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“Professional baseball is dead, killed by the greed of the players and owners.”

— New York Times

Sept. 11, 1918

“We’ll play — for the sake of the wounded sailors and soldiers who are in the grandstands.”

— Harry Hooper

Red Sox Outfielder

This past Saturday night found me in one of my favorite places — Gray Chapel — on the evening of a Central Ohio Symphony concert. On the long list of things I love about my adopted hometown of Delaware, the symphony is right up at the top. In particular, I was looking forward to the performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which would close the performance, and is one of my favorite pieces of music.

As is the symphony’s tradition, the season opening concert begins with the orchestra playing our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. The tune, To Anacreon in Heaven, was written by British composer and church organist John Stafford Smith sometime in the 1770s. Orchestral settings are always stirring and in modern America often heard at the opening of sporting events.

Frequently, at those sporting events, there is a tiny smattering of voices singing the words to the anthem. Often this is because there is a professional singer performing, but it remains true even when the rendition is purely instrumental. So it was to my great surprise and enjoyment that the symphony crowd of approximately 750 people rose and in near unanimity joined together in the loudest choral performance of Francis Scott Key’s lyrics that I can ever recall hearing. Even some of the musicians commented to me on how loud the singing seemed compared to prior years.

After the concert (and a most pleasing performance of the Firebird), I got back home in time to catch the end of the American League Championship Series game between the Tigers and the Rangers. Watching baseball, and then being confronted later in the weekend with news of the NBA strike, reminded me of the origins of the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games.

Major League Baseball was still reeling from the Black Sox scandal of 1917 when the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs met for the 1918 World Series. World War I was winding to a close (the Armistice was just two months away) and many American veterans had returned home and were in attendance at Fenway Park in Boston and Comiskey Park in Chicago (Wrigley Field was deemed too small and so the Cubs’ home World Series games were played at Comiskey).

During the seventh inning stretch of Game 1 in Chicago, the stadium band launched into a performance of the Star Spangled Banner in order to honor the veterans in attendance. It is the first recorded playing of the song at a ball game and happened some 13 years before the song would become the nation’s official national anthem. It was later in the series, however (and for less pure reasons) that the tradition of playing the song before games would begin.

Fifty-five years before the advent of free agency in baseball, the players played for what the owners would offer them. Seeing the large crowds at the stadiums for the series, and aware that the owners would be bringing in a healthy sum at the ticket gate, Red Sox outfielder Harry Hooper rallied his teammates to take a stand for a larger share of the World Series income. The starting time of game five came and went without the players taking the field. Negotiations continued for more than an hour before Hooper agreed that they shouldn’t keep the war veterans waiting any longer and the players agreed to play.

Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, remembering the performance in Chicago in game one, instructed the band in Boston to play the anthem. The 15,238 in the crowd rose to their feet, removed their caps and joined in singing. The Cubs won that game, but the Red Sox were victorious the following day to finish off their last World Series championship for 86 years.

On Sept. 11, 1918, the New York Times story about game five was headlined, “National Anthem Opens the Affray” and began with the line, “The Band played the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ while the players and spectators stood with bared heads.” A tradition was born that continues to this day — at sporting events and symphony concerts alike.

David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and secretary of the Board of Trustees of the Central Ohio Symphony.

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