The early spring day at Fenway Park in Boston was ideal after a horrific winter of extreme cold and snow. A perfectly blue sky and the warmth of the sun made the day feel as if had been custom ordered, splashed against the phenomenal green of the manicured field at America’s oldest ballpark. Growing up in the 1950s, baseball was the only national sport, and sandlot baseball was a place where a young kid could hone both his fielding and batting skills without the presence of adults or the trappings of the more organized form of the game in Little League.
April 13 was the season opener at Fenway. Getting tickets for the first home game of the year is a nearly impossible task and fairly costly, but I was there through good fortune.
I get up when the National Anthem plays because it’s not worth the hassle of being seen as unpatriotic among the many who stand. What shocks, however, is how the game of baseball has been conjoined with the national secular religion of unquestioning patriotism. Sport is now conflated with an aggressive and militaristic nationalism, as could be seen in the sky above Fenway as two F-16 fighter jets made a scheduled flyby over the baseball stadium. Having grown up as a diehard Red Sox fan from a family of likeminded Red Sox fans, I never remember any such display happening during my childhood attendance at the park.
The single recognition of patriotism at ballgames during opening ceremonies has now morphed in unison with the many wars the U.S. fights. The seventh-inning stretch is now peppered with additional songs such as “God Bless America,” sung on this opening day by a talented 12-year-old student.
At some point during the game a military officer in attendance at the game was recognized for his service in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When the National Anthem was sung, the playing field was filled with soldiers flanking the honor guard that carried the flag.
Fenway is no different than other ballparks. Early in the season last year, while approaching Yankee Stadium on foot, I witnessed a group of Army paratroopers as they made their choreographed descent onto the playing field. The impact is obvious, as the popularity of militarism and sport is connected.
Last year at Fenway, near the midpoint of the season, a World War II veteran threw out the first ball of the game. Pacifists might object to this, but even with the debate over the Spanish Civil War and the lack of support from the U.S. and its soon-to-be allies, an argument can be made that fascism needed to be fought. The late Howard Zinn, who taught only a short distance from Fenway Park at Boston University, eloquently gave a nuanced view of that war. As a World War II bombardier, Zinn’s questioning of war and air war in particular, developed slowly as the war neared its end in 1945. He became a student and scholar of history. His understanding of the deadly nature of modern warfare and its effects upon innocent civilians had a profound impact on many in the antiwar movement.
Within walking distance of the ballpark is another reminder of the insanity of religious fundamentalism and war at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Once again, innocent civilians and athletes were killed, maimed, and injured in the name of God and war.
Baseball was once an idealized sport in the minds of many kids growing up in postwar America. The faces of our heroes and their records adorned the trading cards that we collected. It seemed as pure and unspoiled as a sport could be and I do not remember the sandlots on which we played being a place or test of patriotic fervor.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.