The Dallas Mavericks stopped playing the National Anthem before their home games. When news outlets reported this, the National Basketball Association proclaimed that all its teams must play the patriotic music before each game. That got me to thinking back to something I posted in 2017 and some other things since then. In slightly modified form, this is the post from April 23, 2017.

The Nationalism Pastime

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 adrenaline-boosting flyover by Air Force jets.

Of course these things don’t happen, but why not when such patriotic 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 along to 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. 

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, people labeled his rendition 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 and outrageous in 1968 is accepted or at least tolerated today, and now we have all sorts of “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 also get “God Bless America.” This started in the aftermath of 9/11. I went with the NBP to a Yankee game not too long 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 a big step. (Have you ever wondered why the Kars for Kids folks don’t tell us with any specificity what the money from the car sales goes 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 performed in the seventh inning, which I am told has happened at Baltimore Orioles games.

(concluded February 15)

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