Robert Merrill, star of opera and Yankee Stadium, dies at 87

Updated: October 26, 2004, 5:00 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Robert Merrill, the opera baritone who felt equally comfortable on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera House or opening day at Yankee Stadium, has died.

Merrill died Saturday at his home in suburban New York City, family friend Barry Tucker said Monday. Reference books gave conflicting ages for Merrill, 87 or 85.

Merrill, once described in Time magazine as "one of the Met's best baritones," became as well-known to New York Yankees fans for his season-opening rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- a tradition that began in 1969.

In his 31 consecutive seasons with the Metropolitan Opera, Merrill performed virtually every baritone role in the operatic repertoire.

Merrill's lifelong enthusiasm for baseball led to his long tenure at Yankee Stadium, where he sang the national anthem on opening day for three decades.

Merrill was a longtime "friend, Yankees fan and close associate of the Yankees, and we dearly miss him," team spokesman Howard Rubenstein said.

"His voice became synonymous with the stadium and with our team," said New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner. "I extend my deepest sympathies to his family, and they should know he was an icon. We will all miss him deeply."

Merrill, who often appeared in a pinstriped shirt and tattered Yankees necktie, performed the same duty for the Yankees during the World Series, the playoffs and at Old-timers' Day.

He took the job seriously and once said he didn't appreciate when singers tried to ad lib with "distortions."

"When you do the anthem, there's a legitimacy to it," Merrill told Newsday in 2000. "I'm bothered by these different interpretations of it."

Growing up in Brooklyn, Merrill was first inspired by music as a teenager when he saw a Metropolitan Opera performance of "Il Trovatore." The young baritone paid for singing lessons with extra money he earned as a semipro pitcher.

Merrill is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and his grandchildren, Tucker said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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