Among the many joys I have always loved about attending baseball games have been the rituals of standing for the singing (or playing) of the National Anthem before the start of the game and for the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the middle of the seventh inning (for the traditional seventh-inning stretch).
As anthems go, I’m not especially enamored of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s very difficult to sing, and its lyrics, while beautiful, are often botched by the singers who struggle enough to hit the tune’s high notes, let alone to correctly sing the poetic words (“gave proof,” not “truth” “through the night”) that celebrate the survival of the flag in that naval assault on Fort McHenry in 1812.
But as the country’s national anthem (since 1931), it has been the hymn that has preceded the opening of play in most sporting events in the U.S. for over 75 years. And, since baseball has been recognized as the national pastime for most of those years, the singing or playing of the anthem has become an essential part of every ballgame, as integral to each as the shape of the field and the rules of the game.
Baseball nut that I am, I don’t consider that I have arrived at a game on time unless I am at my seat for the anthem. And, although I have waxed and waned in my sense of patriotic fervor over the years, I have never had a problem with the implicit requirement to stand and remove my cap during the rendition that precedes every first pitch.
And I have no less sense of reverence for the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which Jack Norworth penned in 1908. I love the song, evoking, as it does, images of an earlier time (when games were played in sunlight and attending them was the equivalent of playing hooky or skipping out on work). And I’m not ashamed to say that I cherish the ritual of standing with everyone else in the ballpark to sing the song’s simple lyrics (“For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ballgame”).
But both of those traditions, of standing before the game starts for the National Anthem and of standing in the middle of the seventh inning to sing “buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,” have been effectively sullied by the intrusion of a new “stand up (and gentlemen please remove your caps)” moment during every game.
I’m referring, of course, to the singing of “God Bless America” in the middle of the seventh inning. With increasing frequency it is replacing the Norworth tune in some ballparks and preceding it in others. I regard it as a sacrilege to both the country it supposedly honors and to the hallowed game on which it intrudes.
The song, written by Irving Berlin in 1918, became a signature piece for Kate Smith (the rotund singer) in the 1940s. Ms. Smith belted out the closing line (“… my home sweet home”) with a gusto that rivaled the best of Ethel Merman, giving the song its greatest popularity. It was, quite literally, her signature song.
Following Ms. Smith’s retirement, however, the song found its way to obscurity, occasionally revived by a chanteuse who thought it might boost her career, but otherwise pretty much ignored as stale kitsch, in a country that was more inclined to question God’s presence than to link Him to love of country.
But with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the song struck a chord of patriotism that matched the zeal with which many Americans embraced the flag (lapel pins and all), and George Steinbrenner, principal owner of the New York Yankees, thought to have the Irish tenor, Ronan Tynan, sing it at a ballgame a few weeks after the attacks. Tynan had a perfect voice for the song, and he sang it with such great emotion that it soon became a favorite for the fans of New York’s time-honored baseball team.
And thus was a new tradition born. Every Yankee home game now includes “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. Suddenly, many singers, from rappers to crooners, consider it a notable point in their careers to be invited to sing the song at Yankee Stadium. This year, the Dodgers have also adopted the practice, and it is sung before the Norworth song during every seventh inning stretch at Dodger Stadium.
I hate it. Not the song. It’s okay as patriotic songs go. I’m not real big on the overly sentimental lyrics with the implicit religious overtone, but I can live with it as a concert song, part of an artist’s repertoire if that’s what he or she thinks works in his or her show. I just hate the intrusion of it into my game and my seventh inning stretch.
I hate being told to stand and remove my cap for this pretender. Hey, it isn’t the National Anthem (it was proposed to replace “The Star Spangled Banner” during World War II, but the effort was rejected by Congress), and it is insulting to the National Anthem to accord it that kind of respect.
It also isn’t a way to honor the traditions and history of the game, which is much more an American institution than that song will ever be. The game has been changed enough by silly rules like the designated hitter and ill-conceived playoff formats that include “wild card” teams. The last thing the game needs is a new seventh inning stretch tradition.
And I’m apparently not alone in my disgust over the attempts to usurp baseball’s cherished traditions. At Yankee Stadium recently, a fan was literally kicked out of the ball park for having the temerity to leave his seat to use the rest room during the singing of “God Bless America” in the seventh inning stretch. Ushers escorted the impertinent fan from the stadium for violating the sanctity of the song and, apparently, for being unpatriotic.
The fan is suing the Yankees, and I’m rooting for him.