Today is Opening Day for Major League Baseball! It’s time to revive the game day traditions, play catch, and warm up those voices. Why? Find our why we sing the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of sporting events, and why Marylanders hollar, “O!” every chance they get:

National pastime meets national anthem: 1918

As the story goes, Francis Scott Key wrote Defence of Fort McHenry as a poem, later set to music and known as the Star Spangled Banner, while being held aboard a British flagship in Baltimore Harbor. The War of 1812 was slowly coming to a close, and he had boarded to speak with the British General about a prisoner release. After hearing plans for the attack on Baltimore, he was detained until the end of the battle. The following morning, the American flag was flying high at Fort McHenry, and Key was inspired to write the poem.


One hundred years after the War of 1812, the US was embroiled in another war, one unparalleled in magnitude and violence – World War I – and it was taking it’s toll across the country. As such, the World Series in 1918 was not expected to be quite the event it typically was.

Out on the diamond at Comiskey Park, the Red Sox were short a few players who had already been drafted to fight. In fact, Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas was playing while on a Navy furlough, and Babe Ruth was preparing for his final postseason on the team. It was Game 1 of the World Series, the Chicago Cubs against the Boston Red Sox, baseball giants at the time, but the crowd was small and quiet.

Woodrow Wilson, in attendance, instructed the military band to play the Star Spangled Banner at some point during the game to honor fallen soldiers and wounded veterans. The band chose the seventh inning stretch, when spectators would already be standing. As the song began to play, Fred Thomas stood at a “rigid salute…while the hymn was played,” and other players followed suit, placing their hands over their hearts. The crowd’s energy surged, and fans began to join the singing.

According to the New York Times, “when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”

Noting this moment of fervent patriotism, the Cubs asked the band to play the song again during Game 2 and when the series moved to Boston, the Sox had it played before each game, and thus, solidified the tradition of playing the National Anthem before each game.

O! In O Say, Can You See?

Orioles fans have another layer of tradition to add to the singing of the National Anthem –  a stadium packed with fans shouting “O!” at the closing of the song. For those unfamiliar with the adaptation, the emphasis appears in the second-to-last line: “O! Say does that star spangled banner yet wave.”

The tradition began in 1979, in section 34 of Baltimore’s lost Memorial Stadium, with a group of fans called known as the Rowdies. Led by legendary Orioles fan, Wild Bill Hagy, they would enthusiastically spell out O-R-I-O-L-E-S, emphasizing the O, to cheer on the team.

Mary Powers, the fan who inserted this tradition into the National Anthem, recalled, “We would accentuate the ‘O’ in any word that would have an ‘O,’ and one night when they were playing the anthem, I thought, ‘There’s an ‘O!’ in this song,’ and the first time I did it, I remember people turning around and looking like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe she just did that.’” But Wild Bill took notice, and he had influence. He was so well-known for leading cheers that the Orioles eventually let him stand on the dugout. The next day, he repeated Mary’s alteration, and the change stuck.

Nearly forty years later, Marylanders do not limit themselves to singing at Orioles’ games. They can often be heard shouting “O!” at any and all sporting events across the country.

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This post was written by Maggie Pelta-Pauls, a Waxter Intern with Preservation Maryland. A graduate of The College of William and Mary, Maggie is primed to research and write about Maryland history – especially culinary history. Learn more about Maggie and our The Waxter Memorial Internship program here: