He intended it as a tribute to the United States of America.
Instead, it sparked a controversy. I think it’s beautiful, and 50 years after Jose Feliciano sang “The Star Spangled Banner” before a World Series game, most people have come around to that view.
Feliciano performed the National Anthem just prior to the first pitch of Game 5 of the 1968 Fall Classic. As the St. Louis Cardinals, seeking their third title in five years, and powerful Detroit Tigers awaited the start of the game, the packed house at Tiger Stadium and NBC’s cameras focused on Feliciano, perched on a stool in center field.
He was just 23, in the early stages of a career that endures to this day. Feliciano had a hit song, “Light My Fire” on the charts and was opening for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas that week, but singing the National Anthem at the World Series was too great an honor for him to pass up.
Strumming an acoustic guitar and accompanied by a small band, he performed the song in a respectful manner, with a hint of Latino jazz. Listen for yourself; it’s on YouTube.
After he ended the shortened version of the song — less than 2 minutes — you can hear some cheers. But there also were jeers, and callers jammed the phone lines at the stadium and at NBC to complain and express their outrage.
Feliciano also drew criticism for wearing sunglasses. What they didn’t realize was, Feliciano is blind, and wasn’t wearing shades to look cool. Maybe the fact that his guide dog was seated next to him should have been a tip-off.
At first, he had no idea there were protests and unhappy baseball fans.
“When I did the anthem, I did it with the understanding in my heart and mind that I did it because I’m a patriot,” Feliciano told Smithsonian Magazine this summer. “I was trying to be a grateful patriot. I was expressing my feelings for America when I did the anthem my way instead of just singing it with an orchestra.”
The performance made national news and the controversy raged for days. Feliciano said he lost jobs and radio airplay and believes it hampered his career.
Eventually, the angry reaction faded. He continues to perform across the country and his hits, including “Light My Fire” and “Feliz Navidad,” a Spanish Christmas carol, are radio mainstays.
In 2012, the San Francisco Giants invited him to perform before a playoff game, and the cheers were long and loud. On Sept. 8, he returned to Detroit to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Tigers’ championship, and this time, the crowd was united in love for his version and the cheers echoed across the park.
The World Series begins this week. It would be appropriate if baseball invited Feliciano to sing the anthem at one of the games between the Red Sox and Dodgers.
This year, on Flag Day, he sang the National Anthem at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s Star-Spangled Banner gallery as 20 immigrants from 17 nations took the oath of citizenship.
“You are in a country that allows you to use your talents not only to better yourself, but to better the country,” he said.
Feliciano donated the guitar he played before the World Series game, won by the Tigers 5-3 as they rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the series in seven. He also gave the Smithsonian a performance stool, an embroidered fan letter from an admirer in Japan, the Braille writer his wife Susan has used to generate documents over the years, and a personalized pair of sunglasses.
Another legacy is the “Star Spangled Banner,” which is performed, with little controversy, in a variety of styles before games and other events now. Feliciano had to hit the first note for others to follow.
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