How The 'Star-Spangled Banner' Became A Pregame Mainstay

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Francis Scott Key saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. But did he see how omnipresent the song would be two centuries later? (AP Photo)
Francis Scott Key saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. But did he see how widespread the song would be two centuries later? (AP)

John Thorn is the Official Historian for Major League Baseball. He has strong feelings about the "Star-Spangled Banner."

"I think it is a terrible song," Thorn says. "It is interesting that a song that is so frequently sung — and so frequently sung badly — has not aroused more protest against its very existence."

So how did the song even come to be played before every game?

World War I

The 1917 baseball season began five days after the United States entered World War I. Fans more inclined to think about the national pastime than about the national crisis worried about how the military draft would affect Major League rosters.

Soldiers lined up in a narrow trench during World War I. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Soldiers lined up in a trench during World War I. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"The draft didn’t really begin to bite and deplete the rosters until very late in the season," says baseball historian Jim Leeke, author of "From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War." "1918 was a different matter."

By spring training, about 76 Major Leaguers had joined the armed forces. That number would grow to around 250 later in the season.

"And every day, there were enormous headlines about the fighting in France and the casualties," Leeke says. "It was just this bloodbath. This endless meat grinder."

The U.S. War Department enacted a “Work or Fight Rule,” which required males of draft age to join the military or work in a war-related job. It would take effect on Labor Day.

"The owners shortened the season," says John Thorn. "And for that reason, the World Series in 1918 begins in September, not October."

A temporary exemption was made for players on the two teams that would play in the World Series.  

"But, after the early World Series, everyone was subject to the Work or Fight Rule," Leeke says.

The Boston Red Sox would face the Chicago Cubs, with Game 1 in Chicago. The Red Sox roster was so depleted that the team wondered if it could even compete with the Cubs. Jim Leeke says the Cubs had concerns of their own.

"They had traded for Grover Cleveland Alexander before the season," Leeke says. "And Alexander only pitched three games before he ended up in the service."

Game 1 In Chicago

Chicago Cubs ace Hippo Vaughn took the mound in Game 1 of the 1918 World Series. (Wikimedia Commons)
Chicago Cubs ace Hippo Vaughn took the mound in Game 1 of the 1918 World Series. (Wikimedia Commons)

Not long ago, a World Series matchup between the Cubs and Red Sox would have been the most hyped and highly anticipated sporting event in U.S. history. But in 1918?

"There wasn’t really that much excitement about the 1918 World Series," Leeke says. "There just wasn’t much excitement about it at all."

Contributing to the mass ambivalence was the growing list of war dead printed in daily newspapers. On Sept. 4, the day the World Series was scheduled to begin, Pittsburgh Pirates prospect and Army aviator Marcus Milligan died after a training exercise crash. He was just 22. And there were violent anti-war protests, according to historian Marc Ferris.   

"There had been a bombing of the Federal building in Chicago the day before," Ferris says. "Probably anarchists."

After a rainout, Game 1 of the 1918 World Series began on Sept. 5, 100 years ago next week. Cubs ace Hippo Vaughn took the mound against Red Sox starter Babe Ruth.

"You would think that this pitching matchup would stir great anticipation bordering on frenzy," John Thorn says. "But no. All the press accounts indicated that the crowd was sitting on its hands."

Babe Ruth pitched Game 1 for the Boston Red Sox in the 1918 World Series. (AP)
Babe Ruth pitched Game 1 for the Boston Red Sox in the 1918 World Series. (AP)

"They were paying more attention during the game to a group of Army biplanes doing stunts near the park than they really were to the game," Leeke says.

The crowd of just over 19,000 was unimpressed as Vaughn and Ruth engaged in one of the greatest pitching duels of all time. Marc Ferris recalls the words of a New York Times reporter who was at the game.

"He said that the crowd was yawning until the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ is spontaneously played by the naval training school band during the seventh-inning stretch."

A 'Wonderful, Spontaneous Moment' 

It’s important to note that the song was not yet the official national anthem, although most Americans were familiar with it. But this was a newly-arranged version.

"It had been rejiggered by John Philip Sousa," Thorn says. "It was now more suitable for a larger band. And the crowd seemed surprised by it."

"And the civilian ballplayers all took off their cap and faced the flag," Leeke says. "But the Red Sox' third baseman was an active-duty sailor, Fred Thomas. He had furlough from the Great Lakes training station near Chicago to play in the Series. And, since he was active military, he kept his cap on. He faced the flag, and he snapped off a military salute.

Boston Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas.
Boston Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas. (Public Domain)

"And the fans noticed that. And a few fans began singing along with the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ And soon, the entire park was singing along. It was just this wonderful, spontaneous moment."

"And by the end, everyone was tossing their caps and celebrating," Thorn says. "With the exception of Fred Thomas. He left his cap on and saluted."

The Red Sox won the game 1–0 behind Ruth’s stellar pitching and first baseman Stuffy McInnis’ 4th-inning RBI single. Some have suggested that it was the greatest baseball game of all time. But it was the "Star-Spangled Banner" and Fred Thomas’ gesture that had energized the war-weary crowd.

"Something happened. I don’t know how to explain it beyond that."

Jim Leeke

The Navy band played the Banner again during Games 2 and 3 in Chicago. The song was also played during Games 4, 5 and 6 amid an atmosphere of patriotism at Fenway.

"There were wounded troops in the park," says Jim Leeke. "People did cheer them spontaneously. People gave them seats. People helped them to the seats, or carried them to the seats if they had to."

1918 World Series Score Card featuring photo of Red Sox owner Harry Frazee on cover. (Wikimedia Commons)
A 1918 World Series official score card featuring Red Sox owner Harry Frazee. (Wikimedia Commons)

Boston won the Series 4–2. But the "Star-Spangled Banner" may have been the bigger winner.

Since 1862, the song had been played during baseball games, usually on Opening Day, Memorial Day or July 4. But now …

"Something happened," says Leeke. "I don’t know how to explain it beyond that. I mean, there are certain events that just take on a life of their own that you can’t really explain why. And I think that was probably one of them. And people noticed and remembered."

The Rise Of The 'Star-Spangled Banner' 

After 1918, the "Star-Spangled Banner" would be played at every World Series Game. In 1931, it became the official U.S. national anthem. Sometime during World War II, all but one Major League club began playing it before every game. The Cubs were the lone holdout for over 20 years.

But Jim Leeke, a Navy veteran, thinks the song has lost something over the last century.

"In 1918, it was spontaneous. And today, almost nothing about organized sports and the national anthem is spontaneous."

John Thorn agrees.

"The spontaneous display of patriotism in September of 1918 at the World Series has been replaced by the manufactured patriotism. The predictable, mandatory patriotism."

And so we will continue to see — before night games and day games, in all sports at every level — that our national anthem is still there.

Marc Ferris’s book is "Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem."

This segment aired on August 29, 2018.


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Gary Waleik Producer, Only A Game
Gary Waleik is a producer for Only A Game.



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