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Give the fans their voice in the national anthem

Baseball players always remove their caps as a sign of respect while the national anthem is played. Royals Eric Hosmer (from left), Jeremy Guthrie and Drew Butera removed their hats before a game in May.
Baseball players always remove their caps as a sign of respect while the national anthem is played. Royals Eric Hosmer (from left), Jeremy Guthrie and Drew Butera removed their hats before a game in May. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

One of the highlights of the Kansas City Royals’ championship season came well before the World Series.

Moments before the national anthem was to be performed before the July 25 game between the Royals and the Houston Astros, the PA system at Kauffman Stadium crashed.

Instead of standing by awkwardly in silence, most of the 38,393 fans in attendance sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” loudly and in unison.

Their performance attracted national attention. “More teams need to let this happen,” Nate Scott wrote in USA Today. “The crowd is better than at least 75 percent of the national anthem singers I’ve seen in my lifetime. I’m not even kidding.”

And from the Sporting News: “Sometimes, people can be the worst. But other times, they are the best. This is one of those times.”

The anthem is performed hundreds of thousands of times each year before sporting events in places as large as major league and college stadiums and arenas and as small as rural, high school gyms.

Before major events such as the Super Bowl and the World Series, the anthem’s performance (and performers) attract a lot of attention. Major League Baseball decides who will perform but does not dictate how it is performed. Perhaps it should.

In response to reviews of each World Series performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” I wrote on our music blog, Back to Rockville, I received several emails from readers, many of them military veterans who wanted to address how they think the anthem should and shouldn’t be performed.

“First, maybe I should tell you where I am coming from, as a WWII veteran as well as a musician for many years,” wrote Robert Laskey. “I think if you took a survey of servicemen and women and veterans, there would be an overwhelming majority that would prefer the song be sung without the personal additions so many think they need to add. Billy Joel’s voice may not be what it once was, but he did sing it as it should be sung. Many of us are used to singing along when the anthem is played, but with the prima donnas wanting to make it their own, it is impossible to do so.”

And from “wounded in combat veteran” James Smallwood of Oskaloosa, Kan.: “I, like many others, prefer that our National Anthem be sung in a traditional and, most importantly, respectful manner. I also appreciate those in the audience who stand quietly and still, removing their hats, facing our flag and placing their hand over their heart. Honoring our country in this solemn manner is appropriate.”

Instead, too often the performance becomes about the performer showing off vocal stunts and changing the arrangement so drastically that it’s difficult for the crowd to sing along.

Kelley Hunt, a singer, songwriter and recording artist from Lawrence, has performed the anthem before many sporting events, including Royals games. Her method: “It’s one of those songs that I think doesn’t need any vocal gymnastics and I completely agree with the ‘straightforward and simply’ approach. Sometimes … I have put a bit of my own twist to it, but nothing that stretches the song out or deviates much from the way it was written. You’ve got to respect the song and what it represents.”

The song is a battle cry that represents a lust for victory. In 2011 ESPN The Magazine wrote a history of the anthem’s attachments to sports, tracing it back to the early 20th century and the first World War: “Hatched during one war, institutionalized during another, this song has become so entrenched in our sports identity that it’s almost impossible to think of one without the other. Our nation honors war. Our nation loves sports. Our nation glorifies winning. Our national anthem strikes all three chords at the same time.”

So, much like a college fight song or “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the national anthem is a song that should be performed true to its origins and one best performed by a chorus of voices. If you’ve ever been to Allen Fieldhouse and heard 16,000 people issue the “Rock Chalk” chant, you know what I’m talking about. Imagine thousands of Chiefs fans injecting the same amount of gusto into the entire anthem that they bellow at the end when they replace “brave” with “CHIEEEEEEEFS!”

Star reader Jeanne Edwards agrees: “The national anthem should be a participation activity rather than a spectator activity. I always like to see athletes singing or at least mouthing the words along with the performer. I am not a singer but I always sing along.”

Royals fans showed us that before a regular season game in late July. Even more spine-tingling was a performance by Boston Bruins fans in April 2013 in the days following the Boston Marathon bombings. Two lines into the song, singer Rene Rancourt lowered his microphone and orchestrated an uprorious sing-along among most of the 17,000-plus fans. You’ll never hear a better version.

Until, perhaps, we all sing it together on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium next year.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain