The Rotation: The Best, and Worst, of the National Anthem
Welcome to The Rotation! This is a weekly column, written by yours truly, that talks about the wonderful blended worlds of baseball and music. These two have been staples of Americana for centuries and are as big a part of our culture as apple pie and Chevrolet. My goal is to pick a different topic between the beautiful, unified world of baseball and music and write about it each week.
It’s the day after the USA’s Independence Day, and we are roughly a week away from the All-Star Game, so now seems like a good time to revisit some of the best, and worst, national anthem performances at baseball games.
National Anthem Wins and Fails
The Star-Spangled Banner has played regularly at every MLB game since World War II, although it was known to be played at the World Series in 1918, and there is some evidence it played at the Polo Grounds at the turn of the century, so it has been a staple of baseball for well over 100 years.
In 99% of cases, the singing of the national anthem is not a particularly memorable aspect of a ballgame. Either a semi-famous celebrity, a local hero (or war veteran), or a group of kids sings, people clap, and then the game commences.
However, sometimes a national anthem can be extremely memorable—sometimes for how outstanding it was, and more often than not, how not outstanding it was.
Here are two of my favorite examples of the national anthem done well, and two of the most memorable bad performances of the anthem.
The Good: Jose Feliciano (1968 World Series)
A blind, little-known Puerto Rican singer named Jose Feliciano was asked to sing The Star-Spangled Banner during the 1968 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers. Feliciano slowed the tune down a bit, giving it a nice folksy sound while still maintaining the core of the song’s sound.
That is pretty normal now, but was a very, very big deal in 1968. Fans were outraged, with some threatening to call their state senators (seriously) because he didn’t sing it right.
Feliciano’s version has become iconic because of that outrage, and because he went on to fame for his version of Light My Fire, as well as the popular Christmas song Feliz Navidad.
The Good: Frank Pizarro (2010 ALCS)
Many, many members of New York’s police and fire departments have sung the national anthem at Yankees and Mets games, particularly after the horrific 9/11 attacks. Most of them have been sterling performances, but FDNY firefighter Frank Pizarro’s rendition during Game 2 of the ALCS in 2010 is perhaps the most memorable. His passion, and his voice, really get the crowd fired up—and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
The Bad: Michael Bolton (2003 Playoffs)
Crooner Michael Bolton has been invited to sing the national anthem at multiple sporting events, even as far back as 1990. However, he’ll forever be remembered for his 2003 performance at an ALCS matchup between the Red Sox and Yankees.
Bolton’s actual singing wasn’t bad—he does have a wonderfully velvety voice after all. But it was the fact that he wrote the lyrics on his hand, which caught the attention of Red Sox fans in attendance and stirred a smattering of derisive laughter and boos for the aging singer, who apparently couldn’t remember the lyrics to a song that he’d sung numerous times before.
Bolton’s blunder is not nearly the most memorable part of the 2003 ALCS, but it does have its place in history.
The Bad: Roseanne Barr – 1990 Padres game
Roseanne was never afraid to ruffle any feathers, but man did she miss the mark when she sang the anthem in 1990 at a Padres game. Roseanne intentionally missed multiple notes, grabbed at her crotch, and even—shockingly—spit on the pitcher’s mound. Her goal was to rile people up, and it worked: The president at the time, George H.W. Bush, called it an embarrassment. That’s one way to gain some notoriety.
Walk-Up Songs of the Week
Hitter: Randal Grichuk – Here Comes the Boom (Nelly)
I will forever associate this song with The Longest Yard, but apparently Randal Grichuk has had it as his walk-up song for years, dating back to his time in St. Louis. It of course makes sense to use this in St. Louis, where Nelly is from and is an avid Cardinals fan, but it makes me happy that he went from STL to Toronto and decided to keep it.
Grichuk does have plenty of “boom” in his bat, with 15 round-trippers on the year, although his .300 wOBA leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Pitcher: Ty Buttrey – Slow Ride (Foghat)
Angels reliever Ty Buttrey is throwing it back to the days of afros, Astroturf, and disco demolition nights—the good old 1970s—with Foghat’s epic jam Slow Ride. The incredible buildup of just the drum, leading into the iconic guitar riff and then the vocals, is a perfect reliever entrance, and one that I sincerely hope was utilized 45 years ago by guys like Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter.
(Final note: If you haven’t read Dan Epstein’s classic book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass, which is all about baseball in the 1970s, I highly recommend it).
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)