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Decades after uproar, Feliciano beloved

Decades after uproar, Feliciano beloved

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DETROIT -- Jose Feliciano's last performance at a Tigers game almost got Ernie Harwell fired. His return on Monday, in a way, memorialized Harwell.

"Ernie would've loved it," former broadcaster Paul Carey said.

In the end, Feliciano loved it, too.

"This night was very special to me," Feliciano said.

Considering Harwell's legendary broadcasting career and the affection Detroit had for him, it's almost inconceivable that something like a national anthem performance nearly cost him all of that. But it says plenty to the time and the state of the nation when Feliciano took the field on that October afternoon.

Harwell liked the idea enough that one of his last wishes was for Feliciano come back to perform, 42 years after Harwell asked him to perform at Tiger Stadium. It was Harwell's choice for the 1968 World Series, since the Tigers put the broadcaster -- an accomplished songwriter back then -- in charge of the anthem singers for the games in Detroit.

Harwell booked popular performers Margaret Whiting and Marvin Gaye for Games 3 and 4 and went with an up-and-coming young artist for Game 5 in Feliciano, a Puerto Rico-born guitarist who first hit the charts that year with a laid-back version of The Doors' "Light My Fire."

It was a big deal to Feliciano, not just for the exposure, but for the meaning for someone who came to New York as a young child with his parents.

Harwell once recalled that the Tigers had asked him to ask Marvin Gaye to perform the anthem straight. They didn't do so with Feliciano, who was lesser-known at the time. Nobody knew the version he had in mind when he took the field with his guitar and his guide dog prior to Game 5.

"I was just interpreting the national anthem and doing it in a way that would bring it to people's attention," Feliciano said. "I got kind of tired of seeing people eating their popcorn at a ballgame, and as soon as the anthem came on, they were so in a hurry for the anthem to get over with so they could get on to the game, and I thought that was very disrespectful."

As it turned out, Feliciano's guitar-based, bluesy interpretation of the national anthem was believed to be one of the first times anybody deviated from the standard version at a public event. Suffice to say, it was not immediately appreciated as he intended, prompting a mixed reaction that Feliciano immediately sensed as he left the field.

"It was between a boo and a yea," Feliciano said. "If you ever get to hear the performance, you can hear the combination of boos and yeas. When I left the field, I said, 'What happened? What did I do?'"

The reaction at the stadium was mixed, but the feedback from television viewers calling into NBC was strongly negative. Feliciano didn't sense how strongly until he had returned to Las Vegas to rejoin his show.

"It didn't hit me until it was all over the news and all over the papers," Feliciano said.

Once it hit Feliciano, it was overwhelming. He was a 23-year-old musician with a budding career, and overnight, radio stations were taking his records off the air. He estimates his career was stunted for two or three years.

The music industry turned on Feliciano, but Harwell never did. He steadfastly defended the artist and his performance, saying he enjoyed it. Years later, Harwell collaborated with Feliciano on a song titled "They Ain't Heard Me Yet."

For that matter, some Tigers players didn't mind it. As Al Kaline pointed out, it became a rallying cry of sorts for the team, which overcame a 3-1 World Series deficit from there.

"When I met Ernie," Feliciano recalled, "it was a relationship that lasted for many, many years."

When he heard about Harwell's illness last year, Feliciano said he wished he could do something to help. He couldn't cure cancer, but as it turned out, he could honor one of his friend's last requests.

"It didn't take much coaxing," Feliciano said. "I wanted to be around for Ernie. I would have felt left out if I hadn't been asked. I was very glad that they asked me. Ernie was my friend. Anything I can do for the Harwells, I will do."

Feliciano hasn't performed the national anthem often in the decades since, but he has stayed true to his original version. He had no plans to change on Monday, either, when he took the field in front of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment Honor Guard from the United States Marine Corps.

Other than the pace, which seemed a little faster than in 1968, the interpretation was the same. Feliciano joked that he might have played faster because it was cold.

The reaction from the crowd was much different. It was a rousing ovation at Comerica Park -- partly to remember Harwell, no doubt, but also for Feliciano, now 65.

"I thought the fans were wonderful," Feliciano said. "Truthfully, I didn't know how they were going to react to me coming back. This was different. It was like saying, 'Hey, some of us are sorry for what happened then. We knew that what you did was a good thing.' And they let me know it tonight."

In a way, it's what Harwell would've wanted. Even in death, Harwell impacted some lives, including one talented performer.

"I'll always miss Ernie," Feliciano said. "I don't think someone who's been a big part of your life like that, you ever stop missing them. I will always miss him. He will always be a part of me, and not a day won't go by where I won't think of Ernie Harwell."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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