When the Washington Nationals hosted the Baltimore Orioles in an interleague baseball game, many Orioles fans attended to root for their team, the long-diminishes but suddenly (and, I fear, temporarily) resurgent O’s from Charm City. Nobody who has attended Orioles games in Camden Yards was surprised that the Orioles fans shouted out a loud “O!” as the National Anthem reached its climax, in the line, “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” They have been doing this, joyfully and with full-throated enthusiasm, for over four decades.
Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise to his keyboard to express his annoyance and indignation. Calling the O’s fans who engage in the traditional shout “cretins,” Wise wrote,
“…By claiming the lyrics, if only for a moment, you fundamentally undermine the idea that the song was written to unite instead of divide. A national anthem is a national anthem, not a convenient vehicle for one’s immense pride in his or her team.”
Allow me to retort!
The National Anthem isn’t a prayer. It’s the celebration of the spirit of America, and America itself. When it is sung or played at a baseball game, the anthem also celebrates the traditional connection between America and baseball, dubbed the National Pastime because of its roots in the rural United States, its connection to children, fathers and sons, and traditional values. I have attended hundreds of baseball games, and the playing of the National Anthem is always a moment of excitement and anticipation of the contest to come. In contrast to many public renditions of the song, the fans pay attention. And Baltimore fans, bless ‘em, have found a way to make the anthem their own, if only for a second.
It is theirs, you know. Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that transformed the old drinking song into the odd, stirring theme song for the greatest nation on earth while enduring a shelling during the War of 1812, in the old ruined fort just across the harbor from Camden Yards. I don’t begrudge the Baltimorens their own watermark on the classic. The “O!” is not intended disrespectfully, nor is it generally received that way by outsiders. In my case, the shout has made me smile every single time I hear it.
Amazingly, Wise condemned the “O!” while apparently being ignorant of where it came from, and to me, its origin is part of what makes it endearing. Back before Camden Yards was built, ushering in the new era of yuppie baseball stadiums that aped the old crumbling brick parks of the Titanic era, and ushered in 80 buck seats and ten-dollar hot dogs, the Baltimore Orioles played in War Memorial Stadium, a 50′s style combination football stadium/baseball field, where you could see farmland over the centerfield wall. Unlike the current O’s fans, the Memorial Stadium gang were mostly blue-collar (the seats were affordable), boisterous, and uncouth. They also had a series of wonderful teams to root for, annoyingly swift and clutch players and brilliant pitchers, managed most memorably by Earl Weaver, the “Earl of Baltimore.”
There were no formal team mascots in those sweet days, but a Sparrow’s Point, Md. cab driver named “Wild Bill” Hagy became one by his own audacity. Hagy was a paunchy red-neck stereotype in a T-shirt, cut-off jeans, a straw cowboy hat and sunglasses. He had a full, unkempt beard and hair that reached to his shoulders, and he sat in the cheap seats in the top level of the stadium, Section 34. Hagy would get oiled up on a few National Bohemian beers and begin churning up the section to cheer for the Orioles at key points in the game. His method was to bend his ungainly body into the shapes of the letters that spelled “Orioles,” as Section 34, and over time, the entire stadium, shouted out the letters in unison. One night, on a whim, Hagy jumped to his feet as the National Amthem was ending and made his trademark “O” to match the lyrics. Section 34 responded to the cue, and the next night, so did everyone else. A local custom was born.
Hagy’s act was inspiring because it was genuine, passionate, sincere, and anything but slick. While even then electronic message boards cued the crowd to cheer like they were 8-year-olds on “The Bozo Show,” the “Roar from 34″ as it was called, came from the heart. It was baseball, Baltimore, and pure Americana rolled up into a spontaneous, slovenly, charming tradition.
When the team moved to ritzy, pricey, carnival-like Camden Yards, Hagy disappeared. He wasn’t appreciated: his role as unofficial mascot detracted from the bland, smiling, giant Oriole that wanders the park and generates merchandizing revenue. Most of Hagy’s pals from Section 34 couldn’t afford to buy seats regularly, and the new Orioles owners refused to give Hagy a pass to the cheap seats, because there were none. By the time “Wild Bill” died in 2007, he hadn’t led an O-R-I-O-L-E-S cheer or even attended a game in years.
Every time I hear that shouted “O” I think of Wild Bill, and how much he added to my trips to Memorial Stadium. I think about how neat it is that in America, a scruffy cab driver can become an inspiration, a celebrity, and a part of community lore by expressing his passion and love of a baseball team with nothing but his arms, legs, and native boldness. I love stories like his, and I love when ordinary people capture the essence of a community to craft lasting traditions and enrich the culture. Wild Bill Hagy did something important in Section 34 while he was making baseball games more fun for thousands of people almost every day, and his life teaches us the lesson that we don’t have to have money, fame, connections or fancy degrees to accomplish something lasting, or to be remembered after we’re gone. They will be shouting Bill’s “O!” in Baltimore long after Khloe Kardashian and Miley Cyrus have been consigned to the celebrity ash-heap of pop history. He was as American as they come, and there is nothing wrong with allowing the National Anthem to include a tiny tribute to the unpretentious man who made the playing of it a tiny bit more special by his antics.
I’m sorry if this disturbs Mike Wise’s patriotic reveries, but in no way does keeping alive Wild Bill’s tradition “divide” us. Traditions, on the contrary, unite us.
They still call out your “O!” in Baltimore, Wild Bill.
Source: Washington Post
Graphic: Baltimore or Less
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