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.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


My first year as a baseball fan—at the sweet and tender age of seven—was 1945. The Cubs won the National League pennant. Baseball’s an easy game, I thought.

My first year as a football fan was the next one, 1946. The Bears, with the marvelous (and Jewish!) Sid Luckman at quarterback, won the National Football League championship. Football, too, seemed easy.

The first year I was aware of the NFL draft was 1947. Despite having won the title the year before (and for reasons I still can’t explain) the Bears had the No.1 pick in the entire affair. With it they chose Bob Fenimore, a several-time All-American tailback from Oklahoma A & M, now Oklahoma State U.

Nicknamed the “Blond Bomber,” Fenimore came suitably hyped. Just give him the ball and get out of his way, the newspapers said. The Bears did that in ’47, but not often and with little effect. Apparently still hampered by a knee injury he’d suffered the year before, the Bomber carried just 53 times for 189 yards in his first season as a pro. (I looked that up.). It also was his last season, because afterward he went home to Stillwater and began what was to be a lifelong career as an insurance agent.

I thought the NFL draft was weird and anything but easy.

All these years later, I still think so. That’s why I annually scratch my head in wonder over all the fuss made over the player drafts of our major sporting entities. Crap shoots is what they are, but that doesn’t keep them from gaining in importance and attention among us fans. That’s testimony to our love of hype, because in that category the drafts stand alone at the top. No events are involved. They’re all hype.

Yes, the newspapers overplay the things, but I trace this development mostly to ESPN, the all-sports cable TV channel whose 1979 launch transformed not only sports but all of American culture. Before ESPN, sports were mainly a weekend diversion in this land, something to occupy a few hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Men chatted with their wives, helped their kids with their homework, watched “Bonanza,” maybe even read a book.

ESPN’s 24/7 sports format changed all that. Total immersion, theretofore a dream, became reality. Soon imitators popped up and created other all-sports fonts, both national and local. Guys today needn’t spend an idle hour watching or thinking about anything except the world of fun and games.

Still, they don’t play the National Anthem much between midnight and noon, so ESPN has to hustle to fill its airtime. What better way to do this but with draft blather? Production costs are low—a couple of guys in a studio will suffice. Any two will do as long as they’re loud enough. No scripts are needed; a question like whether the Raiders need a running back more than a defensive lineman easily can fill a half hour.

The NFL is nothing if not adaptable, so it leaped to the opportunity by allowing ESPN to air its entire, two-day draft, round by tedious round, which the channel promotes with months of on-air speculation. The league’s passion for pseudo science gives the network’s commentators plenty to yak about all those hours. In Bob Fenimore’s day pro football teams did much of their scouting by reading newspaper clippings. Today they weigh, measure, calibrate, clock, prod and poke prospects, subject them to intelligence and psychological tests (“Would you rather climb a mountain or eat a banana?”), and interview their parents, teachers, coaches, parole officers and present- and ex-girlfriends to plumb their “character.”

Some of the results are nonsense; for instance, my track-and-field friends assure me that no human being can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds from a stationary start in football gear. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop such figures from being parroted. And “character”? I guess Michael Vick’s dogs ate his test.

So hey, friends, how did you enjoy last weekend’s festivities? Did your team score big or get guys who look like Tarzan but play like Jane? What grade did they get from the pundits? Truth to tell, the world won’t know how well they fared for two or three years, soonest. But keep that under your hat or you’ll spoil the fun.