There we were, in the middle of a classic Minnesota deep freeze, when a small story buried Friday in the regional section of the Star Tribune about American Legion baseball brought back sweet summer memories.
My mind drifted to hot, narcotic afternoons shagging pop flies at Pine Grove Park, the smell of sap drifting to center, the sound of a soft wind wrinkling through the cornfields just beyond the left field fence.
There was the drone of dragon flies, the hollow “tink” of the ball coming off the aluminum bat and town girls filling the bleachers behind home plate.
Completely absent from those fond teenage dreams was any notion of civics or patriotism.
But that was the news that interrupted the nostalgia last week, when the national and state branches of the American Legion said they would rigorously enforce “proper respect” toward the U.S. flag during the national anthem in their summer baseball leagues. Minnesota, with 325 teams and thousands of players, is among the top states for Legion ball.
The ruling, which was unanimous across the country, was meant to pre-empt players from copying the protests that have rippled across professional and high school sports in recent months. Athletes have been taking a knee or turning their backs during the anthem to draw attention to what many see as the unjustified shooting of black males by police.
The American Legion rules stipulate that players who disregard Legion rules of respect for the flag and anthem will be “banished” from the game and the league.
Frankly, I do not remember the anthem ever being played before a baseball game, but it was a small town park with no public address system, so the only sacred sounds I recall were the words “Play ball!”
The notion of banishment did stir memories, however. After being benched one game, I sat in the dugout and put my cap on backward. The coach, an old-school curmudgeon, said it was “a mockery of the game” and ordered me, a Minneapolis transplant, to remove it or leave the field. I chose the latter and was done for the season.
It was coach’s team and coach’s rules, and he had every right to ban me and my city-bred ways. It is also perfectly fine for the American Legion to set boundaries on what it considers free speech on its own watch.
Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU of Minnesota, said that as long as the Legion is not working at the behest of the government, it can set rules on free speech, even in a public park.
Neither of us, however, thinks it’s a great idea.
“The ACLU has criticized the notion of forced patriotism and stand with [San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick in his protest,” Nelson said. “He is really exercising the same rights we celebrate when we stand for the national anthem.”
The irony, Nelson said, is that the very act of celebrating freedom is being eroded under the guise of patriotism and freedom.
I’m always mystified when the singing of the anthem at public events suddenly becomes a distress flare in American political life, because I am always reminded that the issue is as old and unnecessary as the tattered baseball glove I sold at a garage sale years ago.
The great Mike Royko, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote about the issue as early as 1986 — 30 years ago.
Royko wrote a spoof about a guy who sat during the anthem in protest, then was beaten up by other fans and arrested. The protester came back, stood and sang loudly — too loudly with extra choruses — and was beaten up again and hauled to jail. The third game, the protester stood for the anthem as directed. He ate peanuts while the anthem played, and his fellow fans thought he was simply mouthing the obscure words, just like they were. He had attained the acceptable level of patriotism.
Royko raised the question I still pose: Why do we play the anthem at sporting events in the first place? Whether it’s a professional or amateur game, it is entertainment and sport. We don’t play the anthem at concerts, dance recitals, or movie theaters.
By playing the anthem and demanding that kids, or adults, adhere to one particular definition of patriotism is to introduce politics where it does not belong. Should you really be surprised that it would elicit alternative definitions of patriotism?
Nelson said playing the anthem at athletic events is relatively new. The issue often arises at times when some want to distract us from world events that are far more important and more difficult to discuss than songs at games.
Decades after those days at Pine Grove Park, I choose to wear my hat front-forward, even though some find it unfashionable. I have a fair grasp of the Constitution, but I still can’t remember if we played the national anthem before games.
What I do remember is the smell of freshly cut grass, the nervous joy of standing in the on-deck circle and the vivid presence of the town girls with their summer tans sitting in the bleachers.
I’m good with that.