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Trumpet player Jim Doepke is believed to be the only person to have performed the national anthem at all 30 MLB stadiums.
Thirteen years ago, when I was only a few seasons into my career as a sportswriter, I took my seat in the press box in Viera, Fla., for a Nationals spring training game against I don’t remember who. I remember nothing from that game except for the man who played the trumpet right before it began.
2009 was long before anyone thought to kneel during the national anthem, but truth be told, I always had some misgivings about “The Star-Spangled Banner” being played before sporting events. First of all, it’s a poor choice for our anthem, in my opinion, because it’s a bloody, stilted poem about bombs bursting in air. I’ve always thought that the purple mountains majesty of “America the Beautiful” would make for a better tone setter for our country.
Second, the song is damn near impossible to sing well. There was one point when I was working for ESPN that I attended so many sporting events a year I must have heard the song sung live 200 times per annum. Twenty-five percent of those singers messed up a word or two. Seventy-five percent butchered at least one note. And don’t get me started on the auteurs who go out there and sing the correct words to an entirely different melody. For someone like me who feels mortification by proxy whenever others humiliate themselves, I often find myself holding my breath and walking the concourses when “Oooooooh saaaaaay” floods through the stadium loudspeakers so I don’t have to watch.
But that day back in 2009 was different. Onto the infield walked a man and his trumpet. And he proceeded to play the most beautiful version of “The Star Spangled Banner” I’d heard since Whitney Houston’s famous Super Bowl rendition. (Quite frankly, if they’re going to insist on playing this song before every U.S. sporting event until the end of time, they should just fire up Houston’s recording because it will never be topped).
The trumpet player in question was named Jim Doepke. I’d never met him before, nor did I think I’d ever talk to him again after that day. I simply sent a tweet complimenting him on a well-played anthem in which every note was pure and true and poignant and simple. I had no idea that tweet would spark a friendship that would last 13 years and counting, and give me a front row seat to Doepke’s decade-plus-long attempt to crisscross the country on his own dime and convince every MLB team to let him play the anthem in their stadiums on a trumpet he’s used since junior high school.
I wanted to share his story with you because it gives me hope in a time when I’m grasping at any slivers of it. Doepke is not rich or connected to powerful people or a former “American Idol” finalist. He does not sound or look like the over-singing ingenues that are usually trotted out to perform the anthem before every game. He’s just a normal dude who had a silly goal that turned into his white whale. And as far as we can tell, he’s now the only person to perform the anthem at all 30 current MLB stadiums.
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Doepke, 70, grew up in the Milwaukee area and taught music to fifth through 12th graders for 33 years, including the high school band. A huge Brewers fan, he began bringing his trumpet along with him to old Milwaukee County Stadium in the ’90s. At first he just played “Charge” along with the organist, to the amusement of a few people sitting around him. But his legend among Brewers fans grew.
“I was playing my trumpet under the press box and it got to kind of be a crowd favorite with people buying me beers,” Doepke says. “Then this guy with the Brewers gave me his card and I thought I was in trouble. But it turned out they loved the trumpet so much they wanted to provide me with tickets.”
The Brewers invited Doepke to play the national anthem on the field for the first time right after their new stadium, Miller Park, opened—which was just before 9/11. “I was very nervous but it wound up being one of the best experiences of my life and it kind of sent me on this path,” Doepke says.
The first away stadium he ever got to play? Fenway Park—but not before his first try got rained out. With two stadiums under his belt, he thought other gigs might come easily. They did not.
One stroke of luck was the fact that he and his wife of 49 years, Liz, moved to Estero, Fla., after he retired from teaching in 2007. Being in Florida gave Doepke the ability to drive to half of MLB’s spring training facilities and effectively audition before lower-stakes exhibition games. “I think when I approached a lot of these teams about playing the anthem before a major league game, these people were thinking, ‘OK, is he gonna pretend like he’s Dizzy Gillespie or what?’” he recalls. “So I thought if I could just play the anthem in front of some team officials in Jupiter or Port St. Lucie or Viera before spring training and I didn’t mess it up too terribly, maybe they’d give me a shot in the big leagues.”
His quest to play every MLB stadium became a bit of a mad-dash, cross-country scavenger hunt. Was there a team with an anthem singer who dropped out last minute? He was always on the road, and he could figure out a way to drive all night and fill in if he had to. Did some stadium worker know someone who knew someone else with another team who could vouch for him? His phone was always on.
The road was not without hiccups. Midway through his quest he says now he did not think he would make it. He was told that playing Angel Stadium was impossible because the Angels don’t allow instrumentalists to play the anthem before games. That wound up not being a problem, however, when he convinced the Angels to let him play the anthem to an empty stadium while the team was away in Toronto.
Like a lot of teams, the St. Louis Cardinals tried to get him to sell 250 tickets to the game in “exchange” for letting him perform the anthem. He found a way around that requirement, too.
Certain memories stand out. “Some places shuffle you in and out really fast,” he says. “The Giants’ pre-game ceremonies are really important with how they honor veterans, and it felt great to be a part of that—Yankee Stadium, too.”
After playing the national anthem at Dodger Stadium and leaving the field, Doepke says Tommy Lasorda approached him and said, “Now that’s a Hall of Fame national anthem.” Three years later, Lasorda’s words proved prophetic when Doepke played at the Hall of Fame before the Cooperstown Classic game.
There are other fond memories, too.
“I think the biggest, loudest crowd was in Philly. Forty-five thousand people on their feet from even before the game started gave me goosebumps,” he says. Padres fans at Petco Park in San Diego were probably the nicest to him, he says as he looks back on it now . He also loved meeting the U.S. men’s Olympic gymnastics team when they threw out the first pitch before a Diamondbacks game in Phoenix.
The last stadium for Doepke to cross off his list was the Braves’ new ballpark in Cobb County, Ga., which opened in 2017. Before he played the anthem there in September of 2019, the announcer was supposed to mention that Doepke had finally completed his quest to play all 30 MLB stadiums. But the announcer forgot. “So that was a bummer,” Doepke says with a laugh. “But I know I did it even if no one else does.”
The other person who for sure knows what Doepke did is his wife, Liz, who has been with him every step of his journey. The two will be married 50 years on Aug. 12.
“She’s supported me through all this craziness,” he says. “And she’s the one who took all the pictures.”
Doepke may have completed his 30-stadium odyssey, but his anthem playing days are far from over. He still returns to Milwaukee to perform once a year, and keeps himself busy playing the anthem before sporting events at Florida Gulf Coast University, which is just up the road from where he and Liz live. He estimates he’s already performed the anthem 30 times or so this year, including at a special alumni basketball event for his alma mater, the University of Kansas.
Over all these decades of performing, Doepke says he’s only been paid for his time once. “I made $125 for one anthem and then I had to pay taxes on it,” he says with a laugh.
When I asked Doepke why he set out on this crazy adventure 20 years ago with no way of knowing how he’d ever complete it, he said the anthem always meant something to him because his father is a World War II veteran who loved hearing the song. When he plays it in strange places now, Doepke often envisions playing it for his dad.
But there’s another, more practical reason he undertook this adventure.
“I needed something to do after I retired,” Doepke says. “I always enjoyed the challenge and chase of It, even if other people couldn’t understand.”