Oh, Say, Could You See it Coming?

Those who wonder just how "The Star Spangled Banner" got mixed up with American sports events can thank World War I, the 1918 World Series, and the U.S. Navy band. Whether to credit or to blame depends on your point of view, of course, but this is how it actually began:

1) The war was a little over a month from ending when the Series began in Chicago's Comiskey Park. The Cubs met the Red Sox, but it was feared the Cubs' home playpen, which was seven years from being re-named Wrigley Field, was too small to accommodate anticipated Series audiences. This was also before both franchises became symbols of futility married to extraterrestrial heartbreak. Entering the 1918 Series, between them they'd won six of the previous fifteen Series. After it, neither would win a World Series until the 21st Century.

2) A pall hung over the 1918 Series with the war not quite ended; over 100,000 American troops were killed to that point, and the Series began a day after a bomb exploded in the Chicago Federal Building, killing four.* Between that, and the government announcing they were about to start drafting baseball players (government had already ordered baseball season to end by Labor Day, making for an all-September World Series), things were a little less than festive as Babe Ruth (still a Red Sox, and still a full-time pitcher) squared off against Hippo Vaughan.

3) Several baseball players, including eventual Hall of Fame inaugural class members Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb, were already in military service for the war, Mathewson and Cobb assigned to the newly created Chemical Service. (Mathewson would be gassed accidentally during a training exercise; it caused the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1925.)

4) In terms of baseball, and depending on your point of view, the game itself might have been a bit of a snooze. Ruth tossed a 6-hit shutout, and the game's only run scored in the fourth inning, when Stuffy McInnis drove in Dave Shean with one out and two on. But during the seventh-inning stretch, the Navy band began to play. (It was common in those years for military bands to provide music during sporting events.) Hearing "The Star Spangled Banner," Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, who'd just taken his field position as the sides changed, turned toward the flag and gave a military salute.

5) Thomas himself was a Navy man on furlough to play in the Series. (His commander was said to have been a huge baseball fan.) Thomas's spontaneous salute prompted other players on the field and in the dugouts to rise with their hands over their hearts. The already-standing crowd followed suit.

6) For the rest of that World Series (the Red Sox won in six games), the seventh inning stretch featured "The Star Spangled Banner." Before that sixth game, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee made sure wounded veterans had free tickets to the game. He also decided "The Star Spangled Banner" would be played just before game time, specifically to honor those wounded veterans. After the Red Sox won the Series (their Game Six triumph featured both their runs scoring on an outfield error), Frazee made the playing of the song a regular at the Red Sox's home games.

Other teams in baseball and other professional sports leagues followed suit, gradually, entirely on their own. The song became America's official national anthem in 1931. Sports teams featured it before games throughout World War II, with no known official command to do so, until the war ended. After that war, the National Football League made it mandatory before all games. That'd teach them.

The History Channel's Becky Little wrote last fall that such formal adoption "also gave way to a new American pastime, almost as beloved as sports itself: complaining about people's behavior during the national anthem." In 1954, the general manager of the freshly-minted Baltimore Orioles (formerly the St. Louis Browns), Arthur Ehlers, was unamused by that new pastime occurring at his team's home games. And he did something about it. He put an end to playing "The Star Spangled Banner" before Orioles home games. It lasted long enough (a month) until Ehlers restored the practice, under public pressure and protest.

The NFL and the National Basketball Association have formal rules mandating the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" before games. The NBA requires players, coaches, and trainers to stand in a "dignified" manner along the sidelines or at the foul line. The National Hockey League has no formal requirement regarding player, coach, or training staff actions during national anthems; the league only requires anthems be played before games. (In games between American and Canadian teams, both "The Star Spangled Banner" and "O Canada" are played; if the Canadian team is the home team, "O Canada" is played second, as the highlight spot, and vice versa in an American arena.)

Baseball actually has no written rule mandating "The Star Spangled Banner" before games; or, for that matter, "God Bless America" during seventh-inning stretches, a tradition that began in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity and now seems to continue sporadically. (Games between the Blue Jays and other teams feature both "The Star Spangled Banner" and "O Canada," the order of their playing depending also upon whether the Blue Jays are the home team.) "MLB has said that the playing of the anthems before games ... is an important tradition that has great meaning for fans," The Sporting News writes. "But MLB has also said that it respects that players are individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions."

Colin Kaepernick took a knee during "The Star Spangled Banner" to protest police brutality, actual or alleged, in 2016, and the small but profound rash of similar protests among football players to follow aroused no few passions, but seemed on the verge of fading away to maybe a mere dozen such player protesters by the second week of last fall's NFL season, in part because public indignation began eating into the NFL's audiences.

Then President Trump had to open his big yap at a rally in Alabama. "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired!'"

"Excited by how such nakedly pointless culture-war baiting was getting his base 'stirred up'," writes Reason's Matt Welch, "the president piled more worms on the hook. He sent Vice President Mike Pence to attend (and showily walk out of) an Indianapolis Colts game that featured an offensive non-stander. He even dragged the controversy into his State of the Union Address. (In fairness, the state of our union is that we bicker endlessly over this kind of phony bullsh@t while our elected officials misuse billions and billions of our dollars, including on professional sports franchises.) The NFL, whose owners lean Republican and whose ceremonial accoutrements have long been suffused with militaristic displays of patriotism, has been agonizing over anthem etiquette ever since."

Pence had something to say about the NFL's new edict, requiring its players to stand for "The Star Spangled Banner" or else. "#Winning," the vice president said. Jay Nordlinger — a senior editor for National Review, a journal not heretofore known as patriotically lacking, never mind Trump supporters fuming over its opposition to Trump's candidacy in early 2016 — had something to say about it, too.

"Respecting the flag — what does that mean?" Nordlinger asked Thursday, then answered. "I think that most people who take a knee' during the national anthem are probably jerks and ignoramuses and ingrates. But I'm not sure that forcing them to stand advances the cause of patriotism. I'm not sure that patriotism is compatible with compulsion."

If you think the national anthem kneelers are jerks, that is your right; if you think they're not, that is also your right. Invite me to opine one or the other way, and you're under no further obligation to agree with mine than am I to agree with yours.

It's forgotten often enough that kneeling has long been considered an act of respect, of genuflection, never mind that that wasn't quite what Kaepernick and those who took his cue intended. Kneeling, Duke University theological ethicist Luke Bretherton has written, recalling church with his parents as a boy, "declared that there was something beyond me, greater than me, that needed to be honored in the most obvious and straightforward way possible: by kneeling down."

But kneeling for respect can be made as compulsory as the NFL's new anti-kneeling edict. Ask anyone who lived in such a society, demurred from kneeling before or on behalf of the monarch or the Dear Leader, and lost his head over it. Compulsion is as incompatible with respect as it is with patriotism.

That said, you'd be very hard pressed to find Kaepernick or other NFL kneelers accused of congratulating strongmen in their triumphs during sham elections, in countries where patriotism is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder happens to be in power at the moment with the means and the will to dispose of his "unpatriotic" opposition.

Vladimir Putin's two main opponents in his last "election" didn't get to run in the first place. Boris Nemtsov was murdered; Alexei Navalny was merely barred from running. Egyptian president Sissi hand picked his opponent in his last election, an opponent who just so happened to be a "warm admirer" of his. His actual opponents were either behind bars or otherwise intimidated out of running, and they weren't all Islamists, either. Against all advice from aides, Mr. Trump called both Putin and Sissi to congratulate them on their, quote, re-elections.

"Trump and his army wrapped themselves in the flag when doing battle with the NFL ... 'America First,' they cry. Rah rah," Nordlinger wrote last month. "But when it comes to upholding American values in the world — our flag is drooping. People who wet themselves at the sight of football players kneeling are completely blasé when it comes to these congratulations, offered to dictators who steal elections."

Another Reason writer, Robby Soave, finds another kind of hypocrisy. "Saying that simply kneeling for the national anthem is so offensive that it must be confined to the locker room or banned outright," Soave writes, "reflects the same hypersensitivity that plagues the social justice left."

John Hirschauer of The Daily Wire — a conservative website founded by Ben Shapiro, who'd bolted Breitbart as it became an or-else! Trump support system and clearinghouse for the wingnut alt-right — thinks the new NFL anthem mandate betrays the truest meaning of patriotism, that it must come from the heart and not from gunpoint, metaphoric, or otherwise.

"By choosing to make standing for the anthem a matter of coercion rather than a voluntary act of patriotism," Hirschauer writes, "it (quite wrongly) suggests that NFL executives and the kneeling movement's many malcontents in the country are unable to provide a coherent reason why America is worth honoring in spite of its flaws. Worse, it furthers the very narrative that drives protests like Kaepernick: The established authorities are afraid of the message they bear, and it is the established authorities' ill-reception of this message that perpetuates the 'systemic racism' that threatens the lives of black men in America."

Shapiro himself says it's "not a win for the country for governmental officials to push private organizations to change policy like this, nor is it a win for Americans more broadly, since polls show movement in favor of kneeling thanks to Trump's involvement." He also thinks the NFL kneelers were merely being foolish and counterproductive, but "now it remains a polarizing issue played for gain by both sides."

One becomes grateful that baseball has no official position regarding the anthem or protests during its playing and singing. (Only one baseball player thus far has taken the protest knee, Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell.) But you'd be making a reasonably educated guess if you surmise that Fred Thomas, his Red Sox teammates, the Cubs, and the Comiskey Park audience who responded to "The Star Spangled Banner" during that seventh-inning stretch a century ago, had no clue that something which did, indeed, spring spontaneously from their hearts, would come to this.

* There may be some irony there: the Chicago Federal Building explosion was believed the work of members of the Industrial Workers of the World, 113 of whom were on trial concurrently (and would be convicted) under the Espionage Act in the courtroom of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis — who'd become baseball's first commissioner during the fallout of the Black Sox scandal.

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