On a muggy Bicentennial July afternoon, high on the third-base side of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, electrician Al Scrimger Jr. fumbled through a drawer of tape cartridges, searching for one labeled "STAR-SPANGLED BANNER, ROBERT MERRILL." He found it and plugged it into the sound system just as the public address announcer made the request that tells us for certain we are at a sports event: "Will you please rise now and join in singing our national anthem?"
As Merrill's rich baritone washed through the stands, the 13,000 spectators stood up, popcorn boxes and beer cups between their feet, to face the 15-starred flag in center field, a replica of the one that flew over nearby Fort McHenry in 1814 when The Banner was written by Francis Scott Key.
As the fans stood, some of them adopted the solemn expression usually considered proper to patriotism—the same one used during court appearances and funerals. Some of them tried to sing along—out of tune, off-key, mumbling the lines that had slipped from memory in the years since grade school. Some stood at attention: some placed hands over their hearts. Some pored over programs: some studied girls in the crowd. Some moved furtively toward the refreshment stands: those still in the aisles edged toward their seats. But few of them, whether stirred by a renewed sense of patriotism or bored by a ritual they have endured hundreds of times, were untouched by Merrill's 104-second rendition of the anthem.
And as they stood, there was time to reflect on the long and equivocal relationship between The Star-Spangled Banner and sports in America. From rural Minnesota, where tinny speakers waffle the song over frozen ponds at Pee Wee hockey games to Southern California, where massed high school bands risk terminal sinusitis blowing it, from Kate Smith belting her alternative. God Bless America, to the hundreds of TV celebs, movie stars, nightclub singers, plumbers, housewives and children who perform it each day, the amount of time, emotion and money devoted to presenting The Banner at sports events is enormous.
January 3, 1977
Old joke. Dad to 10-year-old son: "If you're so smart, what's the last words of The Star-Spangled Banner?"
Kid: "That's easy. 'Play ball!' "
Perhaps in no other country is an anthem played at so many sports events as in America. In England, for instance, God Save the Queen is performed before international soccer and rugby matches, and fans enjoy changing the line "God save our gracious Queen" to "God save our gracious team." But in Great Britain, the anthem is not heard before every intercity rugby scrum or college cricket match. In contrast, Americans croon their song, which celebrates an old defeat of the British, at every occasion from dirt-track stock-car races to the Super Bowl. Critics of this practice claim that, because we hear the song so often, it has little patriotic impact. In just one baseball season, it will be played 2,000 times. On the other side, many feel that the daily airing of the anthem is the greatest thing since the victory at Yorktown.
The anthem has been used as a vehicle of protest as well as a glorious affirmation of national unity. In 1968, a year torn by demonstrations and riots for racial equality and peace in Vietnam, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, two black American trackmen who had finished first and third in the 200-meter run, stood on the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympics and. as The Star-Spangled Banner was played, bowed their medal-draped necks and raised their black-gloved fists in an anti-Establishment salute that shocked the world.
A few days earlier, a blind Puerto Rican singer had stunned the viewers of a tradition-bound event closer to home—the World Series—with his rendition of The Banner. From center field, before the start of the fifth game in Detroit. José Feliciano delivered an Afro-Cuban wail, turning the anthem at once into a cry for help and a joyful shout for the minorities emerging at the time. His volatile performance appealed to a new generation of black and Spanish-speaking Americans, as surely as did Jackie Robinson's performance on the field in a previous era, but the soulful version of The Banner sent traditionalists flying to their telephones. NBC received so many outraged calls that the network switchboard supposedly short-circuited.
Since Feliciano's unorthodox treatment of The Banner. Aretha Franklin. Lou Rawls and many others have done soul versions of the song with little or no adverse reaction from fans, the American Legion or anthem cultists.
In years past The Banner had almost a religious aura. There even was a time when the song restored order, instead of provoking furor. After an unpopular decision at a boxing match in the Chicago Stadium back around 1930 fans threw chairs and fought in the aisles. Alert organist Al Melgard struck up The Star-Spangled Banner, and the patriotic crowd snapped to attention. End of riot.
In an age when so much is said about the decline of patriotism and national pride, it is reassuring to find at least one recent occasion when the song evoked memories of that Chicago Stadium performance. A few years back, at the end of a Falcons football game, the message board in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was supposed to print out: THANK YOU FOR ATTENDING THE GAME. But in a fit of electronic crankiness, it ordered: PLEASE RISE AND JOIN IN SINGING OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM. Although the players were already in the dressing rooms, the crowd stood at attention for several minutes, waiting for the end-of-the-game Banner. Finally, the P.A. announcer saw the board and told the spectators to go home.
According to University of Idaho Professors Clifford Bryan and Robert Horton, the Falcons may have missed an Opportunity to establish an important new tradition when they sent the spectators home. In a report issued six months ago on the relationship between athletics and fan violence, Bryan and Horton suggested the end-of-the-game anthem as a good way to cut down postgame violence, which is a growing problem in many arenas around the country.
But while it might curtail unruliness, the extra performance of The Banner also could present stadium managers with another, more difficult problem: finding enough vocalists who can remember the words of the anthem to fill the added singing assignments. Among the thousands who have warbled The Banner—from professional stars to locals performing to earn a couple of tickets—an inordinate number have forgotten the lyrics.
The most publicized blank-out was Robert Goulet's at the 1965 Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight in Lewiston, Maine. Before he stepped into the ring, Goulet had palmed a card on which he had scribbled the lyrics. Only a few bars into the song, he began humming and smirking, having totally forgotten his crib sheet. Later he lamely explained that, because he had lived in Canada for many years, he could not be held responsible for foreign songs.
Last August, Miss Bloomington, Minn., 19-year-old Stephanie Nilson, blew the lyrics at a Twins-Orioles game. She experienced the usual ball-park annoyance of a delay between what she was singing and the feedback of her voice from the public address system, which throws many singers off. Nilson became confused after "O say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave?" and blanked out. "Aw, nuts!" she said into the microphone.
"Everyone in the crowd was laughing," she says, "but I think they were laughing with me, not at me."
One ploy used by singers who forget the song is substituting any words that happen to pop into their heads. Country-and-Western star Johnny Paycheck sang the following lines when he drew a blank at a Falcons game a couple of years ago:
O say can you see, it's cloudy at night.
What so loudly we sang as the daylight's last cleaning.
Those broad stripes and red bars, through the perilous night.
Probably, few fans noticed. A recent New York Times survey taken at baseball games revealed that only one in five spectators knows the words to the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner. In spite of the familiar tune, which is an 18th century English drinking song, many fans are lost by the time they get to "the twilight's last gleaming." They move their lips as though singing for the rest of the anthem, taking heart from those around them, who are not singing either.
Perhaps they forgot the words because the language of Francis Scott Key's poem is so antique and formal, something that might be recited by a Crimean War veteran in a London gentleman's club. Or perhaps the music is to blame. The melody is a very difficult one. Says Ethel Ennis, who has sung at events ranging from the 1972 Republican Convention to an Opening Day at Shea Stadium, "Most people find the range of the song ridiculous. It goes from a very low note right to a high—1½ octaves."
Al G. Wright, head of the department of bands at Purdue University, says. "It's an old tune for taverns, and the problem is that it makes the anthem sound like it's being sung by a bunch of drunks. It's almost impossible for anyone who's not a professional singer to do it."
But if one considers the oceans of beer consumed before, during and after The Banner at most sports events, the song may be in exactly the right spirit, so to speak.
The tune to which the anthem is sung was taken from a ditty called To Anacreon in Heaven, and the lyrics are as unusual as the melody. The words concern the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, who considered wine, women and loutish song the three best things since the Pythagorean theorem, and they are perfect words to sing the next time the Cleveland Indians have dime beer night:
To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
"Voice, fiddle, and flute no longer be mute,
I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot;
And besides, I'll instruct you like me to entwine
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' vine."
The Star-Spangled Banner has been the official national anthem only since 1931, but the military adopted it as far back as 1898. In 1916, after President Woodrow Wilson announced it was his favorite patriotic song. The Banner began to be heard at sports events.
It made its major league debut in Chicago during the opening game of the 1918 World Series. When the fans stood for the seventh-inning stretch, the band suddenly and for no apparent reason—except perhaps that there was a war on—struck up The Banner. The crowd stood at attention, afterward applauding heartily. The players, including Babe Ruth, stood at attention, too; one, a serviceman on leave, saluted the flag in center field. The anthem was repeated during the next two games. When the Series shifted to Boston, Red Sox Owner Harry Frazee was not to be outdone; he had his band play the song before each game. From then on The Banner was a regular feature on Opening Day, on holidays and at World Series games.
It was not until the next world war that the playing of the anthem became a daily ritual. Says Jack Whitaker, the CBS broadcaster and a longtime sports journalist. "During World War II we began to hear The Banner played at every baseball game. When there's a war on, you take every opportunity to express your patriotism."
Improvements in electronics and public address systems made the use of recordings more feasible during the war years. No longer was it necessary to have a singer or a band on hand, with the attendant problems of wrong keys and blown lyrics. Today The Banner heard at most events is recorded. The most popular renditions are by Merrill. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Johnny Mann Singers and Jerry Vale.
But just as it is more fun to watch a live football game than a delayed TV replay, the anthem is best performed live. Then there are the same possibilities for tragedy and defeat and glorious triumph in the playing of the song as there are in the playing of the game that follows it.
In an age when most television singers are safely taped before the show goes on the air, the experience of standing alone in a vast arena before 60,000 people and belting out a difficult song is exhilarating. What are the odds on Frank Sinatra getting through The Banner with no fluffs (he's done it several times without error)? Perhaps somewhere there's a star-spangled bookie to tell us.
Says Tom Sullivan, the blind, 29-year-old pop singer who performed the anthem at last January's Super Bowl, "It was the most amazing experience of my life, next to the birth of my children." Sullivan remembers the incredible pressure. "Since I'm blind, I couldn't visualize the Super Bowl scene," he says. "I mentioned something about it to Pete Rozelle, who was standing next to me, and just before I went out to sing, he leaned over and said, 'Kid, just remember that 90 million people are watching this.' " Sullivan remembered. In the succeeding month he received 10,000 calls, wires and letters praising his performance.
Live anthems are rendered by three groups—professional singers, amateurs of varying competence and bands—and each has its special requirements and problems. Predictably, team owners and public relations men spend the most time, money and anguish on the stars. No owner has gone in for big names more heavily than Jack Kent Cooke, president of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings. Cooke used to have the performer stand on a balcony high up in the Forum, and while the singer wound up for the high notes, an electric fan was used to put a patriotic wave into the flag.
Because they are in the home of the stars, the Lakers and Kings have had a succession of luminaries—James Darren, Doris Day, Pat Boone and Lorne Greene among them—sing the anthem at their games. But lately things have changed. "We still use a color guard with a recording to give The Banner some class," says Eddie Parr, Cooke's man in charge of arrangements. "The stars mostly work on location now, because TV is done that way. They can't guarantee that they'll be here on the specified date. So the star system is almost over."
Team officials do not lament the passing of the star era as much as might be expected, because many big-name performers worry excessively about live appearances. A few years ago, when Liza Minnelli was still being billed as Judy Garland's daughter, she was booked to sing the anthem at a Lakers game. Anxious about the acoustics, Minnelli arrived early to rehearse, with a loyal retainer in the lead. After trying out the two microphones the arena had available, she demanded a different model, the only one she felt was right. "She always works a big room with that kind of mike," said the retainer. The Lakers did not have one. It was Sunday, and the specified microphone could not be rented. An electrician was dispatched to another auditorium, but he had no luck.
"We're leaving!" announced Minnelli's man. But she returned in a few minutes without him, rehearsed and performed the anthem brilliantly that evening using the house mike. A real trouper.
In Seattle, Super-Sonics Executive Vice-President Zollie Volchok, who formerly headed a booking agency, does not find big-name talent a problem. Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, Stan Getz and the Platters have all performed the anthem before NBA games there. But like most arenas and ball parks around the country, the Seattle Center Coliseum has a house man (or woman), a local singer who does most anthem chores.
Local professionals do not throw tantrums over equipment or musical arrangements, they do not go jetting off on location and they do not demand the high fees of the big names. Fees for local singers are generally in the range described by Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. "The going rate is two tickets to the game," he says. The biggies among house singers also get free parking, but that is definitely not a trend.
Of course, professional singers do not work for a pair of seats in the balcony. Kate Smith, who blasts God Bless America for the Philadelphia Flyers as if it were Holy Writ instead of an Irving Berlin tune, receives $5,000 or more to go onto the ice at the Spectrum. Management gladly throws in free parking.
House singers range from Lindsay Henes, 22, a recent Boston College graduate who did the anthem at Bruins games last season while trying to make it on the cocktail-lounge circuit, to 6' 8" Richard Otto, a can-factory employee who is the Baltimore Colts' drum major and anthem singer on Sundays. In Detroit, Fat Bob the Plumber (Bob Taylor) does the song for the Tigers, and Lawrence Lane, an English professor at Chicago's Kennedy-King College, receives $40 a pop from the Black Hawks.
Local singers are chosen by audition, and they are usually picked because the players or the owner or the general manager finds their version satisfying. Hal Hayes, a P.R. man for the Falcons, has had his share of weirdos applying for the job. "A guy called up one day and said he wanted to do the anthem at a game on his own special instrument—the top of a trash can and a broom." Hayes says. "He did it over the phone, and I couldn't tell if it was The Banner or not. Then there was another guy auditioned over the phone on a kazoo."
Hayes was once cornered by a Falcon player, a little under the weather from an excess of martinis, who insisted that he play the anthem at the next game on his special instrument—the spoons. Show business just gets in your blood.
In Seattle the house man at Sonic games is schoolteacher Bob McGrath. 55. a gifted tenor who has performed with the local opera and symphony. Like many house singers, McGrath has begun to vary the melodic menu. "It's a 41-game season," he says. "I get tired of singing 'Oh, say can you see' each game. I think the fans get tired of hearing it, too. I mix it up by using America the Beautiful, God Bless America and even the third verse of The Banner."
The third verse of the anthem is hardly good diplomacy. Composed by Key to rub a little salt into the wounds of the British after they had lost the Battle of Baltimore, it offers the following insults to one of our most trusted allies:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
There are those who feel that The Banner should be played rarely, if at all. Alfred Stevens, a retired Yale University Press copy editor, is the founder—and one of four members—of a group called Committee for America the Beautiful, which operates from his home in Old Lyme, Conn. Stevens' brief that America the Beautiful should be our national anthem instead of The Banner is as crisp as Benjamin Franklin's argument 200 years ago that the wild turkey should be our national bird instead of the predatory bald eagle.
"The Star-Spangled Banner is blatantly militaristic and says things about the country we no longer believe," says Stevens. "It's about one old battle. It's an English drinking tune that says reprehensible things about the British.
"America the Beautiful, on the other hand, speaks of peace and brotherhood. It describes the breadth of the country in terms that we can understand, and almost everyone knows the words and can sing the melody. It should definitely replace The Banner as our anthem."
Stevens has proposed the change to Congress, but his idea has met with about the same success as his last great notion—that each player on a baseball team be required to pitch one inning of the game to make it more interesting.
In the great Southwest, there are no aging radicals fomenting change. At the Meyer Speedway in Houston the anthem is played before the stock Dodges and Chevys roar around the oval. One driver always used to leave his crash helmet on during the playing of The Banner. A patriotic track employee could not stand it and finally asked the offending driver why he refused to remove his hat. The man explained that he wore a hairpiece, and since the rug did not fit under the tight helmet, he did not want to expose his shining pate.
Athletes getting ready to perform are often less than respectful during the anthem. Basketball players slouch, spring up on their toes, shake their arms and roll their necks as if The Banner were part of a precisely choreographed Chinese warmup ritual.
NFL players are more decorous, but they still use anthem time as an occasion to psych up for the game. Rozelle has issued orders against talking, nervous footwork, gum chewing and shoulder-pad slamming during The Banner, and former Oiler Coach Bill Peterson added his own star-spangled malapropism a few years back when lecturing his players on how to behave during the anthem. Roared Peterson, "I want you out there at attention, standing on your helmets with the sideline under your arms!"
Once, in Atlanta, a huge bird landed in front of the Falcons' bench. One of the reserve players, who made some comment about this occurrence during the playing of The Banner, was later berated by superpatriot Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin, who screamed, "If you were as interested in your country as you were in that bird, we'd have a better country!"
Head Coach Slick Leonard of the NBA Indiana Pacers has his own patriotic pace—molto allegro. Says Pacer Public Relations Director Sandy Knapp, "Slick is very patriotic, but he goes into a rage if The Banner version is too long. We have to keep it short, or he blows his cork." That is not too difficult, because, although it sometimes seems interminable, the average version of the anthem played at sports events lasts only about a minute and a half.
A lot of those 90-second Star-Spangled Banners are played in Indiana, which is college-band country. Purdue has a department devoted exclusively to bands, and Wright, its head, is an expert on the anthem. "There are two keys for The Banner—B flat for bands, because it's brilliant, and A flat for vocalists," he says. "The trouble is that when you have two or more bands at a football game, you're not sure they have the same arrangement. There is documented proof of two bands playing in different keys. It sounds like a beginner on the piano.
"In the Big Ten we have stopped having two bands play The Star-Spangled Banner together. We couldn't always get the same arrangements. Now we just have the visiting conductor lead the home band.
"There also are more than 30 different versions of The Banner. The Department of Defense publishes a standard one for the armed services, but all you have to do to get a copyright on a new arrangement is change a couple of notes. If you get a few bands playing different arrangements, it's chaos."
At Butler University in Indianapolis, Band Director Bob Grechesky has a special version of The Banner. "As a gesture of thanks for taking him in as a citizen, Igor Stravinsky wrote an arrangement of The Banner," Grechesky says. "It's very elaborate, with parts for orchestra and chorus and lots of unusual harmonies. I set it for a marching band. It's kind of nice to have your own version of the anthem."
If any place has more enthusiasm for The Banner than Indiana, it is the home of the song, Baltimore. Surprisingly, the Orioles once stopped playing the anthem for a week in 1954. General Manager Arthur Ehlers, a former American Legion post commander and a World War I veteran who was responsible for the new policy, said, "The frequent repetition of the anthem at sports events tends to cheapen the song and lessen the thrill of response. I remember the old days of vaudeville, when the management would bring out the flag to strengthen a weak act. I want The Banner played only on holidays and special occasions such as Memorial Day."
Baltimoreans were outraged. Over Ehlers' objections and to the fans' delight, the city council passed a resolution suggesting that the song be played before every Baltimore baseball game.
Chic Lang, general manager of Maryland's Pimlico racetrack, could not be happier about the resolution. "You should play the song anywhere, anytime," he says. "I'd even listen to it in the shower, if I could."
A number of athletes disagree with Lang. Counting exhibition games and special events, a baseball player, for example, hears the song about 200 times a season; at that rate, the anthem must be permanently implanted in Henry Aaron's brain by now.
Says Oriole Pitcher Jim Palmer, "If I'm pitching that day, I'm usually warmed up by the time it's played. I stand there on the mound, sweating, and try to concentrate on the batters I'll face in the first inning. It calms me down."
The Banner has a different effect on former Baltimore Catcher Elrod Hendricks. "You get tired of standing there every day listening to it," he says. "It gets to be a drag. Near the end of the season, you're tired, and you ask yourself what purpose does it serve anyway. Some organists don't even know what key to play it in."
When Baltimore had an entry in World Team Tennis (called the Banners, of course), the team's star, Jimmy Connors, had no idea of the significance of the name. "I thought it was named after some guy called Banner," he said.
Oriole Manager Earl Weaver, who is rarely at a loss for words, prefers not to say anything about the anthem. "Uh-uh, nope. No way. I won't say a word about it," he says. "I've got enough trouble with the summer squash in my garden. I don't need a lot of people calling up because I said the wrong thing about the national anthem. And whatever you say about it, it'll be wrong to somebody."
Reggie Jackson, who moved from Oakland to the Orioles for the 1976 season, uses the anthem as an accompaniment for prayer. "I pray during the playing of it," he says. "I pray for my family, for my relatives, for sick people, for world peace. I hear that thing so often that I can just about get all my praying for the year done during it."
He is hardly blasé when it comes to patriotic feeling. "When I'm in the outfield facing the flag, I see kids in the bleachers messing around—laughing and wrestling—when the song is being played," he says. "Afterward, I go over and tell them, 'Either you stand at attention for our national anthem, or you go over to China and see how you like it. You don't stand at attention over there, they shoot you.' "
Like many athletes who hear the anthem several hundred times a year. Jackson respects the occasion more than the song. "I hear that tune so often, I'm not exactly going to run out and buy the album," he says.
If you are running out to buy the album, there is good news. For anthem buffs, the Bicentennial was a banner year. Following is a listing of the best recorded renditions of The Banner and other patriotic offerings frequently heard at sports events.
Lou RAWLS heads the list because he is easily the most gung ho anthem singer in America. The blues man renders a jazzy, slow and low version. Coupled with the accompanying story, it puts him in The Star-Spangled Banner Hall of Fame, which is right down the corridor from Hillbilly Heaven.
In 1973 Rawls found himself booked to sing the anthem twice in one day. An avid San Francisco 49ers fan, Rawls was scheduled to sing at their game in Candlestick Park. Twenty-three minutes later he was on tap for the Oakland A's World Series game across the Bay. Rather than give up either, Rawls sang before the kickoff at Candlestick, took a helicopter to the Oakland airport and drove madly to the A's game, trotting to the center-field microphone to deliver a breathy version. He then helicoptered back to Candlestick in time to ride an elephant in the halftime show.
Rawls' rendition of the anthem is available: The Star-Spangled Banner MGM Records (K 14527).
Silver-haired, diminutive ROGER DOUCET is known in Montreal as "Monsieur O Canada" for his frequent performances of the Canadian anthem. Seen by millions of American TV viewers when he sang at the 1976 NHL All-Star Game and the Canada Cup series last fall, the 5'5½" Doucet, who wears rubbers so he will not slip on the ice, walks out on the red line at the Montreal Forum to deliver O Canada in stirring French and English versions that are applauded by separatists and federalists alike.
His version of The Banner—Doucet does both it and O Canada when a U.S. team plays at Montreal—is especially impressive because Doucet has given long thought to it. "It's a tougher song to sing than the Soviet anthem or the Marseillaise, but the best part of the song is the words," he says. "You see, all that active questioning—does the flag still wave?, is it still free?—is a questioning of your beliefs. The anwers are a way to reaffirm your patriotism. And the more often, the better."
Doucet waxes poetic when he describes his affair with O Canada. "Every time I sing it, I think 'This is a beautiful woman I'm talking to,' and I envision the country from Bonavista to Vancouver Island." Doucet's versions of The Banner, O Canada and 22 other patriotic songs from various countries are available on Songs of Glory, Aquarius Records (AQE 612).
Because of the success of the Flyers in games preceded by her version of God Bless America, KATE SMITH is responsible for the current rage of rating singers in terms of their won-lost records with certain teams. Last season the Bruins were 29-7-8 in games before which Lindsay Henes sang, but the NBA Portland Trail Blazers still lost more than they won after switching to God Bless America. At the beginning of this season Smith's record with the Flyers stood at 47-5-1 on recordings and 3-1 for live appearances.
Last May, with the Flyers down 3-0 in the finals of the Stanley Cup, Smith put on her best performance. A platform with organ and organist on it slid out onto the ice and a red carpet was rolled out for Smith. The sequins on her dress sparkling, she gave a magnificent version of God Bless America. Even though the Flyers went on to lose the series to Montreal, Smith is back again this year. Her God Bless America is available in The Best of Kate Smith, RCA Records (ANL 1-1135).
American League baseball players have their own favorite anthem singer, Rocco SCOTTI of the Cleveland Indians, who received his first national exposure at the start of Game 4 of last fall's American League playoffs. Scotti delivers a full-bodied, intense version that tugs at the heartstrings of normally blasé ballplayers. "They come running and screaming out of the dugout when I finish," says the amazed Scotti. "Mark Belanger jumped out and shook my hand once.
"I really study the anthem, and if guys like Robert Goulet and Jim Nabors would work at it, they wouldn't sound so blah." Scotti has made a 45-rpm record of The Banner that is available only in Cleveland, and you better believe it isn't blah.
Tom Sullivan, the vocalist whose rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner attracted so much praise at the last Super Bowl, has been blind since birth. That did not stop him from becoming an AAU wrestling champ and being invited to the 1968 Olympic Trials. Nor did it prevent him from becoming an oarsman at Harvard, where he earned a degree in clinical psychology.
A singer with a 4½-octave range, Sullivan's show-biz career has blossomed since the Super Bowl and a subsequent appearance at the Indianapolis 500. He is recording an album, which does not include The Banner, and has played a part in the disaster flick Airport '77.
Says Sullivan, "I've received hundreds of requests to sing the anthem since the Super Bowl thing, a lot of them from chambers of commerce and even one from the Pillsbury Bake-Off, but I won't do it again unless my conditions are met.
"I'd want to do my own arrangement. a cappella, with the 120-voice Up With People choir. But I'm not sure I'd want to do it anyway. I really went into training for the Super Bowl. I read the history of the anthem, listened endlessly to recordings, wrote my own arrangement and all. Most singers just figure it's a freebie on exposure and hack away at it. But it's our national song, and it deserves some respect."
The singing of The Star-Spangled Banner at sports events probably will always be with us. Attempts to do away with it have almost invariably met with resistance from fans, owners and players. The song has come to be equated with sports, as if the game could not proceed if the anthem were not played.
Although God Bless America, America the Beautiful, Battle Hymn of the Republic and Woody Guthrie's superb This Land Is Your Land have better lyrics and tunes than the anthem, tradition has stuck us with The Star-Spangled Banner. The 90 seconds or so that we spend standing at attention before ball games is now too much a part of sport and us to be easily abandoned.
Perhaps it does not matter that the song is difficult to sing, that it is often performed with too much show biz—or even that it is our national anthem. Before athletic contests its true function is to locate us in time and space. After the line "And the home of the brave?" one knows for sure that he will hear a whistle, a gun or the cry, "Play ball!" What could be more inspiring than that?