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Sports, The Military and Patriotism

David Berger



It all started for me when I was seven years old and my dad took me to my first baseball game.  We drove to Brooklyn, to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cincinnati Reds.  We walked in Gate 8 and when we came out of the tunnel and I saw that magnificent expanse of perfect looking grass, I was in awe of how green it was and how it went on for what seemed to be forever.  I asked my dad how come our front lawn didn’t look like that.  “Sod, they use sod.”


Clem Labine was to pitch for Brooklyn that day, and he was warming up right in front of us.  He looked like a Greek God in his white Dodger uniform.  We had box seats 7 rows back between home plate and first base—Box G14, seat 8 (I saved my stub).  The cost for my ticket was $3.00.  This was September 16, 1956.  Just over 61 years ago.  Adjusted for inflation, the cost of that ticket would be $27 in today’s money.  Try buying a Mets or Yankees ticket for $27 now.  A comparable ticket would be at least ten times that. 


As good as the Yankees are with Judge, Sanchez, et al, I don’t know that they could beat my beloved Dodgers with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella (do I need to continue?), who went on to win the pennant that month and then lose the World Series to the Yankees with Don Larson pitching the only World Series perfect game in history.  Baseball was the National Pastime—there was no denying it.  When you walked past stores that sold TVs, they all had them displayed in their windows with a crowd huddled around watching the game.


The next thing I remember about that glorious September day (by far the best day of my childhood) was “Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the National Anthem.”  My dad stood and motioned for me to stand and take off my blue Dodger cap from which I was inseparable.  It was a warm, sunny day, so we were in short-sleeves.  I was disappointed that it was too hot for me to wear my amazing blue satin Dodger jacket.  So there we stood in suspense. 


As Gladys Gooding sang and accompanied herself on organ for the final “…and the home of the brave,” every one of the 32,000 fans relaxed and began cheering.  We were about to witness one of the greatest Dodger teams in history face the Reds with their new rookie phenom everyone was talking about, Frank Robinson.  Although this was a great day for me, it could have been better for the Dodgers, the other fans and even me.  Our star centerfielder, the Duke of Flatbush (my hero), booted a ball and then the Robinson from Cincinnati (Frank) hit a ball out of the park and across Bedford Avenue.  It could only be described as Ruthian.  Today we would call it Judgian. 


When the seventh inning stretch came, we all stood and sang Take Me Out To The Ball Game along with Ms. Gooding.  She also played popular songs between innings, but during the innings it was an amateur Dixieland band called the Dodgers Sym-Phony that taunted the opposing teams and brought smiles to the faces of fans and players alike.  No canned music in those days.  Everything was live and spontaneous. 


I never gave much thought to the appropriateness of the National Anthem.  Aside from all us Brooklyn fans, every player on the field was an American.  This was before baseball became an international cartel.  Baseball was an American monopoly that was regulated by the Federal Government.  No other sport was treated this way.  Playing The Star-Spangled Banner at baseball games is a tradition going all the way back to 1862 and institutionalized during World War I.


It’s hard for anyone younger than me to understand baseball’s place in American life back then.  No other sport could compete with its popularity.  Professional football and basketball were still in their infancies.  For us Dodger fans, the Dodgers were our religion.  I’ve heard Cubs fans talk like that too, and I won’t even mention Red Sox Nation—they’re just plain nuts!


On that beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon in 1956, it seemed to me that baseball was as much a symbol of our great nation as Old Glory.  My father and his generation fought and won World War II a decade before, and we recently reached a truce in Korea.  War was the last thing on our minds.  Little did we know that behind our backs we were entering Viet Nam.  The government kept that a secret from us because they had more than an inkling as to how unpopular entering another foreign war would be to the public.  We just wanted to stay home, raise our families, and build the middle class.  So how did we get to the place in 2017 where athletes are expected to promote our military? 


Football has its own history.  Whereas baseball has, since 1876, been primarily a professional sport, football was mostly just a popular college sport until the 1950s.   In 1945, while the NFL had few fans, Commissioner Elmer Layden, in honor of the end of the war, declared, “The National Anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kick-off. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.” 


The Anthem has been played at football games since then.  The players remained in their locker rooms until after the last note with the exceptions of directly after 9/11/01 and during Super Bowl games.  Although there is a specific US code of behavior for the playing of the National Anthem with or without a flag present, the US flag code makes no mention of the Anthem.  The Pledge of Allegiance, yes, Anthem, no.  Likewise, the 2017 Official Playing Rules of the NFL mention neither the Anthem nor the flag.  On game day players are forbidden to display or convey personal messages on the field or on camera.  They are encouraged, but not required, to stand while the Anthem is played. 


So why are players even on the field during the Anthem?  Follow the money.  The professional sports team owners were paid $6.8 million between 2012 and 2015 by the Department of Defense.  Football also gets free security for the Super Bowl.  The deal also includes organized patriotic displays and activities. 


This is where I’ve got to ask why we tax payers are footing this bill.  Aside from promoting military enlistment, the linking of sports to patriotism and militarism is being sold to unsuspecting Americans to get us to accept the concept of our nation as an Empire that defends and conquers by military might, much the same as the Roman Empire, the USSR, and the Axis Powers of World War II.  When President Trump recently saw a military parade in Paris for Bastille Day, he announced that he would like to see tanks rolling down American streets on July 4th.  He can make fun of “Rocket Man” all he wants, but how would such a display differentiate us from the military dictatorship in North Korea? 


I admit that I am a proud pacifist.  I think that if people are committed to peaceful solutions, there is no need to kill, maim and destroy each other.  Spending our resources on the military precludes us from universal health care, excellent public education for all, rebuilding our infrastructure to 21st century standards, and a pile of other necessities.  However, there is one great thing that our army could do right now: they could deploy to Puerto Rico, save those homeless American citizens and rebuild their island.  If 500,000 soldiers descended on the island this week, by Christmastime every one of those families could celebrate.  But instead, we send our soldiers to die in Afghanistan and Iraq and who knows where next. 


So why do I stand for the National Anthem at Yankees and Mets Games?  Pretty much because my father taught me to love this country.  But, I don’t stand at home when I watch on TV.  In fact, I DVR sporting events and fast-forward through the Anthem and the God Bless America/Take Me Out To The Ball Game seventh inning stretch.  Do you stand up when you watch this stuff on TV?  Who would?  So how come we do it in public?  And what about all the Hispanic and Asian non-US citizens on the baseball field?  Why should they stand for our flag and Anthem?  Do we stand for theirs?


That gets us to the issue of civil injustice and protest.  Telling players that they can protest on their own time when no one is watching them is disingenuous.  The whole idea of protest is to be heard and seen.  We are nation born of protest—the Boston Tea Party!  That turned out pretty well, don’t you think?  So is protest too scary when done by non-whites?  Are white Americans afraid that people of color will want retribution for hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and second class citizenry? 


Maybe so (and they surely deserve something), but being a New Yorker and a jazz musician all my life, I’ve known a heck of a lot of Black and Hispanic people, and although some have been angry, I can’t remember ever hearing any one of them ever ask for more than equality.  Have you ever heard of minority people of color demanding that they should have more rights than whites?  Nah.  Of course not.  That’s silly, but white supremacists believe that, because they are white and are possibly descended from people who stole this land from the Native Americans, they deserve more rights than anyone different from them.


So when I see football players kneel (which looks awfully peaceful and spiritual to me), I wonder why athletes don’t demand more from our government.  They have incredible economic clout.  The last thing the team owners want is a strike.  The owners will let the players strike when it’s about money, but if for instance, most of the Black and Hispanic players refused to play in a city where the police are murdering Black folks, my guess is the mayor of that city would get a phone call from the owners of their city’s teams demanding that there be a new police commissioner ASAP.  Do you think that Chicago, St. Louis, New York, or any other city with professional teams would shrug their collective shoulders and say, “Well, I guess we don’t need to have Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.  We could field an all-white team of minor leaguers.”  Follow the money.


The reason that feudalism lasted for centuries is that the serfs didn’t recognize that they had power with their fellow serfs.  As soon as they came to this realization, they started making demands of the nobility that ultimately led to the overthrow of the power structure.  Right now, the team owners have the money, but the players have the talent that the public demands.  No fan is ever going to turn on the TV to watch an owner. 


Athletes are not politically motivated by nature.  They spend their time building muscles and honing skills, but every once in a while a Jackie Robinson or Curt Flood comes along and makes America great.  That’s the same Jackie Robinson who I saw at Ebbets Field lo those 61 years ago this month.  He remains, to this day, the most exciting baseball player I ever saw, both on the field and off.  He understood what I’m talking about and did something great about it.  The time for the good people of our nation to do likewise is long overdue.   

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  • Rusty Jones on

    I became a Dodger fan in 1950 at the age of 10, partly because my older brother was a fan. We lived in Belle, W.Va at the time. I will never forget one afternoon listening to the whole lineup bat around during one inning. I wish I could have seen them in person. It didn’t honestly cross my mind that Campanella and Robinson were not white. I just loved the team. Andy Pafko, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Billy Cox, Pee Wee Reese, and many of their pitchers were also heros to us. The Boys of Summer was one of my favorite books of all time. Jackie Robinson was truly a hero (along with Branch Rickey). He was the perfect athlete to break the color barrier. It amazes me that we still have so far to go with respect to prejudice and discrimination. Apparently some people don’t realize that we share virtually the same DNA, and all of the “races” originated in Africa.
    You make many sensible and logical arguments with respect to what it means to be an American. Well done!

  • Marilyn Harris on

    BRAVO, Maestro Berger! This is brilliantly stated! Thank you for writing and posting this! XO – M

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