The Sportsball Song

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Being neither a patriot nor a sports fan, I’ve always wondered why people sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a game. As it turns out, they just like it.

The story has it that the melody for “The Star-Spangled Banner” came from an English drinking song. This is not entirely correct. There was a London-based gentlemen’s club for amateur musicians called the Anacreontic Society. Anacreon was one of the ancient Greek lyric poets. John Stafford Smith of the club wrote “The Anacreontic Song” aka “To Anacreon in Heaven” for the society’s monthly meetings. They held a little concert, ate and kicked off the rest of the evening with their theme. While not a drinking song per se, it was used to rouse the members.

Across the pond, Francis Scott Key was a lawyer by trade and a poet by calling. On September 13, 1814, he served his legal duties by negotiating for the release of Dr. William Beanes. The Battle of 1812 was still happening, as it ran from 1812 to 1815. Aboard a truce ship, he saw the British attack Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. The fort’s American flag yet waved o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave, inspiring his poem, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Scott’s brother-in-law Judge Joseph H. Nicholson realized that you could sing the poem to “The Anacreontic Song.” Nicholson printed up copies (probably not at Kinko’s), which were reprinted by The Baltimore Patriot and The American. The papers noted the tune, kind of like Mad Magazine song parodies. Baltimore’s Carr Music Store printed the sheet music for the melody and lyrics as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The song gained traction in American culture. It featured in parades, 4th of July celebrations and occasionally at sportsball shows. Significantly, it became the official song for flag rising when Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374 on July 27, 1889. More action occurred after the turn of the century. Woodrow Wilson adopted it for military ceremonies in 1916. When the US entered World War I, Major League Baseball players marched in military formations in pre-game displays and bands played patriotic songs. On April 10, 1918, Congressman John Charles Linthicum proposed that “The Star-Spangled Banner” become the national anthem, but the bill was struck down.

Here comes the Chicago connection. The Cubs played the Red Sox in the 1918 World Series. During the seventh inning stretch of Game One, the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The crowd sang along, applauded, and the players faced the flagpole and stood at attention. When the subsequent Series games moved to Boston, the anthem played before the games. A tradition was born.

It took a few years to become official. Linthicum kept pushing for it to become the national anthem. His sixth attempt was on April 15, 1929. On January 31, 1930, the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented a petition to have the song instituted; it had five million signatures. The Senate passed a bill to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem on March 3, 1931. On March 4, Herbert Hoover signed it.

Technology aided the sports ritual. Stadium owners could play the national anthem over loudspeakers without the need to hire a band for every game. It continued to be a popular way to express patriotism through World War II.

It winds up that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at games before it became the national anthem. Play ball.

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1 Comment.

  • 1 Dom Oct 17, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks Joe! I find myself to be of a similar mind to you. Sports are fine in isolated, small, doses. Nationalism is a very uncomfortable concept.

    Ever since I was a child, I wondered why the National Anthem had any place at a sporting event. The accompanying nationalistic displays have only become more absurd every year since 2001. When was it decreed that a sporing event be the very height of national furor? I’ve seen sitting presidents speak and never was there a fly over, giant flag unfurled or everyone rose for the anthem.

    Your accounting of the history makes a lot of sense. The song is simply a popular, and catchy, tune that gets the crowd excited for the upcoming entertainment. Its original intent likely wasn’t necessarily as an exercise in nationalism so much as it was a way to get people to sing together.

    Sporting events drag on for far too long as it is these days. I think the spectators would be better served by doing away with the expense and rigamoral of these displays. Maybe we could just see a short highlight reel with the Macaraina, Soldja Boy, Who Let the Dogs Out, The Final Count Down, or whatever else is popular playing.

    All that said, sports in the US are a tremendously political venture. Nearly all of them are funded with money extorted from the local tax base. They are an incredibly safe investment, because the expenses and losses are covered by the tax payer. It makes sense that these organizations would like to drape themselves with the virtues of the flag.

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