On Kapler, the Anthem, and the atrocity that provoked him

Gabe Kapler

Kapler’s intended National Anthem protest hasn’t provoked a flood of outrage—yet.

This time, a funny thing happened after Giants manager Gabe Kapler said the atrocity in Uvalde, Texas moves him to stay in the clubhouse until “The Star Spangled Banner” finishes playing before games, because he’s “not okay with the present state of the country.” The funny thing that happened was . . . nothing.

No flood of outrage. No choking social media to death with demands for Kapler’s termination, if not execution. No threatened boycotts of Giants games. No politicians from the top down demanding Kapler be run out of a job, run out of town, run out of the country. No mass demonstrations around AT&T Park. No thunderous editorials calling for a Giants organisational shakeup.

This time, the country seems very much united across all lines of race, ethnicity, and even political belief in outrage that nineteen Uvalde police officers were in or around the Robb Elementary School building and did nothing to thwart the eighteen-year-old shooter who killed nineteen young children, a pair of teachers, and whose murders may have caused the fatal heart attack of the husband of one of those slain teachers.

The outrage deepens when learning as we have that those Uvalde police even tried thwarting efforts by the adjacent Border Patrol and federal marshals to stop the massacre. “As sickening as it is,” writes Reason‘s Robby Soave, “this is worth repeating: With the children wounded, bleeding, dying, and frantically–quietly–calling [9-1-1 on cell phones] for help, the police stood by, waiting for even more assistance. They told the Border Patrol to hold off, and they actively restrained parents outside the school who begged them to help and even volunteered to do so themselves.”

“Second Amendment supporters often counter, ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ Except the hallway of Robb Elementary School had no shortage of good guys with guns, and yet they did not stop the massacre until it was far too late,” fumes an editorial by National Review, a publication not known to suffer criticism of law enforcement without a fight. “Perhaps that slogan should be revised, ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and the willingness to act.’ No Uvalde cops acted when it could have made a difference.”

From the atrocity of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minnesota police to the atrocity of Salvador Ramos at Robb Elementary, Kapler—one of baseball’s most articulate and genuinely sensitive managers—looked upon the state of these United States and discovered he simply couldn’t partake of a dubious pre-game ritual because Uvalde slams an exclamation point down upon a country in self-inflicted peril.

“When I was the same age as the children in Uvalde,” wrote Kapler in a blog entry last Friday, “my father taught me to stand for the pledge of allegiance when I believed my country was representing its people well or to protest and stay seated when it wasn’t. I don’t believe it is representing us well right now.”

About the only truly pronounced demurral Kapler incurred came from Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who came out of retirement to take the White Sox bridge last year. “I think he’s exactly right to be concerned . . . with what’s happening in our country,” La Russa told reporters before a game against the Cubs. “He’s right there. Where I disagree is the flag and the anthem are not appropriate places to try to voice your objections.”

Apparently, La Russa forgot the anthem’s line about “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The brave were thwarted actively and incompetently at Robb Elementary, the only people Ramos set free were nineteen children and two adults from their earthly lives, and those Uvalde, Texas pays to be brave in the presence of evil—to put it in the absolute most polite language available—didn’t exactly do what they’re paid to do last Tuesday.

We can debate La Russa’s demurral and Kapler’s quiet outrage all day long. La Russa thinks Kapler’s intended protest disrespects the men and women of the military who defend what the flag and anthem purport to mean. I fear La Russa dismisses the prospect that those very men and women would think, appropriately, that they didn’t put their hides on the line to defend either police becoming criminals or police doing nothing to prevent mass murder while blocking others from trying to prevent it or while allowing it to continue inexplicably.

Some of Kapler’s fellow skippers get it. “[He] is very passionate about things he believes in and that’s his way of protesting,” says his downstate rival, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “I don’t think any of us are happy with what’s going on in our country. I do respect people using whatever platforms they have to address that.”

Alex Cora, who played with Kapler on the 2005-06 Red Sox and now manages the Red Sox, gets it, too. “He’s a good friend of mine and the kind of guy I respect from afar for what he’s doing,” Cora says, “and if this is what he’s doing, good for him. I understand his reasons. He was very open about it and I know there’s a lot of people that are going to support him.”

One of those people is also Chris Woodward, the manager of the Rangers. “I think we’re all frustrated, especially in this country,” he says. “Nobody’s happy. It’s not about which side you’re on. It’s just we’ve got to get better as a society . . . I’m not going to really make comment either way on whether I would or wouldn’t do what he did.”

Kapler made a Memorial Day exception to his intended protest before today’s game against the Phillies. “While I believe strongly in the right to protest and the importance of doing so,” he said, “I also believe strongly in honoring and mourning our country’s service men and women who fought and died for that right. Those who serve in our military, and especially those who have paid the ultimate price for our rights and freedoms, deserve that acknowledgment and respect, and I am honored to stand on the line today to show mine.”

Maybe now it’s time to revisit an argument I made a few years ago: It’s time at last to re-think “The Star Spangled Banner” before sporting events.

What began as a spontaneous show of respect by a Red Sox third baseman, as a Navy band played “The Star Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch of a 1918 World Series game, has become at once a ritual of habit and—since the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick over police brutality in 2016—a flash point whenever professional athletes seize upon its playing to protest quietly, usually by kneeling, over assorted outrages.

The song wasn’t even the sanctioned National Anthem when Fred Thomas (on leave from the Navy to play in the 1918 Series) turned and saluted the flag. That didn’t happen until the 1930s. But the song’s playing before every last sporting event regardless of day, evening, or calendar significance, renders it meaningless except as pressuring crowds into a patriotic gesture.

I’ve suggested it before, but it’s worth repeating yet again: An everyday anthem during baseball season means nothing but false patriotism, compulsory patriotism, the sort of patriotism you see in countries unworthy of it but likely to execute those who say or behave so.

Faithful readers (all three of you) may remember my saying this in prior writings on the matter: I don’t write lightly about this. I’m the paternal grandson of a New York police officer, and I’m an Air Force veteran. My grandfather would have fumed over Uvalde police doing nothing and trying to stop others from doing something, anything to save those children and teachers. And though I wasn’t in a job requiring direct combat, I wore the Air Force uniform knowing well that I had sworn by implication to die if it came to that on behalf of defending these not always so United States.

I accepted and lived it proudly. And I damn well didn’t spend four and a half years of my life in a military uniform, doing a military job, on behalf of those engaged to protect us from the criminals either becoming the criminals themselves or living down to the admonition, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Neither did the men and women we commemorate today who died in actual combat.

So, one more time. Save “The Star Spangled Banner”—and, while we’re at it, “God Bless America” in the seventh-inning stretch—for baseball games played on such national holidays as Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July, and Labour Day. Save it otherwise for Opening Day, the All-Star Game, Game One of the World Series, and even Game Seven if the Series gets that far.

The rest of the season, can it.

We can live quite well without the National Anthem before every last game without losing the only patriotism that truly matters, that in and of the heart. Even when that patriotism is challenged as murderously as it was in Uvalde, Texas last week. A challenge so murderous that the manager of the Giants prefers no compulsion to false or diluted patriotism when his country is compromised by evil.

Note: The foregoing essay was written originally for publication by Sports Central.

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.

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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.