When Ernie Harwell made America very mad

José Feliciano performs the U.S. National Anthem before Game Five of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

Ernie Harwell is a beloved figure in Detroit, in the entire state of Michigan for that matter. As well as being respected by baseball fans everywhere for his talents, good character, and dedication to the game.

But there was one time Ernie Harwell made a lot of people across the United States very mad. There was one time when he got himself in such hot water that he got death threats in the broadcast booth.

It all started on the biggest stage in the sport with a song.

Harwell was a polymath of sorts, he was accomplished at many things and was interested in a myriad of topics. For most of his life he’d written songs, even having several of them recorded by professional singers. Ernie had a keen interest in music. Part of the reason was the fact that Harwell had suffered from a stutter as a child, and singing was a way for him to pronounce words and clearly communicate and work on his speech.

The Tigers and Cardinal met in the 1968 World Series, the first two games played in St. Louis where Detroit lost both. The next three games would be played in Detroit. Harwell was asked by the team to secure talent to perform the National Anthem at Tiger Stadium before each game.

For Game Three, Harwell selected Margaret Whiting, who had made her name as a singer with big bands in the 1940s and 1950s. Margaret’s father had written several songs that became popular in Hollywood and on the radio, like “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Her biggest claims to fame were probably the songs “That Old Black Magic” and her version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which was released with the Johnny Mercer Band in the late 1940s. Whiting was a Detroit native, a beautiful woman, and popular American beauty. Her rendition of the National Anthem was traditional.

Prior to Game Four, Harwell welcomed the Motown star Marvin Gaye to sing the Anthem. Gaye’s song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was the #1 song in the country. He was immensely popular, and he received loud cheers from the crowd of 50,000-plus at Tiger Stadium. Unfortunately, despite Gaye’s performance, the Tigers lost and fell behind three games to one in the series. But so far, so good: Ernie was 2-for-2 on his musical selections.

Entering Game Five on October 7, 1968, the Tigers were strangely loose for a team with their backs against the wall. They were a veteran team and throughout the season they’d thrilled their fans with late inning dramatics. Maybe they had one more comeback in them, they thought. About five minutes before game time, Harwell ushered to the field a young man with a guitar. The man was blind, he had his seeing-eye dog with him. The man’s name was José Feliciano, a 23-year old musician from Puerto Rico, a virtuoso guitarist and a fine singer. That summer his version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” had reached #3 on the U.S. pop charts.

Feliciano was set up in deep center field, the two teams stood on the baselines, the Tigers on the third base side, the Cardinals on the first base side. A shadow hung over the home plate section of the field, but the sun was shining brightly in the outfield. Feliciano was dressed in a maroon jacket, wearing his sunglasses, and backed by a band. His seeing-eye dog was nearby, as was a color guard holding U.S. and Michigan flags and the flags of each branch of the military. Feliciano strummed the guitar and began to sing.

It lasted about 105 seconds. Feliciano’s rendition of the Anthem was graced with folksy tones and a slower tempo. It was soft and soothing, almost reverent. There was an element of country music-style to it, but also a folks song feel. It was unlike anything most of the people in attendance had ever heard.

You can watch and listen to it here:

You’ll notice at the conclusion that there were few cheers, and lots of boos from the crowd. At first, Ernie Harwell was consumed with his duty as master of ceremonies as such for the pregame. He hustled to get from there to his spot in the press box where he would assist NBC Radio. Harwell had broadcast Games One and Two for NBC with Pee Wee Reese, and that tandem would work Games Six and Seven, but for the three middle games in Detroit, Ernie had no role as a broadcaster.

Immediately, Harwell knew there was a controversy over Feliciano’s performance. Some fans were jeering the singer as he left the field. In the press box, Harwell heard complaints from news reporters and a few members of the Tigers’ front office. In the days before Twitter and social media and cell phones, the outrage gained steam organically and slowly, but there was outrage.

The Tigers won Game Five, it’s one of the most historic victories in franchise history, featuring a famous play at home plate when left fielder Willie Horton threw out Lou Brock, with catcher Bill Freehan blocking the plate and applying the tag. The National Anthem was far from anyone’s mind at the time, as the Tigers clawed their way back in the series. But after the game and into the next few days, the critics came out.

Those who hated Feliciano’s performance were heated. Some of those folks were even in uniform.

St. Louis slugger Roger Maris, the man who had broken Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record earlier in the decade, was not impressed. “I dont think it was the proper place for that kind of treatment, maybe I’m a conservative,” Maris explained after Game Five.

Dick Hughes was a relief pitcher for the Cardinals, and he was perhaps most upset among the St. Louis team: “Thumbs all the way down,” Hughes said, “that’s a conformist song, it should be sung the way it was written.”

That’s the way many in American felt, it turns out. While American’s may not know all the words to the Anthem, and it’s certainly one of the more difficult songs to sing, most of them preferred a traditional performance. For many, it was a case of the 1960s counter-culture ruining an American institution.

“It sounded like a hippie was singing it,” said Bernie Gray, a Detorit fan in attendance.

Several editorials were written across the country, criticizing Feliciano, the music industry, the Detroit Tigers, and whoever it was who had the audacity “to put that folk singer on the field.” Harwell was in the crosshairs.

But not everyone was upset.

“Why not that way?”, said St. Louis catcher Tim McCarver, “people go through a routine when they play the Anthem: they stand up and yawn and almost fall asleep. This way at least they listened.”

The other catcher in the series had a reaction too.

“I know one thing. He made Marvin Gaye, who sang the anthem Sunday, sound like a square,” commented Freehan.

The Tigers’ switchboard received thousands of angry calls (apparently the victory had not quelled the anger of many fans). Here are a few comments that were submitted:

“What screwball gave permission to have the National Anthem desecrated by singing it in the jazzy, iffy manner that it was sung? It was disgrace and I sincerely hope that such a travesty will never be permitted again.”

And:

“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.”

In 1968 the United States was deeply divided over the war in Vietnam, over protests on campuses, over violence in the country. Earlier that year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had both been assassinated. It seemed like the country was being torn apart. Feliciano’s interpretation of the National Anthem was a push-button issue that triggered many in the country who felt the things they loved were under attack.

Feliciano couldn’t understand the anger. Born in Puerto Rico, his family had moved to Harlem when he was a small child. Facing tough times, he survived and followed his dream to become a citizen and to become a musician. He considered his rendition of the U.S. National Anthem as his gift to the country that had given him a chance.

“I just do my thing, what I feel. I was afraid people would misconstrue it and say I’m making fun of it. But I’m not. It’s the way I feel,” explained the singer.

There were two more games to play, both of which the Tigers won to complete their historic comeback to be crowned champions. But the controversy raged on, at least outside Detroit, where most fans forgot about it.

In the south, several states explored the idea of passing legislation that would force entertainers to perform the National Anthem in a traditional manner or face severe punishment. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon called it the rendition before Game Five “distasteful and inappropriate,” and he wished that “other countries wouldn’t have seen it.”

It got ugly too. In the following season there were people who hadn’t let go of their anger. Harwell received death threats at Tiger Stadium, and some people accused him of “probably [being] a draft dodger.” The 51-year old Harwell calmly explained that he had served in the United States Marines during World War II. The Tigers continued to receive negative reaction from their fans, at one point team owner John Fetzer admitted that the front office had taken more the 2,000 phone calls and the negative had outweighed the positive by a ratio of about 100-to-1.

Some people supported Harwell and Feliciano. In the month after the controversy, more than 10,000 copies of Feliciano’s rendition of the Anthem were sold in Detroit.

Harwell kept his job (thank goodness), the game of baseball survived, America survived. After initially seeing his music banned from some radio stations, Feliciano was even asked to sing the National Anthem many times in the future. As times changed, the attitude toward art and music and nationalism changed with it.

Though he never returned to sing the song at the World Series, Feliciano sang it at more than a dozen venues and in concerts. Before Game Two of the 2012 National League Championship Series in San Francisco, Feliciano performed a very similar version of the Anthem as the one from 1968 in Detroit. He received a standing ovation.

Most poignantly, Harwell had a hand in bringing the singer back to Detroit. After the famed broadcaster found out he was suffering from terminal cancer, the Tigers asked their most beloved employee if they could do anything. Among his requests, Harwell asked that José Feliciano be asked back to perform the National Anthem one more time. On May 10, 2010, six days after Harwell had died at the age of 92, the Tigers kept their promise. Feliciano performed the Anthem before the Tigers’ game that day and honored his old friend.

It turned out that Ernie Harwell and José Feliciano had changed some minds through that pre-game performance in the 1968 World Series.

“It was always sang very straight,” comedian and social commentator Robert Klein said during a special for MLB Network in 2014, “No one played loose and fast with it musically, no one interpreted it. No one explored it. The first one who had the guts to do it was … José Feliciano.” Since, many artists have interpreted the National Anthem in their unique ways.

If it hadn’t been for Ernie Harwell taking a chance on a young Puerto Rican singer fifty years ago during the 1968 World Series, America may have never heard Feliciano’s beautiful version and the many others that have followed.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.