Wednesday, May 14, 2008


National anthem quiz:
1) How many syllables are in the words “oh,” “that,” “yet” and “wave”?
2) How about “banner”?
3) What are the song’s last two words?

Answers are at the end of this piece.

Back in the day, when I was introduced to someone as a sportswriter, the person often remarked that I must know a lot about sports. “Not that much,” I’d reply, modestly. “I’m more interested in the writing part.”

My 20 years on the beat, however, did qualify me as a gen-u-ine expert on a couple of things. One was travel. I knew how to finagle airline upgrades or bulkhead or exit-row seats, which airports were easy or difficult to navigate, where to rent a car and where to take cabs, where to get a quick but tasty meal after any night game. If Fodor hadn’t already been invented, I coulda been him.

Another was “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. I’ve heard it thousands of times-- sung fast and slow, well and poorly, in this country and abroad. The SSB and sports go together like hot dogs and mustard. You could spend a lifetime attending movies, concerts, plays and such and never hear it, but in the ballparks’ oft-gamy precincts, it’s ubiquitous.

One can’t experience a thing repeatedly without coming to some conclusions about it. My main observation is that the anthem’s position as the theme song of the world’s foremost nation is questionable, at best. Its meter is lumpy and its words are difficult to get your tongue around. They’re also tough to memorize—so tough that a couple of years ago the Government felt moved to launch an effort to teach them to adults. It didn’t succeed totally; I hear people make mistakes even when the words are printed on a stadium’s electronic scoreboard while the piece is being played.

The music of the one-time English drinking song also leaves something to be desired. On a world-anthems scale I’d rank the tune no higher than a many-way tie for third place behind France’s glorious “La Marseillaise” and Russia’s national hymn, which was junked in 1991 after the Commies were ousted but restored by Putin nine years later. If Americans were polled on their favorite patriotic song I’d wager that “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (my favorite) would do well, and that even the red-neck anthem, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” would get votes. That last was played before one event I attended-- an Olympics trial, for heaven’s sake. Everyone stood, just like for the SSB.

You’d think that with all the repetition sports fans would have the anthem’s protocols down cold, but they don’t. People are supposed to stand and remove their hats while it’s played, but while just about all the men bear their heads, women often don’t. Further, while it’s clear what to do when you’re in your seat at the park, how about when you’re in a concourse, a concessions-stand line or a wash room? I’ve witnessed amusing confusion over the issue in those places.

I’m told that in other countries the national anthem always is sung straight, but in this one it’s become a performer’s plaything where anything goes. A good, respectful SSB can be belted out in 75 seconds or less, but through vocal gymnastics it can be stretched considerably. Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated used to put a stop watch to the thing in football press boxes, and announce the results. I recall him once getting a reading of two minutes five seconds.

The gold standard for SSB performances was set by the late opera singer Robert Merrill at Yankee Stadium, which always handles ceremonies well. The hearty baritone Wayne Mesmer currently does a nice job of it at Wrigley Field. My personal nadir came at a long-ago Chicago Bulls game when the country singer Conway Twitty first sang the song badly off key and then had to stop because he’d forgotten the words. The worst end-to-end anthem I’ve heard sung (on tape) was by Carl Lewis, the Olympic sprinter, before a Houston Rockets’ game. Mere words can’t convey its awfulness. Suffice it to say that Lewis’s singing career died aborning.

The awfulness doesn’t always stop with the music. At a San Diego Padres’ game in 1990, Roseanne Barr capped a screechy rendition of the anthem by clutching her crotch and spitting-- in homage to baseball, she said. The Law of Unintended Consequences dictates that something like that was bound to happen. You have to watch who you hang out with, and where.

Quiz answers: 1) Two: “Oh oh,” “tha-at,” “ye-et” and “way-ave.” 2) Four: “ba-a-ner-er.” 3) “Play ball.”
Business note: Updated versions of three of my “For the Love of…” books—on the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox—are on the shelves, with new covers and pages. Mark Anderson’s artwork is wonderful, as usual. They make great Father’s Day gifts. Click on the Triumph Books or Amazon links for details.


Anonymous said...

Another great column! And now I know what to get you for Father's Day.

Anonymous said...

hey, great blog, found you through your son's blog and shhhh don't tell him (though I suspect he MAY be anonymous here), I think my "ugly American tastes" (for AMERICAN football, for one) may fit better over here.;)

I loved the quiz and did ok! I made one mistake. I coulda sworn "wave" was way-ay-ay-ave and thus, four syllables. Dang.

Hopefully I'll do better next time. Welcome to the blogosphere. I look forward to reading more of you both.