October 2, 2019

José and the National Anthem

What with baseball's postseason staring yesterday, how about we take a moment and talk a little sports?

Regular readers know that I have a longtime interest in the year 1968, one of the most tumultuous twelve months in American history, a year that featured a combination of forces all conspiring to come to a head, frequently in ugly ways. If it didn’t happen in 1968, you can bet the roots grew deeply during that year. And most of it played out right before our eyes, on television.

Much as it is case today, it seems as if nothing was immune from controversy, not even sports. And, then as now, one of the year’s biggest controversies surrounded the National Anthem. It wasn’t the athletes causing it, though, but the performer.

It was Monday, October 7th, the fifth game of the World Series, played in Detroit, between the Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. It might not have happened at all had Detroit not won Game 2; as it was, the Cardinals took at 3-1 lead into Game 5. Ernie Harwell, the legendary Tigers radio announcer (who was also a songwriter, albeit an unsuccessful one; “As a songwriter, I’ve got a no-hitter going,” he used to joke), was asked by Tigers general manager Jim Campbell to select the singers for the games to be played in Detroit. (I imagine something like that would be done in the league offices today.) Harwell chose Detroit native Margaret Whiting for the third game, and Motown star Marvin Gaye for Game 4 (more on him later), but he had something different in mind for Monday’s Game 5, a young singer he liked, who’d scored some hits, including a cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”: José Feliciano. And, well—

As you can hear from the live broadcast, fan reaction to Feliciano’s folk-blues rendition was muted, and you can hear what sounds like some jeering starting as NBC goes to a commercial break. Down on the field, there was no mistake. “Well, I heard some cheers, but they were very sparse,” Feliciano said. “And I heard a lot of boos. And I said, ‘Who, what did I do? Why are they booing me?” The players, too, were taken aback. Tigers pitcher John Hiller remembered thinking, “Oh, my God, Ernie—what did you do?” Cardinals star Roger Maris said, “I don’t think it was the proper place for that kind of treatment. Maybe I’m a conservative.” Pitcher Dick Hughes added, “Thumbs down all the way. That’s a conformist’s song and should be sung the way it was written.” Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver, who went on to have a long and successful career as an announce himself, was one of the rendition’s few fans. “Why not that way?” he said. “People go through a routine when they play the anthem. They stand up and yawn and almost fall asleep. This way, at least they listened.”

NBC, broadcasting the Series, was flooded with thousands of angry letters and calls, as were the Tigers offices; editorial writers had their say as well. One Detroit resident accused Harwell of being a communist for recommending such a performance.

In retrospect, and without context, it can be hard to understand it was all about. Listening to Feliciano’s rendition, it occurs to me that there’s something in it that speaks to the vastness of the land and the history of the country. Although it’s certainly an unorthodox arrangement, it doesn’t trade in on the inherent dignity of the song’s meaning; more than anything else, it called to mind “This Land is Your Land,” a song which, no matter how you feel about Woody Guthrie’s motives, wears the dust of America on its hands. So does Feliciano’s version; one can discern an almost wistful meditation on what America had been and still could be. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

It is the irony of ironies that Marvin Gaye sang the Anthem prior to Game 4, since the performance to which Feliciano’s version has most frequently been compared has been Gaye's assassination of the song at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Gaye's 1968 rendition was an honest and straightforward rendition; he admitted later that he'd been encouraged to tone it down a bit, and Tigers catcher Bill Freehan said that Feliciano's version made Gaye "sound like a square."

So what is the difference between Feliciano in 1968 and Gaye in 1983? For one thing, I think it's the word performance. Gaye's rendition is just that, a performance for art's sake, in which the actual intent of the song as the "National Anthem" is lost, a kind of ersatz "Sexual Healing" that hardly calls to mind Francis Scott Key and the bombing of Fort McHenry. Watch any soccer match at the World Cup, for example, and you'll see players standing together, arms linked around each other, belting out their own anthems with a gusto that bespeaks a pride in their nation.

It may well be that "The Star-Spangled Banner" is not a particularly good choice for the National Anthem (I'd choose "America, the Beautiful" myself), and it's notoriously difficult to sing, but even if it weren't, it would be hard to imagine those same players trying to sing along to Gaye's 1983 version with any sense of national pride. Put it this way—could you see Colin Kaepernick kneeling to it? People would be wondering what he had against Gaye's version; "What are you, some kind of right-winger?" Gaye's version, great though it may be, isn't the National Anthem; it doesn't have the dignity or gravity that is rightly due a national anthem, You can protest what it does to the anthem, but you can't protest it as the anthem, because as an anthem it doesn't stand for anything.

It's since become somewhat common to view the National Anthem as a sort of performance art, and at most sporting events it's done a capella, possibly because so many of today's singers don't know how to sing with normal accompaniment. What with the anthem having become a proximate cause of protest for people, not to mention the somewhat unholy alliance between professional sports and professional patriotism, the best thing to do would probably be to drop it from the telecast altogether.

All's well that ends well, though. The controversy died down eventually, after a year or so. Despite the many thousands of letters (and even death threat), Ernie Harwell kept his job (until 2002, in fact), and although José Feliciano thinks it took until his theme for Chico and the Man for his career to truly recover, he wound having a pretty successful one. His recording of the anthem went on to become a hit, and today it plays as a continuous loop at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It didn't hurt, of course, that the Tigers went on to win that World Series, making everyone in Detroit happy. As a matter of fact, they didn't lose a game after Feliciano sang the anthem, which makes one wonder why such superstitious people as athletes didn't embrace it immediately. He has performed it since, though, at playoff games and the World Series, and when Harwell learned he had terminal cancer, one of his final wishes was to invite Feliciano back to Detroit to perform the national anthem. Feliciano did on May 10, 2010, six days after Harwell’s death.

As I say, a happy ending for everyone, except perhaps the St. Louis Cardinals. But that's another story. TV  


  1. First things first:
    The Star-Spangled Banner isn't a song lyric - it's a poem.
    Furthermore, Francis Scott Key didn't write it to be a "national anthem" - because the colonies weren't a nation yet.
    Further furthermore, Banner didn't even become the National Anthem until 1931 - at least not officially.
    And that last probably wouldn't have happened if Bob Ripley hadn't done a Believe It Or Not! cartoon calling attention to that fact.
    Ripley followed this up with one of his BION! Vitaphone short subjects, wherein he brought in a chorus to sing "To Anacreon In Heaven", the old English drinking song where we got the melody. (DVD available on Warner Archive.)

    The Star-Spangled Banner has four stanzas; the one we use as the anthem is the first one.
    Many scholars believe that we should be using the fourth stanza as the anthem instead.
    Judge for yourself:

    Oh thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
    Between their loved homes, and the war's desolation.
    Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
    Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
    And this be our motto: "In God Is Our Trust".
    And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
    O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

    In 1976, when Bill Veeck talked Paul Richards out of retirement to manage the White Sox, they agreed to begin the season at (old) Comiskey Park with a Spirit Of '76 tableau - Bill with his peg leg "playing" the fife, Rudie Schaffer "playing" the drum, and Paul Richards (in white wig) carrying the flag.
    After marching onto the field, Richards recited "The Star-Spangled Banner" - except he insisted on the fourth stanza as quoted above, because of his belief that these lines would have been a better choice for a national anthem than the first stanza.

    Paul Richards wasn't the only one who felt this way.
    Some years later, Isaac Asimov devoted an entire column to a line-by-line analysis of The Star-Spangled Banner - all four stanzas - coming to the conclusion that Stanza Four would have been more appropriate for National Anthem usage.
    (I haven't had a chance to look this one up yet, but it must be in one of Dr. Asimov's collections.)

    So There Too.

    1. True - I think most of us learned about the history of the National Anthem in grade school, or at least I did. We also learned that the tune came from the old British drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven."

      However, you're wrong about when Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," or "Defence of Fort M’Henry," if you want to be precise about it. The United States most certainly was a country then, since Key wrote it during the War of 1812. (I've been to Fort McHenry; they tell us these things.)

      As I said, I prefer "America, the Beautiful" myself, although if we had the guts as a nation, we'd use "God Bless America." Of course, it would be bad form if the National Anthem were to be ruled unconstitutional for mentioning God...

  2. The first one isn't up yet, but I have to get this in now:

    I found the Isaac Asimov essay!

    You can find and read it in its entirety at:

    Or just look up "All Four Stanzas" by Isaac Asimov.

    And then …
    … go to YouTube and hear Dr. Asimov singing all four stanzas of the Anthem!
    You won't ever forget - I promise.
    (Even at age 71, the Good Doctor had one helluva singing voice …)

  3. I was a big Ernie Harwell fan, and a fan of both Feliciano's 68 version and Gaye's 83 NBA version, however I knew nothing about the connection between Ernie and Jose. Splendid story. My other favorite Harwell story is when he was asked by the Tigers what he wanted as a memento from Tigers stadium, he chose the urinal in the visitor's clubhouse. Not only a HOF announcer, but a man with a HOF sense of humor.

    1. Absolutely! Back in the day, when playoff time came around, I always skipped the TV audio and listened to Ernie and Ned Martin, the announcer for the Red Sox, on the radio. They were both smooth as silk, and could really make you feel as if you were watching the game with them.

  4. The first time I saw and heard the footage of Feliciano performing the anthem at the 1968 World Series, it haunted me. It made me listen to and think about the anthem in a way that I never had before, and there was a beauty and a sadness in it. The anthem means different things to different people, and hearing it performed differently can shake people. But sometimes we need a performance like his to get our attention like that and make us think.

    Personally, I've never been crazy about "The Star-Spangled Banner" - it's a tune that sounds top-heavy to my ear, the lyrics are hard to sing well, there's a couple places where it too often gets over-punched by vocalists, and I've heard so many bad versions of it. Like Mitchell, I think "America the Beautiful" would have worked so much better; its tune glides where "The Star Spangled Banner" lurches, and it's a song of praise and hope and love.

    It'll probably never happen, but just once I would love for a big-time sporting event to pass up having a big-time star do the anthem, and instead call in the local high school marching band to do it. There would be something beautiful to that, something earnest in its simplicity, that would speak of the America I believe in and love.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!