Oh Say, Can You Sing?
Performing the national anthem at Oriole Park presents its own set of challenges
Published: July 3, 2013
The big “O!” let out by fans at Oriole Park during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was delivered with extra gusto at a night game on June 14, Flag Day, against division rival Boston Red Sox. The ritualistic shouting of the letter “O” during the final refrain of the national anthem has become more boisterous as crowds have increased during the last year and a half. It’s something guest singers of the anthem have to prepare for at Oriole Park.
“We send our performers a list of guidelines prior to their performance, and we also remind them of the ‘O’ after they arrive at the ballpark on the day of their live performance,” said coordinator of game entertainment for the Orioles Heather Bressler, who receives more than 200 audition submissions on audio tapes, CDs, DVDs, and the internet for the team’s 81 home games each year (guidelines for submissions can be found on the Orioles’ website).
Orioles fans have been putting their own stamp on the pre-game ritual since the days of Wild Bill Hagy at Memorial Stadium in the late 1970s, and why not? The fight song was written right here in town by Francis Scott Key after the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814 and made its baseball debut with Baltimore-born Babe Ruth on the mound.
“It was played for the first game of the 1918 World Series at Comiskey Park in Chicago, September 5th,” said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Sports Legends Museums, noting that the song’s ballpark premiere came 13 years before it became the national anthem. “President Woodrow Wilson was aware that there would be wounded World War I vets in the stands and ordered a military band to pick a time to play the song to honor them. The band picked the seventh inning stretch because they knew the fans would be standing. The moment was hugely successful. And Babe Ruth was warming on the mound. They repeated it again for game two, again to a terrific response. When the series shifted to Boston, the Red Sox told them to move it to before the game, and there it has remained ever since.”
Because of the song’s military origin, it is quite often performed at Oriole Park by members of the various branches of the U.S. armed forces, often preceded by a military flag presentation or color guard. On Flag Day, the anthem singer was Staff Sergeant Randy Wight, lead vocalist with the United States Army Field Band out of Fort Meade, Md.
“It might be a minute and 30 seconds in two octaves, but it can make or break a person, and when you’re in this uniform it’s got to be right every time. People expect that,” said Wight, who sung the anthem at Camden Yards last Memorial Day. “People don’t expect that from Christina Aguilera, but when we’re doing it, they expect it to be done right.”
The Orioles receive submissions from a wide variety of singers and musicians across a vast spectrum of genres—anything from guitarists to hand-bell choirs, harmonica players, and fife-and-drum corps. One of the more interesting performances turned in this year was by violinist Glenn Donnellan on his Electric Slugger violin, created from an actual Louisville Slugger bat.
Performers are not required to be professionals but it helps.
“We definitely look for experienced singers, since the song and the ballpark, the echo and delay, do present some challenges for those less experienced,” says Bressler.
Joseph Eckert, who studied music at Towson University, has sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” twice at Oriole Park as part of pre-game memorial ceremonies.
“I’ve been a professional musician my whole life, but I had never sung it in front of that many people before,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is be the guy who messes up the national anthem. It’s nerve-racking, it really is. When you’re down on the field, anything you say into the microphone sounds like an echo.”
From Jose Feliciano’s stylized rendition at the 1968 World Series to Roseanne Barr’s infamous screeching, crotch-grabbing spitting incident before a San Diego Padres game in 1990, major-league baseball games have provided a venue for a multitude of celebrity performances. Here in Baltimore, traveling shows at the Hippodrome Theatre have presented the opportunity for the casts of West Side Story, The Color Purple, and The Lion King to perform the anthem at Oriole Park.
But even if you’re Beyonce you still have to submit an audition.
“If it’s a celebrity-type, we still look for an anthem rendition by the performer on the internet to ensure the rendition fits our requirements,” says Bressler.
The Orioles’ guidelines for submissions request that applicants perform a traditional rendition that is about one minute and 30 seconds in duration or less.
“We listen to every submission we receive, but we definitely rule out submissions that do not include the correct lyrics or are not in tune,” says Bressler.
One acceptable deviation from the norm is the ritualistic fan participatory “O!” which has been criticized and scrutinized by outsiders unfamiliar with the tradition, especially in recent interleague “Beltway Series” games with the crosstown rival Washington Nationals, whose local followers are probably just jealous that Baltimore lays claim to the song.
It’s a phenomenon unique to Baltimore, although Orioles fans have shown a propensity for yelling out “O!” at other sporting events in other places and ceremonies where the national anthem is sung (including local high school graduations).
Baltimoreans might take it for granted, but there are not too many places where baseball history and American history intersect so close to a big-league ballpark. Along Pratt Street and around the corner on Emory Street, banners hanging from street lamps advertise a new documentary short film “O” Say Can You See, which celebrates the anthem’s historical involvement with the national pastime and is currently playing at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum on Emory Street.
“I think it is pretty special for us to be located so close to where the flag flew in 1814 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the patriotic poem that became our national anthem,” says Bressler. “Each year for the Orioles’ home opener, we unfurl a 30-by-42-foot flag from Fort McHenry over the batter’s eye wall. That flag is a replica of the one that flew over Fort McHenry when Key wrote the anthem.”
> Email Charlie Vascellaro