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From Baseball to Basketball, the Stars Show Their Stripes as National Anthem Songsters

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The Yankees call him the “Star-Spangled Baritone,” but to the local boys who hang out around the Bronx stadium, he’s known as the “Oh Say Can You See Kid.” Either way Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill, 65, may be the most celebrated member of an unheralded breed—those who sing the National Anthem before the game begins. Merrill has been in pinstripes longer (18 years) than any current member of the team, and he ceremoniously dons his uniform (No. 1½) before the annual Old Timer’s game. “I’m batting .700,” he says of his won-loss record as Yankee troubadour. “I think I’ve also sung at more World Series games than anyone else.” Some think he makes a difference. When the Yankees took the 1977 World Series from the Dodgers, L.A. manager Tommy Lasorda saw fit to blame Merrill personally. “At each game,” Merrill laughs, “when I started onto the field, Lasorda was waving and yelling at me to get off.”

Not every ball club can boast a good luck charm like Merrill, but as the great American pastime moves into full swing, everyone, from shower-stall soloists to top-name celebs, from 8-year-old warblers to veteran voces, is taking his place on the diamond and giving his all for team and country.

One of the biggest anthem-singing acts in baseball is the Lettermen. The pop group has performed The Star-Spangled Banner for all but three major league teams (the Expos, Red Sox and Mariners) and the group hopes to make it a clean sweep this season. They’re favorites in Philadelphia—the Phillies have never lost at home when the Lettermen have sung. The Oak Ridge Boys and Toni Tennille also have nationwide followings among the ball clubs, while Huey Lewis and the News are gaining popularity. The News does an “excellent a cappella rendition” of the anthem, says Oakland A’s media manager Kathy Jacobson.

For this year’s New York Mets opening day, owner Nelson Doubleday decided Oscar-nominee Glenn Close would be The Natural. Despite a Big Chill 42-degree day, Close warmed Shea Stadium with an inspiring anthem, and the Mets went on to a string of victories. “Last year when I sang, they won too,” she says. “On a 1-to-10 scale I think I’d give my performance—well, technically, a five or six. But the spirit—I’d have to give that a 10!”

Baseball, of course, isn’t every singer’s sport. Pop star Jeffrey (On the Wings of Love) Osborne had an unblemished pro-sports anthem-singing record until he performed on opening day this year for the Dodgers. L.A. lost. Before that he was 15-0, with two wins each for the L.A. Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers football teams and a staggering 11 wins for the L.A. Lakers. Says Osborne: “I’m convinced it actually makes a difference to the players when I sing. They think it helps them win, and they are more ‘up’ for the game and play better.”

The Philadelphia 76ers only call on Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. for big contests. “We figure Grover is worth 10 points a game,” says team entertainment coordinator Bernadette Toner. Washington’s famed sax version of The Star-Spangled Banner, first heard in the late ’70s, reverberates throughout the league. “He brought the house down at the Spectrum,” recalls NBC director of sports information Tom Merritt. “I’ve never heard or seen anything like it.” Philadelphia fans used to say the same thing about Kate Smith’s stirring rendition of God Bless America, which spurred the Flyers hockey team to victory for 12 years.

Personalized renditions of the anthem aren’t always appreciated, and some unorthodox versions remain notorious (see box). “I take the concept of the song and perform it like any other number,” says Osborne. “Still I show respect. I don’t agree with singers who insert too much of their own style into it.” When it comes to the anthem, many fans feel less is more. “You are supposed to gun through it,” says SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer Paul Zimmerman, who puts a stopwatch to every rendition he hears. “Pearl Bailey holds the record for longest version. She went 2:28 during a 1978 Yankees-Dodgers World Series game. Organist John Kiley set the all-time speed record of 51 seconds at a 1977 game between the Yankees and the Red Sox.”

The song’s excruciating vocal range is another problem, as are stage fright and the performer’s ultimate nightmare—forgetting the words. Tina Turner came up with an elegant solution when she sang for the Phillies during the 1980 Series. “She walked on the field carrying this baseball glove,” says team spokesman Frank Sullivan. “It was only after the game that I found out why: She had the lyrics written inside.”

Days of Our Lives actress Gloria Loring well remembers the dread effect of stadium-echo delays on her first performance. She was supposed to sing the anthem before 50,000 soccer fans at the Rose Bowl on July 4, 1976. Delayed by traffic she arrived just before her cue and ran onto the field. “Because of the echo delay, I couldn’t hear myself and had no idea where I was in the song. The fans started to sing, and finally I just started to sing along.” Loring fled the stadium to a chorus of catcalls. Though she now can claim a nine-season 16-5 record with the L.A. Raiders, that night, she shudders, “I died a thousand deaths.”

A good performance can mean a publicity bonus for those who pull it off. Apart from the free exposure, singers generally get some free seats. But for the less famous, singing The Star-Spangled Banner’ for their favorite ball club can bring the thrill of a lifetime. Many clubs allow groups that purchase large blocks of seats to nominate a singer, and teams often hold off-the-street auditions. Bob Weddell, the “Singing Bus Driver,” auditioned while driving down L.A.’s Harbor Freeway with a busload of baseball executives. He has sung once a year at Dodger Stadium since 1978. A mailman, Rick Westhoff, sings for the Seattle Mariners and has a 9-0 record, but the team’s favorite warbler is 9-year-old Kirsten Ostrom, who also sings for the Seahawks football team and the SuperSonics basketball club. Kirsten’s 7-year-old sister, Heather, and her mother also have each sung once.

Unfortunately for the famous and not-so-famous who sing their hearts out for Old Glory, the networks tend to skip the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner these days. “The anthem has become a forgotten part of the game as far as the networks are concerned,” says NBC’s Merritt. “It is usually performed before we go on the air.” Though singing the anthem before the game only became a tradition after World War II, there’s little chance that The Star-Spangled Banner will disappear from the land of the Yankees and the home of the Braves. The custom even extends north. Whenever the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos play, two anthems are required. Anybody know the words to O, Canada?