The earliest record of the National Anthem at a sporting event occurred on September 5, 1918 in the first game of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. World War I had just affected the United States and there was some thought to cancel the World Series altogether. American soldiers fighting in France were interested in the series and it was a morale boost for them to know what was going on so the series was played. It was reported that Red Sox third baseman, Fred Thomas, who was also a U.S. Navy sailor gave a stirring performance of the song during the seventh inning stretch. The New York Times reported:
“Jackie Fred Thomas of the U.S. Navy was at attention, as the stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm. The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw, when he conquered Hippo Him Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0.”
Thomas played three years in the major leagues. He had a .225 batting average with four home runs and 45 RBI in 247 games.
Although the song wasn’t technically our “national anthem” yet at the time, the song was the anthem for the U.S. Army and Navy but because of the outpouring of patriotism at the 1918 World Series, it propelled the song to become our official national anthem in 1931.
This trend spread to other sporting events throughout World War I and World War II. At the end of World War II, after Japan announced it would surrender, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden called for all of the league’s teams to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at their games, arguing, “The National Anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kick-off. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”
Here are some of the best performances of the National Anthem:
- Whitney Houston (Super Bowl 25)
- Jennifer Hudson (Super Bowl 43)
- Aretha Franklin (2011 American League Championship Series)
- Marvin Gaye (1979 Boxing match)
- Beyoncé (Super Bow 38)
The Super Bowl is perhaps the most watched performance of the National Anthem. In the first Super Bowl, the song was performed by the Pride of Arizona, Michigan Marching Band and UCLA choir. The first well-known entertainer to perform the anthem at the Super Bowl was Charley Pride before Super Bowl 8.
One lone act by a relatively unknown baseball player in the 1918 World Series made the National Anthem the tradition is today before sporting events.