The Actual Reasons The US Plays The National Anthem Before Sporting Events

The opening words to the national anthem are familiar to anyone who watches or attends a sporting event in the United States. But why is the national anthem played at games to begin with? Depending on one's point of view, you can blame - or thank - World War I for being the catalyst for this tradition.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" began its life as a poem by Francis Scott Key about seeing the flag flying over Fort McHenry after it was bombarded by British troops in 1814. Long before it became the official US national anthem in 1931, the song was recognized for its ability to boost patriotism.

But not everyone believes that the song should be the national anthem or that it represents all American citizens. Indeed, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has been part of many protests. Furthermore, not every country plays their national anthem before every sporting event, so why does the United States? Well, the answer is deeply rooted in politics, war, and profits.

  • The Earliest Known Record Of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' Being Played At A Sporting Event Was In 1862
    Photo: Thomas Carr (arranger) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Earliest Known Record Of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' Being Played At A Sporting Event Was In 1862

    While the first professional baseball game wasn't played until 1869, and the National and American Leagues weren't founded until 1876 and 1901, respectively, people had played amateur baseball for years before these events. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the first known record of "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played at any sporting event in the United States came decades before the practice became an actual tradition.

    According to John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball (MLB), it was first played at the opening game at William Cammeyer’s Union Grounds park in Brooklyn on May 15, 1862.

    "They hire a band because it's a big celebration," anthem expert and university musicology professor Mark Clague explained to NPR in 2018. "When you have live music in 1862, during the Civil War, you're going to play patriotic songs. So they play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' sort of coincidentally. It's not part of a ritual; [it's] not played to start the game."

    The first time the song was played at any major-league team's Opening Day, meanwhile, was in Philadelphia on April 22, 1897.

  • The Anthem Boosted Morale During Game 1 Of The 1918 World Series
    Photo: Associated Press / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Anthem Boosted Morale During Game 1 Of The 1918 World Series

    Only around 10,000 fans reportedly showed up for Game 1 of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, and they weren't exactly in a cheery mood. 

    And why should they have been? By September 5, 1918, 100,000 of US soldiers had been slain in WWI since entering the conflict 17 months earlier. Furthermore, MLB players were now being drafted to fill the need for more soldiers. While on the home front, acts of domestic terrorism, like a September 4 blast that took the lives of 30 people as it ripped through the Chicago Federal Building, added to the general misery. 

    A break in the gloom came in the middle of the seventh inning. It was common practice at the time for military bands to play at games. When the band struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner," Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, who was on leave from the Navy, turned towards the flag and saluted while his teammates stood with their hands over their hearts. 

    "First the song was taken up by a few [fans], then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field," The New York Times reported. "It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day's enthusiasm."

    Reportedly, September 5, 1918, wasn't the first time "The Star-Spangled Banner" had been performed at a World Series game. But the song struck a nerve with people that day, spawning a new tradition.

  • Playing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' Became More Common Among Other Teams In Baseball After 1918
    Photo: P. Lorillard Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Playing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' Became More Common Among Other Teams In Baseball After 1918

    The 1918 World Series moved to Boston after three games. While the Cubs had "The Star-Spangled Banner" played during the seventh inning stretch, the Red Sox upped the ante by making the anthem part of the pre-game ceremonies. They also gave free tickets to wounded veterans, who were introduced to the crowd during the playing of the song prior to Game 6 of the series. The Chicago Tribune reported, "[The soldiers'] entrance on crutches supported by their comrades evoked louder cheers than anything the athletes did on the diamond."

    The enthusiastic fan response to "The Star-Spangled Banner" - and the sharp increase in attendance - didn't go unnoticed by other MLB teams. Over the next few years it became standard practice for the song to be played on Opening Day, during World Series games, and at contests played on holidays. Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, was so impressed with the fans' response to the anthem during the 1918 World Series that he ordered the club to have it performed at every home game beginning the following season. Hiring a band to perform the anthem was often cost prohibitive, but as teams installed better public address systems, recordings of the song started to be used in place of a live performance. This advance in technology allowed "The Star-Spangled Banner" to be heard more and more often at MLB games in the years between WWI and World War II.

  • During WWII, The Anthem Was Again Used At Sporting Events To Inspire Patriotism
    Photo: Bradshaw Crandell (1896-1966) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During WWII, The Anthem Was Again Used At Sporting Events To Inspire Patriotism

    It is no coincidence that the tradition of playing the anthem before every MLB game really began with the 1942 season. After all, the United States had entered WWII just a few months earlier, and the war effort needed support from American citizens. Playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at games appealed to the fans' patriotism, just as it had done back in 1918.

    "National anthems are political," Marc Ferris, the author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem, told USA Today in 2017. He continued, "Sports are a kind of bloodless warfare. A sort of war without death."

    The author said that, unlike many other places, the United States is a patriotic country and playing the national anthem was a way to show that patriotism.

    Of course, sporting events weren't the only places where the anthem could be heard during WWII. "The anthem was heard everywhere," Ferris stated. "Before the opera, before the movies, before the theater."

    But while it was rare to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" played prior to a movie or an opera once WWII came to an end in 1945, the majority of sports teams either continued or adopted the practice of playing it before games.