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This Day in History: How did the National Anthem come to be played at sporting events?

On this day in 1939, a football game is televised for the first time. The nation was not yet in the habit of playing the Star-Spangled Banner before such sporting events, but it soon would be. Did you ever wonder how and why we began playing the national anthem before football games?

Technically, it all started with baseball.

The U.S. flag at Super Bowl L

As early as 1862, the Star-Spangled Banner was played at an opening day game in New York. The song wasn’t yet the national anthem, but it was a much-loved patriotic tune. Its use soon became more consistent—at least on opening days. In 1898, for instance, the Star-Spangled Banner and a flag-raising opened baseball season.

The country was then in the midst of the Spanish-American War.

“The thousands of persons forgot baseball at this stage and stood up with uncovered heads,” The New York Times reported. “The wildest enthusiasm prevailed. Thousands of small flags were waved by the crowd in the grand stand. The din was great and did not subside until the flag was spread to the breeze on top of the staff.”

The Star-Spangled Banner made another notable appearance in 1918. The World Series was nearly canceled that year because of World War I, but it turned out that American soldiers overseas were anxious to hear the outcome! The first game in that Series featured a special kind of 7th-inning stretch: a stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

“First the song was taken up by a few, 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. The mind of the baseball fan was on the war.”

Historian Marc Ferris explains one reason that the song was played only on special occasions: “[T]he thing is, you had to hire a band. That was expensive, so it was only for special occasions—opening day, holidays—up until the time of World War II, where sound systems come in, so they could play a recording. And thus, they started to play it before every game.”

Indeed, World War II pushed the Star-Spangled Banner into the public forum as nothing else could. Soon after Pearl Harbor, one journalist reported: “Never has it been played and sung more often . . . . It opens every public gathering; the opera and the football game, the play, the fight, and the dance, the banquet and the town meeting. Easily forgotten in the days of peace, it now becomes, all of a sudden, a tremendously precious and important thing.”

Even after the war, the national anthem continued to be played. As NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden said at the time, the playing of the national anthem “should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”

Obviously, the song has not been without controversy in recent years, and today’s generation can debate the validity (or invalidity) of various courses of action. But perhaps it’s also worth remembering what the song meant to the generation that began the tradition of playing the anthem in the first place: They’d endured a tough war. They’d lost brothers, sons, fathers—and even a few sisters, daughters, and mothers. They played the national anthem out of patriotism, love of country, and to foster unity in the face of foreign conflict.

The Greatest Generation surely knew just a bit about all of that.

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