The playing of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a sporting event is a special moment for any American athlete.
But when the national anthem is played at a racetrack, it means a little more to Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires racer Aaron Telitz for a special reason.
Telitz’s maternal great-grandfather, Fred Thomas, is largely responsible for the song’s role in honoring America at sporting events, according to written accounts and Telitz family lore.
“I didn’t really know the story until I was a teenager,” said Telitz, a 25-year-old racer from Birchwood, Wisconsin. “Once I learned of it, then it was really cool. It didn’t really stick with me until I got really more involved in racing.”
Telitz is one of the few drivers to win on all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper tires – the driver and team development stepladder sanctioned by INDYCAR – and has raced with an American flag next to his name on cars throughout his career, including as a member of Team USA in England in 2014.
Though he never met his great-grandfather, who died a few years before Telitz was born, and doesn’t consider himself an expert on the story, the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires champion still knows enough to appreciate the role his family had in creating a modern-day sporting tradition.
“My great-grandfather was in the Navy and was also playing professional baseball (for the Boston Red Sox),” says Telitz, driving this season for Belardi Auto Racing in Indy Lights. “He was stationed in Chicago and was given furlough during the World Series to play for the Red Sox when they played the Cubs at Comiskey Park.”
The Cubs played their World Series games that year at the home of the rival White Sox because Comiskey Park held more than twice as many fans as what was then called Weeghman Park – now Wrigley Field – that had a capacity of 14,000.
Thomas was part of Boston’s opening-day roster in 1918 as a rookie utility infielder and played 44 games before leaving in July to enlist in the Navy. He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago to study seamanship and helped the station’s team win the Navy championship. Thomas was granted permission from the military to return to the Red Sox, who didn’t hesitate to insert him into the starting lineup for Game 1 of the World Series.
Boston’s star player at the time was a guy by the name of Babe Ruth, but the “Bambino” was an ace pitcher at the time before he would be sold to the New York Yankees after the 1918 season. Ruth fired a 1-0 shutout win in the opening game of the series. As was common at sporting events of the time, a military band played between innings.
“It was kind of a boring game and the band decided to strike up ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ during the seventh-inning stretch,” Telitz said, retelling the story passed down generations. “My great-grandpa was at third base, where he usually played, and he immediately snapped to attention and saluted the flag. All of the other players and fans around him followed suit with their hands over their hearts and started singing along.
“Because it was wartime, it was a big deal that day, and so they did it for the next game. When the series went back to Boston, the Red Sox decided to have a band play the song at the beginning of the games. The rest is history.”
The Red Sox, led Ruth’s standout play, won the World Series in six games, their last championship for 86 years.
Thomas, a defensive stopper, was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics the following season and played two more years in the major leagues. He bounced around the minors for a few more seasons before he retired from professional baseball in 1924 and moved back to his native Wisconsin.
An outdoor enthusiast, Thomas opened the Fred Thomas Resort, a fishing camp on Big Lake Chetac in northwest Wisconsin, where he would put down roots and raise a family. Thomas’ descendants – including Telitz’s mother, Julie Thomas-Telitz, and Aaron’s brother Ted – operate the resort that is still family-owned today.
Aaron grew up at the Fred Thomas Resort and his first job as a boy was cleaning fish for guests, a job he still performs today when he visits. He still has great memories of his summers at the lake and the man who made it possible. The photo of Telitz draped in the American flag above was taken at Road America, his home track in Wisconsin.
“The Fred Thomas Resort has a huge Fourth of July picnic every year, where we invite all the guests, and serve a huge smorgasbord of food from hot dogs and hamburgers to all kinds of salads to ice cream and cake,” Telitz said. “We’re pretty patriotic up there and proud of the heritage of my great-grandfather.
“It’s just a special moment to hear the national anthem whether it’s before a race or on the podium.”
Indy Lights, the top level of the Mazda Road to Indy, returns to action Sunday at Iowa Speedway with a 100-lap race on the 0.894-mile oval. The race starts at 3 p.m. ET and streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Read an espn.com story about the history of the national anthem at sporting events, written in 2011, here.