Home | Back issues | sfflier@well.com

September 11, 2008


When politics is the national pastime

Yesterday the fog lifted in the middle of the day, and I headed down to the Ballpark That Dare Not Speak Its Name to watch the Giants battle the Diamondbacks. It was perfect baseball weather, and the young San Francisco team was in fine fettle. (No photos — sorry! I took my camera, but my sieve-brain forgot to load the memory card.) Out in the bay a cluster of yellow kayaks swung through McCovey Cove and paused briefly, perhaps for old times’ sake. Tiny sailboats darted over the waves. The Empress Hornblower, looking like an old-time riverboat, stopped just outside the Arcade to give her passengers a glimpse inside.

Baseball is a colorful sport. Players in gray or white uniforms ran back and forth on a rich green field, set off by the brilliant blue of both bay and sky. Wind whipped the team pennants that line the stadium. And everywhere the stands were dotted with the orange shirts against a vast sea of empty dark green seats. Giants fans are fair-weather friends, and their team has been stumbling.

But next to me sat the prototypical Ginny the Giants Fan, a large, no-nonsense woman of an uncertain age. She wore a Giants cap, Giants earrings, a Giants T-shirt, and Giants socks. She also carried a Giants water bottle. As she watched the game, she recorded every play — every pitch — in her scorecard notebook. As she and her neighbor on the other side discussed the action in detail, she would occasionally pull out a copy of the day’s Chronicle or the 2008 Who’s Who in Baseball to check a fact. At the same time, her headset provided Kuiper & Krukow’s play-by-play account of what she was watching.

If you read this morning’s paper, you know what she saw. The Giants got a 2-1 lead in the third inning and held it until the ninth, when Arizona pulled ahead, 3-2. Bengie Molina (born in Puerto Rico) singled. Aaron Rowand (born in Oregon) walked. With two outs and two men on base, Eugenio Velez (born in the Dominican Republic) came up to the plate. A little tugboat painted red, white, and blue raced across the bay toward the ballpark, like the cavalry rushing toward a besieged fort. Strike one. Strike two. The tugboat disappeared behind the scoreboard.

Velez connected, sending the ball far out in center field. The runners scored. The diehards in the stands — all 12 of us — shouted, leapt to their feet, and hugged each other. The red, white, and blue tugboat reappeared on the other side of the scoreboard.

It was glorious, but…

There’s always a “but.”

But like every game on every other day, there was a seventh-inning stretch. Unlike other day, yesterday was the eve of 9/11, a date that baseball takes very seriously. The Giants had prepared for the occasion by mounting panels of shining fabric behind the statue of Willie Mays in front of the ballpark, imprinted with the names of the 3,000 people who were killed on that day seven years ago. A banner read, “We’ll Never Forget 9-11-01.”

To honor those who fell on that day, the Giants reverted to a custom that was common in 2001. They inserted another song into the seventh-inning stretch before “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The song, which was apparently chosen by baseball officials during the furor right after the attacks, was “God Bless America.” The featured singer was Kate Smith.

Kate Smith, whom the New York Times calls “the diva of American patriotism,” died in 1986. Four years before her death, when President Ronald Reagan joined Senator Jesse Helms in Raleigh, North Carolina, to present her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he noted,

It’s been truly said that one of the most inspiring things that our GI’s in World War II in Europe and the Pacific, and later in Korea and Vietnam, ever heard was the voice of Kate Smith. The same is true for all of us.

But I think the citation for Kate’s Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor that our nation can bestow — says it all.

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

The voice of Kate Smith is known and loved by millions of Americans, young and old. In war and peace, it has been an inspiration. Those simple but deeply moving words, “God bless America,” have taken on added meaning for all of us because of the way Kate Smith sang them. Thanks to her they have become a cherished part of all our lives, an undying reminder of the beauty, the courage and the heart of this great land of ours. In giving us a magnificent, selfless talent like Kate Smith, God has truly blessed America.

Her voice came to be seen as a lucky charm. In the 1960s and 1970s, The Philadelphia Flyers chose Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” to open their hockey games.

It was up to Lou Schienfield to choose which games to play Kate. Generally it was a game by game decision — with Lou deciding on instinct or if the game was important. The first 3 years saw an incredible difference in the home records — 19-1-1 with Kate and a losing 31-38-28 record without Kate (including playoffs)

In gratitude, they erected a commemorative statue with an inscription that begins:

Blessed with a voice and presence which led her to stardom on Broadway, radio, and television, Miss Smith came to symbolize joyous, homespun, American patriotism.

This joyous, homespun, American patriot became the darling of American conservatives.

“God Bless America” was written by Irving Berlin during World War I but rarely if ever played until Kate Smith revived it in 1938 to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of World War I. The timing was right. As first Europe and then the United States headed into another war, listeners responded strongly to its patriotic message. Both the Republicans and the Democrats chose it to be sung at their national convention in 1940. There was even talk of making it our national anthem instead of the unsingable “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Times change, and so do people’s visions of their country. In the 1960s the military history of “God Bless America” began to make some people uncomfortable. Some suggested that “America the Beautiful” would be a more appropriate anthem, especially its final lines:

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

But in 2000, even before we entered the War on Terror, “God Bless America” returned to the scene. Richard K. Hayes, archivist of the Kate Smith Commemorative Society, recalls that it was sung

at the Republican national convention in Philadelphia July 31, 2000, the convention that nominated George W. Bush as our 43rd President. [There] a videotape of Kate [Smith] singing it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 was played.

As the United States tried to re-create the mood of the Great Generation after 9/11, it was inevitable that the stentorian tones of Kate Smith would be heard throughout the “homeland,” asking that

God bless America, My home sweet home.

The message is clear: Forget the soft-and-fuzzy, hippie-dippie, summer-of-love sentiments of “America the Beautiful.” In times of war, the only brotherhood that counts is the bond between soldiers.

But that’s only one woman’s opinion. Thanks for reading.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008