Published November 20, 2014
Six days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Major League Baseball returned to the field with a new ritual. During the seventh-inning stretch, a moment typically reserved for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," another song played at parks around the country: "God Bless America."
Everybody sang along, that night and for weeks afterward.
In a riveting World Series that year between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Yankees, one of the most enduring memories came during Game 3 in New York, when 56,000 people at Yankee Stadium joined in a melancholy rendition of the tune as a tattered flag recovered at the World Trade Center site fluttered on a pole above the center field scoreboard.
At a time when America was still in shock over Al-Qaida's strike on U.S. soil, baseball was there to help start the healing.
"It sent chills down and a lot of tears," Commissioner Bud Selig remembered. "Almost overpoweringly emotional."
Ten years later, "God Bless America" has become woven into the fabric of the baseball experience. It's played on Sundays, holidays, special occasions and even every game in the case of two teams, the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Certainly, when the song is sung, Sept. 11 is prominent in the minds of many New Yorkers. Grief psychologist Barbara Okun says it takes several generations for a tragedy on such a massive scale — the obvious comparison is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — to lose its visceral impact and fade into history.
And with troops still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Irving Berlin tune has taken on a broader significance.
"I think everyone was grieving then, but things change in their meaning and functionality. I think it's different," said Okun, a professor at Northeastern University. "I really look at when we do something patriotic, it's not just for those victims — it's for all the victims of tyranny and warfare and terrorism."
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, major sporting events around the country came to abrupt halt.
Selig postponed the full schedule of games for almost a week — the longest stoppage other than for strikes since 1918, when World War I forced the cancellation of the final month of the season.
Shea Stadium became a staging area for relief supplies. Mets manager Bobby Valentine helped run the operation, organizing "people coming in off the streets" to lend a hand. Mets and Yankees players visited first responders. The Yankees all went to an Armory where families were waiting to hear about their missing loved ones.
When games resumed on Sept. 17, teams wore the Stars and Stripes on their uniforms. The Mets wore caps with the NYPD and NYFD inscriptions rather than their interlocking NY. Opposing players met on the field for handshakes before the start of the games.
All the teams, at the request of the commissioner, swapped out "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" for "God Bless America."
The Mets put on a spirit-raising show for 41,000 fans when baseball finally returned to New York on Sept. 21. Mike Piazza, after choking up during pregame ceremonies, hit a homer in the eighth inning to lift the Mets over the Atlanta Braves.
"It was probably the most special night I've spent at a ballpark, with the Mets," Mets executive vice president David Howard said. "Piazza's homer, it was magical."
The singing of "God Bless America" sticks with Valentine.
"There was a physical feeling, the chills and leg shaking a little and all those emotional adrenaline rushes," he said "There was sadness, there was anger, there was patriotism, there was the idea of what can you do and how can you do more of it."
Before the start of the 2002 season, Selig sent a memo to all the ballclubs giving them the discretion in choosing when to play "God Bless America."
"Everybody should do what they think is right," he said.
Most teams scaled back, and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter sees nothing wrong with that. Failing to play the song doesn't diminish the memory.
"I think it's OK to move forward," Hunter said. "Most ballparks do not play 'God Bless America' every game. But you'll never forget that day, the people who fell, the people who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan since then."
The Mets were one of the teams that cut back on the song, letting fans once again enjoy the sweet nostalgia of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with its peanuts and Cracker Jack.
"We just felt that doing it on Sundays, holidays and special dates and occasions was the proper balance," Howard said. The Mets still honor a U.S. troop every game through an organization called Welcome Back Veterans, which team owner Fred Wilpon helped found.
Owned by the born-on-the-Fourth-of-July patriot George Steinbrenner, the Yankees continued to play the song every game. Crowd participation has varied since, but there are still stirring singalongs occasionally, often on July 4, Sept. 11 or during the playoffs.
"I think people appreciate it and enjoy it," Yankees president Randy Levine.
Perhaps not everyone.
Shortly after they began playing "God Bless America" at every game, the Yankees instituted a policy that prevented fans from leaving their seats. The team used chains held by workers to block the aisles and impede movement — a practice that was stopped after a fan was ejected in 2008 and sued the team.
Around the big leagues, there have been grumblings that the Yankees play the song to put the opposing pitcher at a disadvantage because the break is so long. That was especially the case during playoff games when tenor Ronan Tynan would sing his nearly 2½ minute version, including a little-used stanza that includes the line "as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer."
Tynan chose to give the song a full airing to honor Berlin, the songwriter. He also would get chills hearing his thousands of backup singers joining in, sustaining notes a little longer to keep the moment going.
During the 2003 playoffs, the Minnesota Twins didn't appreciate his rendition when they came to New York — and it had nothing to do with his voice. Manager Ron Gardenhire "went nuts because he said I caused a frozen shoulder for the pitcher for the length and duration of the song I had sung," Tynan recalled.
Without naming a club, Valentine said "some places where they do it all the time, seems they were doing it for all the wrong reasons. But possibly not. If they're doing it for the right reason I think it could be played twice a day."
The Yankees ignore any criticism about the song. They plan to play "God Bless America" during every seventh-inning stretch for as long as there are Yankees.
"That is never going to change," Levine said.
AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker in New York contributed to this report.