An Anthem of War at US Sporting Events

The playing of the national anthem before US sporting events can be traced back to the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, and an unplanned occurrence that led to the tradition, and now basically de facto law, that REQUIRES its playing. A combination of the anticipated ending of World War I and a series of deadly domestic bombings in major US cities led to an abundance of patriotism, and nationalism, around September, when the 1918 World Series was to be played weeks earlier than usual due to the government telling major league baseball that due to the war, their season had to end early.

Chicago fans, who stayed away from game one in droves (the game was played in the White Sox' home park, Comiskey Park, in front of 19,000 fans and 11,000 empty seats) were less than enthusiastic as far as the game was concerned, watching the Red Sox star pitcher, Babe Ruth, shut out the Cubbies, 1-0.

But as was a common occurrence during the war years, a military band was on hand for that first game of the Series, and during the seventh-inning stretch, the band’s director chose to play the Star Spangled Banner, a song about a military battle that was frequently played in those times as a “fight song” to rally troops, teams, and enthusiasm, to win one sort of battle or another, and in doing so, to annihilate the other side beyond recognition. It was not until almost 15 years later that the song was to become the United States’ “National Anthem”

As the band played the song during the seventh-inning stretch, Red Sox’ third baseman Fred Thomas, who was on active duty in the US Navy but who was then stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, had obtained leave to re-join the Cubs to play in the World Series, turned towards a flag, and saluted. Other players followed suit, as did many of the fans in the stands, many of whom eventually sang along. The enthusiasm for the playing of the battle song was so intense, that it was repeated during the seventh-inning stretch in games two and three as well.

In those days, the World Series was best-of-nine, and game four of the Series was to be the

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first in Boston, and seeing what had occurred in Chicago, Red Sox management, who previously planned game four pre-game ceremonies honoring soldiers injured in the war, decided to play the Star Spangled Banner BEFORE the game as part of the ceremonies, and history, and tradition, was made.

Over the next decade, the Star Spangled Banner was generally played before World Series games and games played on holidays, and with the passage of time, more wars, and the song garnering official status as THE “National Anthem”, eventually by the end of World War II its performance before EVERY game became a requirement.

But should this be the case? Every once in a while that question is raised, with fans, reporters and others providing patriotism as the basis for its continued presentation, forgetting the fact that nationalism is far different from patriotism, and with astute commentators on occasion providing valid grounds for the termination of the practice. Maybe the best reason provided to end the practice was provided a couple of years ago by noted sports writer and University of Maryland Professor of Journalism Kevin Blackistone, who, during an appearance on the ESPN show “Around the Horn”, stated the following:

“You are conflating a war anthem with a simple game,… and when you have military flyovers and all the other military symbolism that goes on in sports, I think you’ve got a problem.”

Blackistone has written about this often, once stating that it was ridiculous for spectators at a mere sporting event being forced to sit through the anthem, when lawmakers are not so required when they begin their legislative sessions. He has said, however, that he would not object to the pre-game performance of one of many other patriotic songs, such
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as God Bless America or American the Beautiful, just not an anthem to war.

A couple of final notes: Thomas was one of Boston’s stars of that 1918 World Series. They won the series from the Cubs in six games, behind Ruth’s two wins and 16 consecutive scoreless innings, and Thomas’ brilliant defense at third base. And, as true fans know, the Red Sox did not win another World Series for 86 years, and Cubs’ fans are still waiting.

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