Due for an encore: Feliciano deserves another chance to sing anthem
DETROIT -- People were struck by the fact Bob Seger sang "America the Beautiful" and not "The Star-Spangled Banner" before Game 1. There was no controversy, though, and Anita Baker delivered the traditional national anthem at Comerica Park last night before Game 2. Out in Las Vegas, Jose Feliciano paid close attention. "I heard Bob Seger sing 'America the Beautiful' before the first game, and I thought of Ray Charles and how great his version was," Feliciano said. "His was the best." Feliciano, 61, is following the 2006 series between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals with a lot of interest and a sense of irony. The great Hispanic singer is a huge baseball fan. "The Tigers had no offense going in that first game, just like the Yankees a few weeks ago," he said, speaking from his hotel room at the Orleans Hotel and Casino. "If they get their offense going again, the Tigers are a tough team to beat." But this series resonates with Feliciano on a level far deeper than just that of a passionate fan. It was here in Detroit, before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals, that the singer made history - and set off a hot controversy - with his version of the anthem. Feliciano, born blind because of congenital glaucoma, delivered a freelance, stylized rendition of the song. The 53,000 fans in the ballpark began to stir as he sang, and the phone lines at the ballpark, NBC and radio stations soon were jammed by angry callers. One radio station in St. Louis claimed to have received 200 negative calls in five minutes, and Tigers officials said they received 2,000 complaints in the first hour. The Cardinals scored three runs in the first inning that day off Tigers starter Mickey Lolich, who was upset that the start of the game was delayed by Feliciano's performance. "I was with [NBC analyst] Tony Kubek later in the game, and he said I had caused a controversy, that their phone lines were ringing off the hook," Feliciano said. "But Tony stuck by me and supported me. I made a friend that day in Tony Kubek." It wouldn't end at Tiger Stadium, though. This was October 1968, one of the most politically charged times of the 20th century in America. This was the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, of riots in cities, of protests against the Vietnam War, of a violent confrontation in the streets of Chicago between demonstrators and police at the Democratic National Convention. Feliciano, who scored a No. 1 hit that year with his soulful version of The Doors' "Light My Fire," felt the impact of the controversy on his career. "My records were put on hold by radio stations," Feliciano said. "I was having a hit at the time with 'High Heel Sneakers.' But it stopped, and I floundered for a while. It was tough." He later wrote the theme song for Freddie Prinze's hit television show "Chico and the Man" and went on to win six Grammy Awards and garner 45 gold and platinum records. Recently, he was honored by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation with a lifetime achievement award. And, despite the experience, Feliciano still loves baseball. "I really enjoy the game," he said. "I am so glad to hear that they are close to a new labor agreement. What happened to the game in 1994 [the players strike that ultimately canceled the postseason] was a tragedy." What happened to Jose Feliciano in 1968 was tragic in its own because two of his loves, his country and baseball, caused him so much pain. "I love my country, and I was just trying to really express it," said Feliciano, who moved from Puerto Rico to New York with his family when he was 5. "I sang the [anthem] with feeling and put a little gospel into it. People just weren't used to it then." Another performer who sang the anthem in that series - but before Feliciano's performance - was Marvin Gaye, who played it straight. Fifteen years later, Gaye delivered his own freelance, soulful version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the NBA All-Star Game, a version that since has become the standard for creative interpretations of the song. To sing the anthem at a baseball game was a dream come true for Feliciano, who grew up a Yankees fan. "I remember the trade they made to get Roger Maris," he said. "I was very much into baseball. It's one of the greatest games around." Before Game 5 of the 1968 Series, Feliciano, whose appearance had been set up by Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, went to the Detroit clubhouse and met some of the players. "I met Mickey Lolich, who was a wonderful guy, and Norm Cash and Mickey Stanley, and they were all great," he said. Then he took the field to sing, and his dream turned upside-down like many of the events of that turbulent year in America. "I think I was ahead of my time, but I have no regrets," Feliciano said. "I'm glad I did it." He came back in 2003 to sing the national anthem before Game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs and says he would happily return to Detroit to perform once more before Game 6 or 7. "I would love to do that," Feliciano said. The Tigers should consider it. After all, the Tigers trailed the Cardinals three games to one before Feliciano's controversial rendition. After he sang, they didn't lose a game.