ON SEPT. 11, 1916, a celebrated opera singer by the name of Anna Fitzui walked up to home plate on a baseball field at Cooperstown, N.Y., and for the first time warbled "The Star Spangled Banner" to launch a sports event.
The fat lady had sung, but our troubles with this song had just begun. For as long as I can remember, "The Star Spangled Banner" has been a flash point of controversy, not to mention a strain on our vocal chords. It's time to get rid of it, not only at sports events, but altogether.
It's ironic that of all the people booing the Denver Nuggets' Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for praying during the National Anthem, it should be sports fans.
Question: When was the last time you saw anybody sing "The Star Spangled Banner" in the beer line?
And how 'bout them O's fans as when Baltimore Orioles fans enjoy yelling out a big "O" on the last stanza of the revered anthem?
And how about that funny American flag hat Pat Buchanan wore in New Hampshire? The last time I checked, Mr. Buchanan was a speech writer in the Nixon White House churning out press releases condemning hippies for doing the same thing.
So let's put aside all our puffed-up self-righteousness about the national anthem for a moment and try just try to see where Mr. Abdul-Rauf is coming from.
In 1916, the first year the Banner was sung at a baseball game, 50 black Americans were strung up on trees and lynched.
Oh say can you see. In 1915, 56 African-Americans were lynched.
By the dawn's early light.
In 1917, 36 were lynched.
What so proudly we hailed.
The next year, 60 were lynched, according to the official figures from the Library of Congress.
And so on.
Question: How many Indians do you think jumped up and sang the anthem when the 7th Cavalry galloped over the hill?
But that's old news, right?
Well, think again: 17 churches with black congregations have been fire-bombed since January of last year in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia.
Meanwhile, get this: Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms said last week that there's no conspiracy involved in the incidents.
The simple fact is, "The Star Spangled Banner" is as American as an assault rifle. Maybe it's not the symbol of "tyranny and oppression" that Mr. Abdul-Rauf says it is at least not to most people but it's always been entangled with military themes starting with the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, the event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write it.
(By the way, can anyone remember what that war was all about?)
Maybe Key was just another song-writer looking for a hit. After all, he set the Banner to the tune of an English pub song he had previously tried out with some other words.
In any event, his Banner was basically forgotten until the Civil War, when some Yankee soldiers picked it up as a battle tune. It didn't officially become the National Anthem until 1931, following intense lobbying by Maryland politicians and 150 self-described "patriotic organizations." President Herbert Hoover signed it into law.
Even then, though, playing the Banner at sports events wasn't a tradition until World War II broke out. Again, it was hijacked for military purposes at a time, we should remember for the sake of Mr. Abdul-Rauf, that the Army was still officially segregated.
All along, meanwhile, there existed a far superior melody one that was actually singable which equated love of country with America's sheer beauty and, optimistically, "brotherhood."
Oh beautiful, for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain;
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain
"America the Beautiful" was written by Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College in the 19th century, after she climbed Pikes Peak.
It was a sweet song peaceful, reverent, generous in its patriotism.
It still is. But Katherine Lee Bates, of course, was just "a girl." And she didn't have powerful forces lobbying for her.
But it's not too late to make amends. Some "traditions," like lynching itself, are made to be broken.
Be honest: Wouldn't you rather sing "America the Beautiful"? Let's can the Banner, starting with Opening Day.
Jeff Stein is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."
Pub Date: 3/24/96