It’s a thinking man’s game … and country, for that matter.


After listening to Patti LaBelle brutalize “The Star Spangled Banner” last night prior to Game 4 lf the World Series in Philly, I got to wondering how the tradition originated.

Why do we play the national anthem before a sporting event, and not (for instance) prior to opening the doors at the pub?

Is it just because the pub is socialist?

Why indulge in an overt display of nationalism in order to sanction the throwing of a football or the shooting of a basket?

The explanation I eventually on-line found strikes me as plausible.

The Sports Song of Patriotism, by Richard C. Crepeau.

First, it is important to note that there was no official national anthem until the 1930s. During World War I, however, President Wilson declared the “Star Spangled Banner” the unofficial national anthem, and the intense display of public patriotism during this period led to it being played on many public occasions.

It is generally accepted that its first appearance during a sporting event was the 1918 World Series. To demonstrate major league patriotism, baseball teams had the players march in formation during pre-game military drills while carrying bats on their shoulders. During the seventh-inning stretch of game one, when the band spontaneously began to play the “Star Spangled Banner,” the Cubs and Red Sox players stood at attention facing the centerfield flag pole. The crowd sang along and applauded when the singing ended.

Given this reaction in Chicago, the “Star Spangled Banner” was played during the seventh-inning stretch for the next two games. When the Series moved to Boston, the great theatrical Red Sox owner Harry Frazee pumped up the show biz: He brought in a band, and the song was played before the start of each game.

When the war ended, the song continued to be played, but only on special occasions when a band was present — such as opening day, special holidays or the World Series. On opening day in Washington, D.C., it was played before the president of the United States, and local politicians in other cities learned to participate in the

The “Star Spangled Banner” was finally declared the official national anthem in 1931. Even though by 1934 some ballparks had public address systems, it still was not played at every game. The coming of war in the late 1930s changed all of that. During the 1939-40 National Hockey League season, the Canadian anthem was played at games in Canadian cities as Canada was already at war. Then the practice spread to Madison Square Garden and from there it was transferred from hockey to baseball.

In 1940, with the fighting underway in earnest and America becoming more conscious of the possibility of war, there was increased talk of the need to hear the national anthem before all baseball games. This was suggested by The Sporting News in June, while at the same time the president of the International League called for the anthem to be played in U.S. league cities, as was already being done in Canadian cities. By 1941, the practice of playing the anthem before sporting events had achieved nearly universal status. At some games the pledge of allegiance was added, and, by 1941, “I Am an American Day” became a feature at major league parks.

It would be nice to say that all of this was due to pure patriotic expression, but of course much of it was created by PR-conscious owners who wanted to make sure that no one would question the patriotism of athletes who played games during World War II while others went off to serve their country. Four years of war, followed by the Cold War and the emergence of the American Empire, solidified the practice and made it into a national ritual.

I began this essay by noting that Patti LaBelle brutalized the national anthem last evening. By this observation, I’m not implying that she did a grave disservice to the song in the sense of treading atop a revered symbol of Americanism. Rather, I believe she fouled it musically. For me, that’s enough. It’s equally hard for me to imagine a serviceable version of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” played with accordion and spoons … though Weird Al’s probably done it.

Since September 11, 2001, another ritual has come into fashion in baseball. The seventh inning stretch, once defined by Harry Caray’s boisterous version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (arguably baseball’s real national anthem) is now taken up more often than not by another standing observance as “God Bless America” is performed.

Is it necessary to bring devotion into the seventh inning stretch? Why must there be a God to “bless” America? But a better question is this: If you require people to participate in a ritual so that they’re reminded of an event, aren’t you trivializing the event?

I’d venture to say that for current generations of living Americans, the events of September 11 are an indelible memory. To be sure, someday that memory will fade, just as the memory of slavery has disappeared from the rear view window of far too many conservative apologists. Either way, is being required to listen to a song during a baseball game do anything at all to explain what actually happened, and what it means?

At this point, a reader somewhere is asking, “What – don’t you love your country?”

Depends on what you mean by “love.”

I don’t use the word “love” to describe my thoughts about a country into which I was serendipitously deposited by the fickle finger of fate. My personal attachment to the concept of the USA as a nation has been conducted in a cerebral way for more years than I care to remember, and not in terms of blind allegiance.

That’s because my teachers actually succeeded in convincing me that to be an American bears an intimate connection with an intellectual process, not an emotional one. A philosophy of governance came first, and it is a rational undertaking that incorporates thoughts, ideals and the historical record, not misty eyes, the fevered thumping of a chest or identification with a piece of cloth.

To me, all of this matters because of conscience. A brief survey of history reveals that soldiers on all sides consistently march off to war in the patriotic belief that God is on their side, and when one considers the catastrophic results of war, it should be obvious that this equation is irreparably skewed, as is any other pertaining to the abstract entity of nationhood, especially as such abstractions come from the heart and not the head.

My views in this context aren’t popular. At the same time, I wouldn’t legislate these rituals out of existence. My job is to persuade you.

That’s the very essence of being American, isn’t it?