The current crop of athletes protesting during the national anthem has roots at the 1968 Olympics, with the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos after they finished first and third, respectively, in the 200 meters. John Dominis’s famous photograph of the two U.S. sprinters on the medal podium, their heads bowed, each with a black-gloved fist raised high throughout the playing of the anthem, captured an indelible moment of public protest and civic activism at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. What often gets overlooked is the controversy over the “Star-Spangled Banner” that was already raging—specifically, the anthem as sung before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, exactly nine days before Smith and Carlos thrust their fists into the thin air of Mexico City.
The 1968 World Series between the Cardinals and Tigers used the 2-3-2 format, with Detroit hosting the middle three games. Ernie Harwell, the late Hall-of-Fame broadcaster and a prolific songwriter himself, was charged with selecting the anthem singers at Tiger Stadium. He chose popular entertainer Margaret Whiting for Game 3, Motown star Marvin Gaye for Game 4, and rising star Jose Feliciano for Game 5.
Born in Puerto Rico, Feliciano moved to Spanish Harlem with his family as a youngster. Blind since birth due to congenital glaucoma, Feliciano amazed audiences with his virtuoso guitar skills. That summer, the 23-year-old reached No. 3 on the charts with a sultry cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” that would win him two Grammy Awards.
On the afternoon of October 7, 1968, Harwell escorted Feliciano and his guide dog Trudy to deep centerfield. Feliciano was dressed dapperly in a maroon suit; he wore his usual dark sunglasses. Facing home plate, he strummed an acoustic guitar and began to sing.
Some 105 seconds later, a controversy began to rage.
To today’s ears, Feliciano’s performance doesn’t sound revolutionary. We’ve become accustomed to hearing idiosyncratic versions of the anthem at nearly every single game on every single night; we’ve seen and heard everyone from Beyoncé to Roseanne Barr to the Grateful Dead give it their personal spins, sometimes to comic effect and sometimes to cosmic effect.
But in 1968, anthem singers invariably performed it “straight”—that is, without varying or distorting the traditional melody. Think Robert Merrill, a regular performer at Yankee Stadium. Think big-band, operatic stylings.
Feliciano freed the Anthem from its musical orthodoxy at a time when America was fighting in Vietnam and reeling from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the riots that were devastating many U.S. cities (including Detroit, of course, the previous summer).
As such, his folksy, stirring anthem pissed off many fans tuning in to watch the World Series. Immediately after Feliciano’s performance, unhappy listeners jammed the phone lines at Tiger Stadium and at NBC headquarters in New York.
“Storm Rages over Series Anthem,” read the next day’s headline in the Detroit Free Press. Wrote one fan:
“What screwball gave permission to have the National Anthem desecrated by singing it in the jazzy, hippy manner that it was sung? It was disgraceful and I sincerely hope such a travesty will never be permitted again.”
“The United States is our country, right or wrong, no matter how wrong it might seem to some people at this time, it did not deserve the horrible rock-and-roll rendition given the anthem. We think it was very bad taste and almost makes one ashamed for such a thing to be allowed. Our only hope is that no other country is receiving the games.”
“I have never heard anything so disgraceful and disrespectful. The only things that resembled our national anthem were the words. As a native Detroiter, I am ashamed of the persons who would let such a thing happen. I remember hearing John Glenn say, ‘I get chills when I hear our national anthem.’ I didn’t get chills. I got sick. No wonder our country is losing its dignity.”
Harwell was nearly fired for the transgression of inviting Feliciano, but never stopped defending him. Harwell told me before his death in 2010 that “Jose treated the flag and the anthem with respect. He just put his own stamp on it—and he was the first to do it.”
When Harwell learned he had terminal cancer, he shared with the Tigers his final wishes. One of them was to invite Feliciano back to a game to perform the national anthem, which Feliciano did on May 10, 2010, six days after Harwell’s death.
Several years ago, when I interviewed Feliciano backstage before a concert in Southern California, he noted, “I did the anthem with feeling and with soul, and people at that time hadn’t experienced anything like that. I wasn’t being disrespectful to the flag. I’m proud to be a Puerto Rican American. I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had in my life.”
Still, he described the experience as “bittersweet,” convinced that the flap hurt his recording career. Feliciano thought that he was on his way to becoming the first recording artist since Ritchie (“La Bamba”) Valens to cross over to mainstream superstardom. The controversy, he said, halted that momentum.
“Some people wanted me deported—as if you can be deported to Puerto Rico,” he told me. “All I know is, from 1968 until the 1970s [when he recorded the theme song to the hit TV show Chico and the Man, which debuted in 1974], the radio stations stopped playing my records. It wasn’t the fans—the fans were with me. But the program directors didn’t play my songs. I don’t think I deserved that.”
Actually, he did score one minor hit: the anthem itself. After the World Series (won by the Tigers), RCA Records took the live feed from Tiger Stadium and released the song as a single. It peaked at No. 50, the first “Star-Spangled Banner” to ever hit the charts. And the recording itself now plays on permanent loop at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.