, 1898, page 10.

The fact that the game started without a flag suggests that game may have started without the anthem.

Later in the week, while Congress was still considering McKinley’s request, the Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates prepared to take the field.  The band played an unspecified “national air” and “Dixie” before the game:

High up in the stand among that sea of gaily-bedecked hats the band bursts forth with a national air. . . . [E]ighteen stalwart young athletes come marching across the broad green field company abreast.  The tune changes to “Dixie.” A cheer starts over there among those blackbirds at the top of the tall fence.

The Courier-Journal (Louisville), April 16, 1898, page 4.

Congress passed a bill clearing the way for war with Spain on April 21, 1898.  Two days later, the Kansas City Blues were planning their home opener which had already been delayed twice on account of rain.  Interestingly, the team was not going to stand during the anthem – they were going to “trot”:

The season will be opened with a great display of patriotic enthusiasm.  Manager Manning has laid in a supply of American flags, and every fan will be decorated as he enters the gate.  The Third Regiment band will play “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie” as it parades the streets in the afternoon and then when the Blues trot out on the field they will keep time to the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Kansas City Journal (Missouri), April 23, 1898, page 5.

On May 1, 1898, the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers returned home after eight road-games to face the Phillies in the first game ever played at the new Washington Park:

[A]fter the two teams had lined up on each side of the plate the Twenty-third Regiment Band began the National air.

At the first strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” Miss Ebbets began to pull at the halyard.  The thousands of persons forgot baseball at this stage and stood up with uncovered heads.  The wildest enthusiasm prevailed.  Thousands of small flags were waved by the crowd in the grand stand.  The din was great and did not subside until the flag was spread to the breeze on top of the staff.  The crowd then settled back in the seats and awaited the beginning of the game, which started when Edward M. Grout, President of the Borough of Brooklyn, tossed out a new ball.

The New York Times, May 1, 1898, page 6.

After 1898, the practice of holding playing the “Star Spangled Banner” before opening game days continued, particularly as part of a pennant-raising ceremony in cities that had won the championship pennant the previous season.

In 1901, for example, the defending champion White Sox of the newly formed American League (they were defending champions of the predecessor Western League) had just such a ceremony before the first American League gave ever played.  Coincidentally (or not?), this ceremony also resonated with echoes of the Spanish-American War – the band was reportedly a “Rough Rider”[iii] band:

Promptly at 3:30 the two clubs lined up at the plate and, preceded by a “Rough Rider” band, marched to the flag pole at the south end of the field, where the championship banner was unfurled to the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The Evening Star (Washington DC), April 25, 1901, page 9.

The Legacy

Although it may be impossible to precisely measure whether the frequency with which the song’s use at games was reported reflects its actual use, it seems likely that the practice became more popular during and after America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War.  The coincidence of opening week of the season coinciding with the moment that war became inevitable may have contributed to the spread of the practice.  Later wars, such as World Wars I and II, may have contributed to the tradition becoming intractably ensconced in the American sporting tradition. But even then, the practice (at least so far as I can glean by browsing through newspaper accounts) appears to have remained mostly limited to special occasions, like opening day or pennant-raising ceremonies, for several decades.

In major league baseball, the Dodgers pioneered singing the anthem before every game during the patriotic run-up to World War II in 1940:

Mauch Chunk Times-News (Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania), May 17, 1940, page 6.

But the Bradford Bees of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League beat them to the punch by one year:

The playing of "Star-Spangled Banner" just before the cry of "play ball", with the teams facing the flag in a "reverse at-ease" position; the umpires' yelling of strike coming out like "stee-ee-ee-r-rr-ike"; the good old seventh-inning stretch - these colorful touches won the hearts of Bradfordiennes.

Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record (Bradford, Pennsylvania), May 7, 1940, page 17.

But ironically, perhaps, the American-baseball Bees were beaten out by teams playing a Canadian sport.  In 1936, the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL and the minor-league Detroit Olympics, both under the same ownership, played the "Star Spangled Banner" (and frequently the Canadian anthem as necessary) before every game - that is before the organist took matters into his own hands.  The owner quickly set him straight:

Three weeks ago at the request orf a dozen or so bald-headed letter writers, Bob Clarke, Olympia organist, stopped playing the "Star Spangled Banner" at the start of each Red Wing and Olympic battle.

James Norris, owner of both clubs, has overruled the bald-headed gentlemen and says that he will fire Organist Clarke the next time he fails to play the national anthem and also the Canadian anthem, "God Save the King," if a Canadian team is opposing the Red Wings or the O's.

Detroit Free Press (Michigan), January 8, 1936, page 16.

The practice did not become a standard feature of each and every major league baseball game until 1942

Although these changes took place during a cloud of war on the horizon, it wasn't necessarily difficlut to get baseball fans to stand up for any old song, even as early as 1933:

Even now the customers stand and bare their heads in patriotic reverence for any piece ranging from “Old Man River” to “Eadie Was a Lady.”  To them anything played in a ball park is a national anthem.

Pittsburg Press, April 25, 1933, page 24.

A cynic might suggest that the tradition grew less out of patriotism than out of an old vaudeville trick used to engender favor with an audience:

Thus, too, applause was and still is always to be won in vaudeville by throwing the pictures of Washington, Lincoln, and the current chief executive on the screen before the moving pictures.  Also with the picture of any prize-fighter but Jack Johnson.  Applause similarly is sure to follow a laudatory reference to the local baseball team, the bow of an acrobat after he has done his trick, a scenic effect showing the Mississippi river by moonlight, with darkies singing softly in the distance, the playing of "The Wearing of the Green," Dixie," and "The Star Spangled Banner," and a derogatory allusion to the fighting prowess of Great Britain.

Puck, Volume 75, Number 1948, Week Ending July 4, 1914, page 8.

As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

[i] Although there were earlier championships that were referred to as, the “World’s Series,” 1903 was the first such series between the National League and the American League.
[ii] This account differs from one in The Boston Globe (as transcribed on, which credited Boston’s band opening with “America” and Pittsburgh’s band responding with “The Star Spangled Banner.”
[iii] The “Rough Riders” was the nickname given to the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry made famous during the Spanish-American War, and famously lead by Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and later President of the United States), Theodore Roosevelt.

Edited 9/26/2017 to add details about early examples of every-day anthem playing in the 1930s and 1040s.

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