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Front Page - Friday, July 15, 2022

Rogers column: Hats off to the national anthem, but that’s all

I don’t think of myself as a rebel, college alma mater (Hotty toddy!) notwithstanding. But I staged a mini-protest the other night at a Nashville Sounds game by refusing to stand and take off my hat as requested.

No, not for the national anthem. I always rise and de-hat for that at games, sometimes even singing along and hitting the occasional right note. But I remained defiantly seated and head-covered for “God Bless America.” I’ll tell you why in a bit.

The anthem is said to have first been played for a sporting event in 1862, at the dedication of a baseball field in Brooklyn. It popped up now and again at subsequent games over the years, mostly on Opening Day, but really started to catch on after being played for a World Series game in 1918, during World War I.

(Note the association with times of great trials for our country, and conflicts domestic and foreign.)

The anthem has spread to other sports, of course, and is now considered pretty much pro forma as an opening for such gatherings. (When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stopped the playing of it a couple of years ago, the NBA league office stepped in and declared it mandatory.)

As I said, I’m fine with its playing. I also applaud the Sounds for their efforts to vary the anthem’s presentation at games, which this year has included a group using sign language for the lyrics and a young guitar player sitting on a stool near home plate and plucking out the notes. Very Nashville, that.

And while I support the First Amendment right of athletes and others to air their social grievances by kneeling during the anthem, I’ve never thought it particularly wise or persuasive to tick off millions of people with a gesture that can easily be misinterpreted.

As it happens, I’ve been to a number of baseball games involving the Toronto Blue Jays over the years, so I’ve had the opportunity to stand and show respect for not just one, but two national anthems back-to-back. As a result, I can tell you that, though it features no rockets’ red glare, no bombs bursting in air, the Canadian anthem is quite stirring.

It ends, according to the written lyrics, with this: “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.” But I always feel like I hear an exclamation point, not a period.

Granted, “God Bless America” is stirring, too. It was written in 1918 by the famed composer Irving Berlin, who has a few other hits to his name, too, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Easter Parade,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and, perhaps most notably, “White Christmas.” So, props to Irv. No slouch.

But here’s the thing: “God Bless America” ain’t the national anthem and doesn’t merit the treatment the anthem gets.

Its association with baseball is much more recent than The Star-Spangled Banner’s, too. A PR person for the San Diego Padres (a major league team only in the strictest sense, in my estimation) came up with the idea of playing it in the immediate aftermath and patriotic fervor related to the 9/11 attacks.

Fair enough. We all probably benefited from a little extra red-white-and-blue oomph in that period. But in the years since, its use has devolved into one of those “love it or leave it” litmus tests of American zeal.

And I’m not even getting into the controversy about the Kate Smith version, which some teams avoid because some of Smith’s other notable vocal performances include songs that teetered on – or tumbled into – racism.

It’s just that we don’t need “God Bless America” at baseball games. We already have the perfect song for the sport’s traditional seventh-inning stretch, one that doesn’t require a predecessor or follow-up: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” No finer stadium singalong has yet been invented.

Speaking of which, one more thing: The song goes, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,” not “Cracker Jacks.” And the way I sing it, it also includes “root, root, root for the Yankees.” Personal preference.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com