On patriotism in its proper baseball place

2019-04-22 KateSmithCBS
Kate Smith at the height of her radio career.

The skirmish over the Yankees turning Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” off, until they can verify she wasn’t the racist a particular 1931 recording of hers has people today believing, should also have us thinking about things aside from dubious retroactive punishment for dubious retroactive charges of racism. Whether it does, of course, is something else again.

Let’s get this one out of the way: Kate Smith has never been a particular music interest of mine. My taste (and preference as the musician I just so happen to be, as a guitarist and lately, too, as a self-teaching vibraphonist) inclines far more to blues and jazz, and Smith was about as much of a blues or jazz singer as Miles Davis was a pan flute virtuoso.

When I wrote about the hoopla a couple of days ago I cited the television critic Tom Shales, who observed that kids who grew up hearing Smith “privately felt that this is what Mom would sound like, if only Mom could sing.” It prompted me to remember my own late mother singing in the shower and sounding as though being tickled on the soles of her bare feet while doing it, which is just about the way Smith’s voice sounds to me whenever I hear it.

As a concurrent lover of classic network radio from its infancy through the era’s commonly acknowledged death in 1962 (I have a personal collection of sixteen thousand plus surviving such radio shows), I’m aware of Smith’s popularity on the air, though little enough of her radio work seems to have survived the era in the way that such as Fibber McGee & Molly, Jack Benny, Lux Radio Theater, Suspense, and Gunsmoke have done. Those and more such survivals than you might believe allow the curious and the enthusiast alike to listen, learn, and, yes, stand athwart nostalgia, yelling “Art!”

But I’m also aware that Smith leveraged her own popularity during World War II to become one of radio’s most effective at delivering the goods when it came to promoting war bonds buying. She’s believed responsible for inspiring around six hundred million dollars worth of war bonds buying, never mind that no one has written a book addressing it specifically as compared to the delightful offering by Mickey Cohen (no relation to the mob legend), How Fibber McGee & Molly Won World War II.

Clearly Kate Smith has patriotic cred to burn. Just as clearly, the very idea of purging her signature recording of “God Bless America” from anywhere equals replacing Washington, Jefferson, (Theodore) Roosevelt, and Lincoln atop Mount Rushmore to an awful lot of people.

That the Yankees elect to think about it on the so far unverifiable ground that she was herself a racist—it’s based on her 1931 recording of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” a song known to have satirised racism—falls into place with the contemporary itch to punish and purge ancient disgraces regardless of whether the offender renounced or transcended them in later years.

Last year, in light of the still-festering take-the-knee protests upon sounding “The Star Spangled Banner” before football games, and the National Football League’s then-announced formal rule requiring players to stand for its playing, I wondered aloud whether “The Star Spangled Banner” and even “God Bless America” have been and still are so overdone before sports events as to render their meaning, well, meaningless.

2019-04-22 FredThomas.jpg
Fred Thomas, who knew about patriotism from the heart, not habit. Presumably he’s hitting here during the 1918 World Series.

Baseball itself actually has no formal rule covering either song’s playing, which is rather intriguing considering the whole thing started during a baseball game in the first place.

Specifically, it was during Game One of the 1918 World Series, with World War I on the threshold of its end and semicircular American flag bunting lining the fences in front of the field-level seats. A Navy band was present at the game. (It was common for military bands to offer music at sporting events in those years.) With or without a plan to do so, the band broke into “The Star Spangled Banner” during the seventh inning stretch.

Quite spontaneously, Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, himself on leave from the Navy to play in the Series, turned toward the flag in Comiskey Park (the Red Sox played the Cubs but it was thought the Cubs’ own playpen wasn’t big enough to accommodate Series fans) and saluted.

Thomas’s spontaneous gesture prompted players in both dugouts (including Babe Ruth, then a Red Sox pitcher and en route a six-hit shutout to open the Series) to salute likewise, and the ballpark crowd joined just as spontaneously. For the rest of the Series the song was played at the seventh-inning stretch. Gradually, other baseball teams and other teams in other sports leagues took it on, too.

All that before “The Star Spangled Banner” became America’s official national anthem. (It became so in—what do you know—1931.) The practise moved to playing the song before games continuing through the end of World War II and beyond, but only the NFL after the war ended made it mandatory before games.

“God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch took hold in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity but has since receded to periodic playings, not the constant thing it was for a few years to follow. Baseball government never made it mandatory any more than it ever formally mandated “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Compulsory patriotism is empty patriotism. You probably don’t need me to tell you about those countries where patriotism was (and still is) enforced at actual or implicit gunpoint. Do you need me to remind you that there have been times enough in our own history where there’ve been those in the land of the free and the home of the brave who’ve favoured something as close to gunpoint patriotism as they could get away with?

I’d like to think the ridiculous Kate Smith kerfuffle might have been avoided if what I suggested last year might have come about: Knock it the hell off with playing “The Star Spangled Banner” before every last American sporting event all season long. And, for that matter, with “God Bless America” during the periodic seventh inning stretch. Save them for such days as Opening Day, games played on major national holidays (Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labour Day, etc.), the All-Star Game, and the first game of the World Series.

I’m not saying it lightly. To this day I’m charmed by the story Casey Stengel’s biographer Robert W. Creamer told “that I hope is true” (Creamer’s words): On his death bed, Stengel had a television broadcast of a game beginning in his room, and as “The Star Spangled Banner” began (as late as 1975 fans watching on television could hear and see the ballpark with it before game time) he slid out of bed, picked up the Mets cap he kept at bedside, put it over his heart, and muttered to himself, “I might as well do this one more time.”

But the charm in that is also that the Ol’ Perfesser did it spontaneously, from his heart, on the threshold of losing his battle with lymphatic cancer, and not because there was any edict requiring him to do so. Mandate it whether by formal edict or entrenched behaviour, and you reduce patriotism to habit. And patriotism—as Fred Thomas and his fellow 1918 World Series competitors understood without being told—is just too valuable and precious for that.

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