PHILADELPHIA — Years before Taylor Swift grew into the global superstar who has become the talk of this Super Bowl, she was just a young Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, singer happy to strum her guitar and perform as the opening act for the biggest sporting events in town. The U.S. Open. NASCAR. The World Series.
No messy ticket rollouts necessary.
Swift was tied to Francis Scott Key before Travis Kelce in her formative years, as the unsigned artist looked for any kind of break by belting out the national anthem in front of as many packed crowds as she could find.
She sent her demo tapes “everywhere,” she told Rolling Stone in 2008.
“When I was 11 years old, it occurred to me that the national anthem was the best way to get in front of a large group of people if you don’t have a record deal,” Swift said. “So I started singing the national anthem anywhere I possibly could.”
Swift had a Philadelphia Phillies connection early in her career — both major leagues and minor.
She sang the anthem before 45,900 fans at Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, a game the Phillies won on their way to their last championship. Tim McGraw — his name also the title of one of Swift’s early breakout hits — delivered the game ball. Swift joined other Philly luminaries Patti LaBelle and John Oates as 2008 World Series anthem singers.
Before that, Swift made the short drive from her six-bedroom home — roughly 5 miles —- for appearances at Reading Phillies Double-A games in 1999 and 2007.
She wore cowboy boots and a knit hat for her April 5, 2007, anthem, with some of the most famous names in the minors on hand for opening day. She played a stripped-down version of the song on the grass behind home plate as mascots Change-Up the Turtle, Blooper the Hound Dog and Bucky the Beaver solemnly stood with their right forepaws and other appendages on their prodigious chests. Swift triumphantly waved to the crowd alongside Screwball, his “R” cap askew and appropriately signature red tongue draped past his chin.
Baseball fans in the area saved some serious cash in those days to catch Swift in concert — even if just a one-song set. But who would ever expect as teams at all levels churn through anthem singers night after night that one would pop as an eventual 14-time Grammy winner, including a four-time winner for album of the year?
Rob Hackash worked for Reading in various departments, notably as director of communications, for 21 years. He said this week that Swift was a standout at the mic, even at such a young age.
“To borrow an old scout’s phrase, she had some mound presence,” he said.
Hackash said the team mostly worked through Swift’s family, including her parents Scott and Andrea, to snag an appearance.
“My memories are all fond of the Swifts in general,” Hackash said. “(Her dad) wanted her singing the anthem in front of a crowd. Her first Reading game was kind of a stepping stone to get something on tape to send to the Sixers. That was kind of the reason they came to us. I always remember Scott as a good dude, good dad. She kind of took it from there and eventually did end up with the Sixers.”
Swift got the call for the big time and sang the anthem at an April 5, 2002, Sixers game. Allen Iverson did not play in that one but Swift was there at 12 years old, dressed in an American flag sweatshirt and headband at center court in front of 20,754 fans.
The 76ers presented Swift with duffel bags full of souvenirs, including a jersey signed by members of the team.
“My mom and I were just jumping up and down we were so excited,” Swift told The Reading Eagle for an April 19, 2002, story. “I just really love doing that sort of thing. It is an adrenaline rush.”
How big of a step up for her career were the Sixers? The month before, The Reading Eagle noted Swift did another rendition of the anthem, only at Wyomissing High School for a basketball game between school faculty and members of the community.
Former Sixers manager of game operations Kathy Drysdale said in 2002 that Swift’s voice caught her attention immediately on a tape submitted by Scott Swift.
“Her voice is so strong and powerful at 12 years old,” Drysdale said. “You look at her and think, ‘Did that come out of her mouth?‘”
Swift nailed the performance.
Matt Cord has been the voice of the 76ers as their public address announcer since 1998. He quickly pulled up a picture on his phone of a young Swift singing the anthem at the Wells Fargo Center when asked about her and remembered specific instructions he had for her introduction.
“She was from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania and I didn’t know that town,” Cord said from his courtside seat. “Her dad was right here and he goes, ‘Just say Reading.’ So I went with Reading. We introduced her as a country star from Reading.”
The Reading Eagle story ended on a hopeful note, where writer Jeremy Carroll noted, “Last month, the Swifts traveled to Nashville, where they distributed (her) CD to record companies in the hope of landing a record deal.”
Oh, she signed that deal — and so much more in the years ahead. But her career was still in its infancy — Swift dropped her debut album late in 2006 — when she returned to Reading for the anthem, much to the delight and surprise of the organization.
“At this point, the first album was already out, it was already huge,” Hackash said. “I kind of realized, this was a big deal. We had players from all different parts of the country and those guys, like the Texas kids, the South Carolina kids, they knew darn well who she was. They knew the ‘Tim McGraw’ song, they knew her. I was like, this has exceeded our little area here. By a lot.”
Swift hasn’t forgotten her Pennsylvania stadium roots, of course.
Only now she can cause a fan frenzy as she fills Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles, as she did for three nights last May. Swift gave a shoutout to the Eagles one night — “Guys, like, c’mon. I’m from Philly, ” she told the crowd — though her alliance now is clearly with Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs.
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