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
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at email@example.com.
10 thoughts on “Hurray for the “O!” in “The Star Spangled Banner,” And The Man Who Put It There”
I read Wise’s article. He made a comparison between the fans with “class and dignity” and those who were cretins. Elitism? There is no elitism in baseball!
As a Baltimore baseball fan of parents who liked to take summer road trips, I attended a number of Orioles road games in my formative years. Going to the ball game was a special treat that didn’t happen often back at home. Despite a blue crowd or a black and white crowd, the “O!”, however disperse, made me feel at home.
There was one experience in Yankee Statium when I was around 8 or 10 that hammers the point home. We were in scalped cheap seats, as always, and some fans didn’t take a liking to an Orioles supportor in their section, even if I was just a kid in an oversized hat and glove. Despite the nasty language, I knew we were okay, as I had heard the “O!” roar loud and clear a couple sections over.
While I truly appreciate the story of Bill Hagy (and I always appreciate being clued into the source of a reference made by the Simpsons, in this case Homer using his body to spell out “Isotopes”), I’m inclined to agree with Wise as a matter of general principles. It does seem slightly divisive to co-opt the national anthem in this way. It’s not just that the song is sung at every Orioles game – it’s sung at every baseball game throughout the country. Any baseball fan, no matter where he’s from, can hear the same thing and know that he’s welcome. By editorializing in Baltimore, the crowd perhaps deliberately reminds everyone that it’s their turf. That does seem a bit divisive. The smaller tradition cuts against the larger and more universal one. I don’t expect that to have any serious effect, but it does strike me as somewhat disrespectful of a practice that has always seemed to stand well apart from the competitive nature of the game itself.
Even the claim that the national anthem is not a prayer is debatable, if you recognize the notion of civic religion. Such traditions do seem quite ritualized to me.
I agreed with Wise until your post Jack.
Your post brought back memories of my brother and I taking the long drive to Memorial stadium and parking in the lot that was so small that they had to park you bumper to bumper so the first one in was the last one out. We’a d park his Econoline van way in the back and then climp up on the roof where he had renforced it with plywood and pull some lawn chairs and weber grill and hang out until it was time to go inside. During a many a game in early April it would be cold sitting in the shadows in our section but we could always count on the venders selling hot apple cider, something I dont think I have ever seen at Camden Yards. During the 7th inning when they stopped selling beer the beer man would come over , ask us how many we wanted and then open that many and sit on the steps next to us with his cooler so they stayed cold even though open. Memorial stadium to me was a second baseball home since Bob Short, may he burn in hell , stole my Senators. After the O’s moved to Camden Yards we would still go but it wasnt the same. The crowd was now made up mostly of Washington DC goverment and beltway types who didnt know the difference between a sacrifice fly and a pop fly. Angelos was more interested in making a buck then fielding a winning team and it just wasnt the same. For me whenhe tried to stop the Expos from moving here was the last straw since the Senators had allowed the then St Louis Browns to move to Baltimore to become the modern day Orioles. Now the only time I cheer them on is when they are playing your beloved Red Sox or the Yankees’.
Wise calling Francis Scott Key ‘the cat’ who penned the anthem is respectful? 🙂
At least it was lousy writing. I actually thought he meant a cat for a second.
Perhaps that Indiana State senator who wanted to impose a fine on people who sang the Anthem and put subtle artistic differences, would be happy with the Wise column. It’s shocking that an elected official can propose a law like that but it looks worse when someone actullay hired a journalist that doesn’t research what he is writing about.
Don’t the baseball fans in Atlanta do something similar to O’s fans, bellowing the last word of the national anthem’s first verse as a plural?
As a former 14 year KC Chiefs fan, it is tradition in “Camerohead” stadium to scream at the top of our lungs at the end of the SSBanner “And the hooome, of thhhhhheee…. CHIEFS!” very loud. It’s just homespun nuance that makes a spectator watching the game in that moment, in that place, unique in and of itself, owning the moment. Nothing else – it’s a shared camaraderie, and no disrespect is intended.
“A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.” That guy who wrote the article needs to lighen up Francis a wee bit.
I mean 14 year KCC Season ticket holder –