August 31, 2016

What does the National Anthem have to do with sports contests?

I have asked the question many times in the past, but with all the current debate about quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem before a football game, I ask again: What does the national anthem have to do with playing a football game?

One answer comes from an article in ESPN the Magazine in September 2011:
The first thing to remember is that it is a battle song.  Second, it's a taunt.  That's why, in a country that loudly lauds actions on the battlefield and the playing field, the "Star Spangled Banner" and American athletics have a nearly indissoluble marriage.  Our nation honors war.  Our nation loves sports.  Our nation glorifies winning.  Our national anthem strikes all three chords at the same time.

Did you know that playing the national anthem at sports events became popular during the 1918 Baseball World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox?  To set the stage, the country was involved in World War I, and on the day before the opening game in Chicago a bomb ripped through the Chicago Federal Building. Domestic terrorism didn't exactly generate interest in a lighthearted day at the ball game.

The glum crowd in the stands for game one remained nearly silent through most of Babe Ruth's 1-0 shut out victory over the Cubs.  With one exception:  during the seventh inning stretch, while the fans were on their feet, the band began to play "The Star Spangled Banner."  One of the players on the field who was on furlough from the Navy, immediately faced the flag and snapped to attention with a military salute.  The other players on the field followed suit in civilian fashion standing with right hands over their hearts.  The crowd, already standing, showed its first real signs on life all day, joining in a spontaneous sing-along.

The scene made such an impression that The New York Times in its summary of the game began its recap of the game not with a description of the action on the field but with an account of the impromptu singing.  The Cubs front office realized it had witnessed something unique.  For the next two games, it had the band play "The Star Spangled Banner" during the seventh inning stretch to enthusiastic crowds.

When the Series relocated to Boston, the Red Sox moved "The Star Spangled Banner" from the seventh inning stretch to the pre-game activities and a tradition began.  The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in six games and the Chicago Cubs are still waiting for a World Series Championship.  Perhaps the Cubs bad luck streak has nothing to do with a goat, but the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner."

So what does this difficult to sing, 200-year-old tune about a flag have to do with playing ball?  Congress didn't officially adopt "The Star Spangled Banner" as the national anthem until 1931.  By that time it was already a baseball tradition steeped in wartime patriotism.  The old battle ballad was the national pastime's anthem more than a decade before it was the nation's.