It is always moving when the audience stands before the opera begins and sings the national anthem. My patriotism overflows when the movie is paused at the two-thirds mark to allow us to sing “God Bless America.” And it is thrilling that every outdoor bluegrass concert I have attended starts with an adrenalin-boosting flyover by Air Force jets.
Of course these things don’t happen, but why not when such performances and displays are routine occurrences at sporting events? Why is it that nationalism is a part of baseball, football, and NASCAR, but not “cultural” performances? Is it thought that operagoers differ in patriotic fervor from a Minnesota Vikings crowd? If the cultural audience cares less about our country, isn’t that all the more reason to have “The Star Spangled Banner” before Lohengrin in hopes of increasing national identity? And if the opera audience is already patriotic, surely they would want to sing the national anthem.
I have never researched the history of the national anthem at sporting events, but a law professor of mine, Harry Kalven, a devoted Chicago Cubs fan even during the decades when you had to be a bit meshugganah to be a Cubs follower, said that it started during World War II. That seems likely, and I guess that once a patriotic ritual starts, it seems unpatriotic for it to end. Thus, we continue to hear the Anthem before the first pitch and now at every sporting event. (In the trivia question department: How many times did Pat Pieper hear “The Star Spangled Banner”? How many of those days did the Cubbies lose? I don’t know the answer to either question, other than to say, many, many, many times.)
The national anthem may have been played at sporting events since WWII, but its performance style has changed. Once we had only straightforward renditions that zipped right along. For example, for years “The Star Spangled Banner” was performed by Robert Merrill at Yankee Stadium—sometimes live and sometimes on a recording (occasionally nowadays a Merrill recording is still used). It clocked in at under two minutes. Now we regularly have versions that seem to be in a contest to see how slowly and with what added emotion the anthem can be sung. Soulful interpretations of the song have been traced back to a particular moment—Marvin Gaye’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Since then we have had many take-your-time idiosyncratic versions of it. (Gaye’s version was over two-and-a-half minutes long.) For me, however, it really started with Jose Feliciano at the fifth game of the 1968 World Series. I thought his version was moving and made me hear the song anew, but to many it was offensive because this dark-skinned, blind guy had the nerve to sing it with a fresh insight and in a non-standard style.
Feliciano’s version did not inspire copycats, however, because his career was damaged by it. For incomprehensible reasons, his rendition got him labeled unpatriotic and disrespectful, and many radio stations refused to play any of his songs after that. (Question for your history discussion: Is there more division and hate in the country now, or was there more in 1968?) Feliciano’s version, while slower than Merrill’s, was faster than Gaye’s at a little over two minutes. (A joke my father told me which was not stale back then. A Latino boy new to the United States made his way to the stadium for a game. The only seat he could get was in the distant centerfield bleachers under the American flag. He knew no one and was feeling lonely, but he felt welcomed when everyone before the game began, stood, looked at him, and sang, “Jose, can you see?”) What was shocking, outrageous in 1968 is accepted or at least tolerated today, and now we have all these “modern” arrangements of our patriotic hymn. (What does it mean about the connection between patriotism and sporting events that you can place bets on how long the national anthem will take at the Super Bowl? Perhaps to the surprise of many, the under has won the majority of times in the last ten years.)
And now at baseball games we get “God Bless America.” This started in the aftermath of 9/11. I went with the daughter to a Yankee game not too much after the attacks, and that was the first time I heard it, in the recorded performance by Kate Smith, during the seventh inning. (I wonder how many there recognized her voice. You have to be my age to remember her fifteen-minute TV show.) That made perfect sense then, as did the delay of a different ball game that autumn to hear a speech by President Bush. And, as I said, once started, it is hard to stop a patriotic ritual.
I probably object more than most to “God Bless America.” Baseball games drag on long enough without the song, which does hamper the between-inning routines of the game. Of course, they could get rid of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which comes right after the patriotic song, but since I go to the park for baseball rituals, I want to hear “Root, root, root for the home team.” (Never, never, never get rid of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” which plays at a different time in the game. Love it.) Perhaps I would object less if I did not find “God Bless America” so insipid. The best I can say is that it is a step up from the Kars for Kids song, but not much. (Have you ever wondered why the Kars for Kids folks don’t tell us what the money is for?) As a kid, well before I understood its left-wing political implications, I thought “This Land Is Your Land” was a much better song (still do), and I would be happier if at least some of the time, it were to be performed in the seventh inning. (Kudos to the Baltimore Orioles.)
This, of course, is nothing compared to what happens at the Super Bowl. I was only paying partial attention to the run-up to that game as I was preparing dinner for the wife and the daughter (I am a modern guy), but I heard portions of what seemed like a five minute narration by Johnny Cash about the flag, and there was a trio singing, I think, “America the Beautiful,” and then a sprightly version of the national anthem, followed by the flyover when military jets fly in close formation low over the stadium just as the national anthem ends.
I have no idea when the flyover ritual started. I am always amazed by it. How can the timing be so precise? My most memorable flyover was combined with another patriotic display, the flight of Challenger. This Challenger is a bald eagle, and I have seen him in action a number of times at Yankee Stadium. My memory is that the bird was originally released outside the stadium during the national anthem and would fly to the pitcher’s mound or home plate where he would land on his handler’s wrist. As time went on, Challenger would be released from right in front of the center field fence for his flight to the infield. It is magnificent seeing an eagle fly in the wild, and I always found Challenger’s flight nearly as thrilling. The last time I saw him (I say “him,” but I don’t know if the eagle is male or female), however, was different. It was a playoff or World Series game because the rosters of both teams had been announced and were lined up on the first and third baselines. Challenger was flying in from the outfield as the National Anthem was concluding, and then the flyover came. This time the planes flew really low. I was in the fourth row of the upper deck, and my knees buckled a bit from the vibrations. (How do the residents of the Bronx respond to this patriotic display? Many must not know it’s coming, and perhaps think New York City is under attack again.) Challenger was not prepared for this. He had been about to land on his handler’s wrist, but the jets seemed to almost knock him out of the air. It was as if he hit an air pocket, and he dropped like a stone for ten feet. He then seemed disoriented. He flew around the lower deck and returned to the playing field where he had Derek Jeter and other players ducking out of his way. He did not land on his handler. He finally just settled on the infield grass and appeared very sad and discombobulated. His handler had to walk over and collect him.
Is there truly a connection between such patriotic rituals and the sports events that follow? This question brings back a memory of Rocky Graziano, who won and lost the middleweight championship within a year during the heyday of boxing. After retiring he wrote an autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me, which appealed to my schoolboy fantasies and was made into a successful movie starring Paul Newman. Later, he did the talk show circuit regularly telling amusing stories in heavy Brooklynese. On one of them he said that he hated “The Star Spangled Banner.” Merv Griffiin or Mike Douglas or whoever looked at him incredulously and said, “Why?” Graziano replied quite logically, “I knew that whenever the national anthem was over, someone was going to try to knock me unconscious.”