Morning Coffee: The Star Spangled Banner

fallI’ve been thinking long and hard about this week’s blog. Morning Coffee is not a political blog. It never has been and it never will be. My beliefs are mine, yours are yours, and that’s the way it should be. That’s the beauty of living in this country. But I feel compelled, with all that’s been done and reported over the last year, and most particularly as of late, to remind everyone of the history behind the Star Spangled Banner. Most of you will remember at least part of this from grade school.

In September of 1814, Francis Scott Key, a 35 year old lawyer, witnessed from a distance the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry. Only weeks before the British had marched on Washington and burned the Capital, the Treasury, and the White House. They were now waging a sea battle against American soldiers on shore. For 25 hours Key watched from an American warship as British ships bombarded Fort McHenry with shells and rockets. From a distance of eight miles away, he was certain our men were outnumbered, outgunned, and would surely lose. But when the sun rose that final morning of September 15th he could see our flag still flying high over the fort and it so moved him that he penned the words we still sing today, putting them to the tune of a popular English song of the time.

The flag, which became known as the Star Spangled Banner, was 30×42 feet and had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. It was sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill, a 29 year old widow and professional flag maker, along with her daughter, three nieces, a 13 year old indentured servant, and possibly Mary’s mother. It took 300 yards of English wool bunting and each cotton star measured two feet in diameter. She was paid $405.90. She was paid an additional $168.54 to make a smaller identical “storm” flag of 17×25 feet which hung over the fort during the battle. Over the years, pieces of the original flag were clipped and awarded to various individuals. What remains of the flag is on display in the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.

While the song was used by the Navy in 1889 and President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, it did not become our official national anthem until March 3, 1931, under President Herbert Hoover.

But when did we begin regularly singing it before sporting events? That would be WWI and game one of the 1918 World Series. The two teams playing for the pennant that year were the Boston Red Sox (including Babe Ruth) and the Chicago Cubs, with game one hosted by Chicago on September 5th. Both teams had won six of the last fifteen championship titles. Despite this the mood was somber and attendance was lower than usual. In the year and half since the US had entered the Great War more than 100,000 soldiers had been lost, a bomb had exploded in Chicago the day before killing four people and injuring dozens more, and the Spanish Flu epidemic was beginning to sweep the nation.

But when the US Navy band struck up the Star Spangled Banner during the seventh inning something in the atmosphere changed. Red Sox infielder Fred Thomas, a Navy man granted furlough in order to play in the series, immediately turned to face the flag and give it a military salute. Other players turned with hands over their hearts as the already standing crowd began to sing. When the song ended, the previously quiet crowd broke into thunderous applause and the game continued. The song would be played at every Series game after. The Red Sox gave out free tickets to wounded veterans and honored them during the playing of the song at the sixth and final game. (The Red Sox won that year, four games to two.)

Red Sox owner Harry Frazee made it a regular part of all Boston home games. Other baseball parks began playing the anthem on holidays and at special events. By the end of WWII, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden ordered it played at all football games and it soon spread to other sports, made easier and grander by the use of large sound systems and post-war patriotism.

Controversy over the practice is nothing new. In 1954, Baltimore Orioles general manager Arthur Ehlers briefly stopped playing the anthem altogether, complaining that too many fans were disrespecting the anthem by talking and laughing while it was played. He quickly gave in under pressure, though, and reinstated it a short month later.

While there will always be those protesting on either side of the issue, no matter what side with which you align yourself, never forget that it’s because we live in such a great country that we are even allowed to have contradicting views, and allowed to voice them, without fear. For that right we must always remember and honor those who fought, especially those who died, that we might have this freedom.

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