The Anthem

On Colin Kaepernick, political statements and the national anthem

Getty Images

You might already know this story: On September 5, 1918 — during Game 1 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox — the crowd stood up for the seventh-inning stretch. Nobody knows for sure how far back the seventh-inning stretch goes, but it probably has its roots in the very earliest professional games ever played. There are those who believe the stretch became official in 1910 when President William Howard Taft (all 335 pounds of him) stood up during a game. Well, the seventh-inning stretch is a story for another time.

The point is that during this game, something unusual happened. As the sparse crowd at Comiskey Park (Wrigley was too small for a World Series game) stood to shake off the boredom of what had been something of a snoozer (Babe Ruth was pitching for the Red Sox, but he was not yet Babe Ruth), a band began to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

It was such a stirring moment that The New York Times’ story the following day led with it:

CHICAGO, Sept. 5 — Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch. As the crowd of 10,274 spectators — the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years — stood up to take their afternoon yawn that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The yawn was checked and heads were bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U.S. Navy was at attention as he stood erect, with his eyes set at the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It as at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.

How big of a deal was this? Well, this is what was written in the inning-by-inning recap:

SEVENTH INNING — Cubs — The band halted proceedings by playing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The players, with the exception of Thomas, stood at civilian salute, the Great Lakes sailor coming to the military pose. Kiffler flied to Strunk, Vaughn hit far to Scott’s right, but the Boston shortstop skidded over and made a one-handed pickup, throwing his man out at first. Flack grounded out, Scott to McInnis. There were less than a half dozen balls pitched this inning. NO RUNS. NO HITS. NO ERRORS.

So, yes, playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a big enough deal to even get into the play-by-play. This was during World War I, so American patriotism was at a fever pitch. And the hero of the story was unquestionably third baseman Fred Thomas (the “Jackie” in the main story is in reference to him being a Navy sailor), whose instant patriotic response deeply touched everyone in Comiskey Park. His statement was as obvious and powerful as could be — it said, “I am proud to be an American.”

And his statement resonated with the fans, of course. The Cubs had a band play “The Star-Spangled Banner” again the next two games. The reaction was, again, powerful. When the series returned to Boston, the Red Sox decided to not only play the song, but to play it before the game even began. Again the players and fans stood at rapt attention.

The timing of all this was striking. At that exact moment there was powerful momentum — led, in part, by a man named Henry McDonald, who was Director-General of the New York City Mayor’s Committee of National Defense (don’t ask) — to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem. At the time, there were several songs — “My Country Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” “Hail Columbia” and others — that were played as unofficial national anthems.

On the day the Series went back to Boston, McDonald announced that more than a thousand musicians would play “The Star Spangled Banner” in theaters and motion-picture houses and town squares all around America to “develop greater patriotic interest in the words and music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

It worked. While there have always been people who fought against “The Star-Spangled Banner” — too hard to sing, the tune of a British drinking song, lyrics that are too connected to war, etc. — Americans’ emotional national response to “The Star-Spangled Banner” was just more powerful than it was for the other songs. After the 1918 World Series, more and more baseball teams began playing the song before their games. Soon, every baseball team did. When Congress officially made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem in 1931, it was just a rubber stamp — the song was already the national anthem. It was played before every baseball game and, as such, before every American sporting event.

It’s good, every now and again, to remind ourselves why the national anthem is played before games — it was nobody’s plan. It is a tradition built up because, almost 100 years ago, during a yawn-inducing ballgame, the anthem awakened powerful emotions in the crowd. And the businessmen running baseball teams took notice.

People in and around sports have been using the national anthem to make their own political and business statements for a century. What do we think the NFL is doing when they have military flyovers just as the anthem comes to a close? What do we think teams are doing when they have soldiers unfurl the world’s biggest American flag, one big enough to stretch across the entire field? What do we think people are doing when they put their hands over their hearts, when they stand with their hands at their side at attention, when they sing along, when they shuffle their feet and forget to take off their hats?

All statements. And, as we know, athletes make individual statements too, some purposeful, some not. Olympic athletes often cry during the anthem — that means something. John Carlos and Tommie Smith held black-gloved fists in the air while the anthem played –that meant something. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf closed his eyes and silently said an Islamic prayer during the national anthem — that meant something (he would always insist that this protest eventually cost him his NBA career).

For a short while last year, there was a story rolling around about how not enough Minnesota Twins players came out to the field to stand for the national anthem. That might or might not have meant anything, but people argued about it. There was an even briefer (and sillier) bit during the Olympics about gymnast Gabby Douglas not having her hand over her heart during the national anthem.

And so on.

Of course, now we’re talking about Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem. He has made it absolutely clear why he does this — it is a personal protest against what he views as racial injustice in America.

The responses have been overwhelming and from all sides. Some agree with him wholeheartedly and see his stand as an extension of Muhammad Ali. Some disagree with his stance but applaud his courage. Some disagree and don’t applaud his courage, but concede it is his right as an American to protest. Some say that the national anthem is no place for a protest. And some are so outraged they lash out at him. Also playing in the background is the Jay Glazer report that says Kaepernick is about to get released, not because of his politics, but because he’s not an effective quarterback.

It’s an odd thing: Because of Fred Thomas almost 100 years ago, I have probably heard the national anthem more than 5,000 times in my sportswriting career. I’ve been lucky enough to hear it played on six continents, in at least 40 states. I’ve heard it played by a 10-person marching band on a high school field in the middle of Kansas, and I’ve heard it played by giant military bands before Army played Navy. I’ve heard it sung by celebrities and would-be celebrities, by children and World War II veterans, by teachers and firefighters and Elvis impersonators. I’ve heard it played on guitar, on flute, on trumpet, on violin, on piano, on the xylophone and on the harmonica.

I’ve heard it booed in other countries, and I’ve heard it cheered so loud that the words are drowned out. I’ve heard it stretched out to excess — usually by a young singer who seems to believe that this is a tryout for “The Voice” — and I’ve heard it spoken because the singer had no intention of trying to hit the high note. I’ve heard the words messed up, forgotten and sung with such power that people were on the brink of tears. I’ve heard them stress the “O!” in Baltimore, shout out “Chiefs” in place of “Brave” in Kansas City, cheer madly before Blackhawks games in Chicago.

I’ve heard it in wartime and peace, after tragedy and after triumph, and mostly I’ve heard it on just another night before just another game.

And, every now and again, I look around to see the reaction of the crowd while “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. You see all kinds. You see veterans salute the flag. You see people drinking their beer and talking. You see people singing along. You see people sitting and yapping on their phones — or playing games on them. You see people at attention and people laughing, people holding their children and facing the flag and people drinking beer and looking around for something or other.

These are political statements. They might mean, “I love my country.” They might mean “I am thinking of a relative who died during the war.” They might mean, “Oh, man, I forgot to let the office know to send out that email.”

They are all statements, thoughtful or thoughtless, heartfelt or inadvertent, patriotic or unthinking. If you think about it, playing the national anthem before every single sporting event is weird — we don’t play it before plays, before concerts, before the opera or ballet, before movies, before speeches or before comedy shows. But we play it before every game; we take just a moment to think of what it means to be American. Yes, you may disagree with what Colin Kaepernick thinks it means to be an American.

But he is making his statement, boldly, unflinchingly, fully ready to face whatever comes his way. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you know the truth: The statement most of us make during the national anthem is simply this: “Come on, let’s get on with the game already!”