I've wanted to write about Wayne Messmer for a long while, but never have quite gotten around to it, in large part because his story is so gentle, yet notable to tell. And also because I haven't found precisely the right videos to show why I like him so much. Then I came across a short video called "The Wayne Messmer" story, and it tells the story so nicely that I can let it speak for itself, and not worry about screwing it up. Instead, I can just give the background and some general highlights.
Wayne Messmer was the field announcer for the Chicago Cubs. In addition to that, he sang the National Anthem before many of the games, and sang it as well before the Chicago Blackhawks game and other sporting events around town. That's because it's, at least for my taste, one of the best versions I've heard. There's nothing flashy or flamboyant about it -- it's pretty straightforward (which I like, though that alone is not enough to make it so enjoyable) -- but he adds the right emphasis and modulates moments with power and quiet, with just slight touches of flourish when the slightest flourish is called for by the words and music in the very last line.
Jim Cornelison has become the face of Chicago anthem singing, performing his big, booming semi-operatic version before famously-cheering Blackhawks hockey fans who roar at the top of their lungs through the entire song. But not only do I find his take on the anthem much too bombastic and not as vibrantly "operatic" as it appears on the surface, but what's forgotten is that it actually was a performance by Wayne Messmer, not Cornellison who came later, before a Blackhawks game when the fans roared through it for the first time, that began the tradition.
And by the way, as much as I like Messmer's version of the National Anthem, it's the rendition he periodically sings with his wife Kathleen who joins him before about half a dozen Cubs game that I like the most. It's a gorgeously-arranged version in harmony for two voices, where Wayne graciously takes the background harmony and lets his wife sing lead, that to me just soars. They don't sing it regularly, but in large part that's what makes it so special.
And none of this is why Wayne Messmer's story is so special.
The short version -- and I'll let the video go into detail -- is that a few years back, Wayne Messmer was shot in the throat. It wasn't that people didn't think he'd sing again, it wasn't even that people didn't think he alight even talk again, or walk, it's that there wasn't certainty that he'd live.
But he survived. And he gained back all of his abilities, still sings and, although the Cubs have a new field announcer, Wayne Messmer still sings the National Anthem before most of the Cubs games at Wrigley Field -- joined on occasion by his wife -- and around town at other sporting events. And Chicago sports fans love him for it. He's an icon. And to people who know his story -- and it's more than he "just" got shot in the throat (if that wasn't enough), but the aftermath, as well, and how he handled it all -- he's that and more. I don't want to give it away, it's all too moving and think it's best for his words to tell it.
I have some examples of his highlights to come, but first, here's the story --
Okay, and here is the first video of Wayne Messmer singing the National Anthem at Wrigley Field before a Cubs game. The audio quality if fine, though it doesn't give the full richness and subtleties that a better recording would provide. As I said, not finding a great example was one of the reasons I've held off writing this. But it's a good version, does him justice, and you'll understand how wonderful he is.
There's nothing showy about he rendition,, nothing flashy, but...it's just...well, right.
And yes, this was performed after the shooting. Well after, in fact, only two years ago. As you'll hear -- he's in glorious voice. Still.
This next is a version of Wayne & Katheen Messmer singing the National Anthem. And as I said, their rendition is my favorite of all. And perhaps more than anything, it's one of the reasons I've delayed writing this, because as much as I love their performance, I haven't found even close to a proper video of it. In fact, for a long time, I couldn't even find any version of it, and so I held off. But I finally caught it on my own MLB GameDay account and converted it for uploading here. The intricate harmonies of their arrangement are so wonderful and so subtle throughout (for instance, on the line, "what so proudly we hailed," Wayne, in the background, starts to go up the scale on the word "proudly" through the end of the phrase), modulation and texture throughout, and you hear how joyous the two of them are together.
Finally, this is probably the most-famous version of the National Anthem in Chicago -- and probably in the National Hockey League, as well.
For the past 25 years, Chicago Blackhawk fans have a tradition of ROARING through the National Anthem before every game, and it's considered of the more stirring occurrences in the league, if not all of sport. It's possible you've even seen it, since the Blackhawks have been on national television a lot over the past quarter century, particularly recently as they've won three Stanley Cup championships in the last five years.
The tradition began in 1991 when Chicago hosted that year's All Star Game. As it happened, the United States had just entered the Gulf War, and so there was a patriotic fervor in the nation. And the moment the words and music began, the fans started to ROAR, and it got louder and didn't stop for the full two minutes. And since that night, it's become the tradition to do the same before every Blackhawk game.
In recent years, Jim Cornelison has become the voice of the Blackhawks, and his is a big, bombastic version that lends itself to the roaring, complete with an effective hand gesture to the flag on the line, "And the flag was still...there!" But as much as he might be identified with the cheering through the song, it wasn't Jim Cornelison who sang the National Anthem the first time that happened, that began the tradition.
It was Wayne Messmer. Which, though his name is not announced on this video, you can hear clearly.
And this is that moment.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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