Country's first-ever 'botched' anthem performance leads to unexpected story of love, redemption

Episode 8 of podcast 'Mismatch,' Season Two, is now available

José Feliciano sings the national anthem before a game between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals at Comerica Park on Sept. 8, 2018 in Detroit (Dave Reginek/Getty Images).
José Feliciano sings the national anthem before a game between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals at Comerica Park on Sept. 8, 2018 in Detroit (Dave Reginek/Getty Images). (Getty Images)

Picture it: You’re attending a baseball game. You might be annoyed by an umpire for a second or eye-roll at a play that didn’t go your team’s way. Maybe you could even see yourself leaving, irked by the final score. But could you imagine being truly upset -- outraged, even -- over the singing of the national anthem?

The year was 1968, but this really happened.

“When I heard (it), I felt sick,” said opera star Robert Merrill, who had performed the anthem hundreds of times for the New York Yankees. “He completely destroyed the melodic line. You can’t make your own interpretation.”

We’ll continue to fill in some holes for you: That “he” to whom Merrill is referring, is Jose Feliciano, who was 23 years old when he performed the anthem before Game 5 of the World Series in Detroit.

Feliciano had no idea that by putting a new spin on the classic song, he’d cause such an uproar.
Before Game 5, between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals, the singer already had plenty of fans. But post-anthem, he felt as if he suddenly had enemies. Many questioned Feliciano's patriotism. He had been booed that day at Tiger Stadium.

“(People) wanted to deport me. … But you can't deport a citizen of the United States, and Puerto Rico is a protectorate of ours, and I'm glad,” Feliciano said. “I'm glad I wasn't deported, but it was funny to me. I thought, ‘Where the hell am I going to go?’”

Feliciano, by the way, wasn’t just “some hippie,” as many might have assumed, based on his appearance. Yes, he had long hair and perched atop a stool with his guitar for the performance, donning sunglasses -- but that was because he’s blind.

Maybe the situation really would have been different today. Maybe it would have played out the exact same way. For reference, Fergie's jazzy, slowed-down version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at last year's NBA All-Star Game caught some flak, but it didn't blow up into anything more than a punchline. Same goes for some of the other "botched" versions we've seen in more recent years: Roseanne Barr's famous screech-fest in 1990 and Christina Aguilera's flub with the lyrics in 2011, to name a few. Regardless, there’s no way to compare the exact circumstances. Keep in mind what the political climate was like in 1968, as well.

Assassinations, riots and a rising death toll in Vietnam headlined a tumultuous year. In a lot of ways, the United States had been shaken to its core, and the nation needed a timeout. Many thought the World Series would provide that break. But when 53,000 fans rose for the national anthem on that day, probably no one predicted that controversy would erupt once again -- all over a song.

In a lot of ways, a story about a national anthem gone wrong sounds like we could summarize it in about 30 seconds.

But what starts as an anthem debacle turns into so much more.

Many people, especially in Michigan, are likely familiar with Feliciano’s story, or at least, some of it. But do you know about the romance that followed? A 14-year-old girl from Detroit loved hearing Feliciano’s take on the same-old anthem. Susan Omillian went on to start a fan club for him, and then she got to meet him several years later. Fast-forward to today, and the two have been married for 36 years.

And then there’s the guitar from the 1968 performance, which has since been donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The guitar has become a symbol of one of the most memorable and controversial national anthem performances in the history of American sports.

It’s all laid out in this week’s final episode of “Mismatch,” Season Two, a podcast from Graham Media.

Although this is episode eight, “Mismatch,” by the way, isn’t one of those podcasts that you need to listen to in order, for it to make sense. You can jump in at any time -- even though we’ll plug it for a second and remind you: The whole season is absolutely worth your time.

The podcast is based on the idea that some of the most compelling stories feature some element of a mismatch: people who don't line up with each other or with their circumstances -- or in this case, the divide that arose between what people expected the national anthem to sound like, and what Feliciano delivered that fateful day. The furor would lead to fascinating twists: a marriage, a spine-tingling curtain call and Feliciano’s new place in American history. 

Tigers radio announcer Ernie Harwell, who recruited Feliciano as the anthem singer for that game, was even called a communist, despite the fact that he had served as a Marine.

WDIV photo
WDIV photo

So, why did Feliciano do it -- put such an intense spin on our nation's anthem?

“I was sick and tired of hearing it the old way, and the audience kind of not being into it,” Feliciano said. “The audience couldn't wait until whoever it was (would finish), and the audience would start clapping as if to say, ‘Thank God this thing has passed.’ And I got tired of that. I did. I really, really did. And I said, ‘I'll fix it.’”

“Fix it,” he didn't, but the move didn’t derail Feliciano forever. Wait until you hear how he bounced back -- even earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Intrigued? Or do you remember when this happened? Give the episode a listen. You can stream the podcast any time, anywhere.

Editor's note: Podcasts, by the way, are really easy to access -- even if you’re not very tech-savvy.
Don’t let the word throw you off. Though podcasting is a new technology, it revives an old art form: pure storytelling. Let’s say you’ve never listened to a podcast before. Just go to our website, hit “play” on the episode of your choosing and it’s as simple as that. iPhones even come with a Podcast app where you can subscribe, and if you own an Android, you can download an app -- Stitcher is a good one -- to accomplish the same thing.

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