Debate over 'O' in national anthem rages on for Birds fans

Show of loyalty hits a sour note for some

April 10, 2010|By Candus Thomson

At 2:53:42 Friday afternoon, thousands of Orioles fans committed an act of patriotic blasphemy.

Or engaged in a show of loyalty to the hometown team on Opening Day.

To "O" or not to "O," that has been the question since, well, when?

Sometime in the 1970s, fans and Mike Gesker, author of The Orioles Encyclopedia, seem to agree.

But there the agreement ends.

Like the debate about the worthiness of playing "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" during the seventh-inning stretch, the "O" argument goes round and round, getting stuck every couple of years like a phonograph needle on an old record.

The needle got stuck again Monday, when a letter from Charles Hilton, a Baltimore resident and once-a-year visitor to Camden Yards, appeared in The Sun. Hilton, who acknowledged he goes to games only when he gets free tickets from his employer, called the localization of the anthem "disrespectful."

That characterization was milder than one used in 1993 by Sun sports columnist emeritus John Steadman, who considered the shouting a "repulsive act." Steadman even suggested at one point in his half-century career that the Orioles should forfeit any game at which the "O" was shouted rather than sung.

This week, Hilton was almost immediately attacked online by the fans who shout "O" and are proud of it.

"We own the National Anthem. ...We sing O. We say hon. We go down the ocean. That's what we do. That's what makes Baltimore great," wrote one.

Gesker concurred. "I think Francis Scott Key had that 'O' in mind when he wrote the poem in 1814, didn't he?" he said, chuckling.

However, a smaller group of writers backed Hilton, with one writing, "That 'O' thing is both sophomoric and embarrassing."

At the ballpark, more fans appeared eager to let loose with their first full-throated roar since last fall than were preparing for an O-free zone.

"Oh, hell yeah," said Jen Taylor, grinning, when asked if she was going to yell rather than sing. The nurse from the Eastern Shore continued, "You're in Camden Yards, baby, and what's more American than baseball and the national anthem?"

But Dale Lowry, a retired weather forecaster and 40-year season-ticket holder from Potomac, disagreed, calling it "disrespectful."

"I would rather they not do it," Lowry said. "But with the First Amendment, they have the right to do it."

John Ross, a volunteer with the Oriole Advocates since 1989 and a Timonium resident, agreed. "I don't like it. I'm retired military, and that's not the way it was written."

However, from a musical standpoint, two-thirds of the Dixie Devils ragtime trio, playing at the Eutaw Street entrance, gave the shout a standing "O."

"The O, that's really the lyric," said Chip Kelly, a banjo player from Northern Virginia. "It's humorous. It's joyous."

Tuba player Kevin Olivera added: "In a ballpark, it shows spirit. In a church, well, that would be a different story."

The tradition of singing the national anthem began during World War II. Things were fairly harmonious until Jose Feliciano sang a soulful, Latin-flavored version before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, igniting a firestorm of protest. A year later, Jimi Hendrix was castigated for bending the notes at Woodstock. But by the time Marvin Gaye performed a funky version of the song during the 1983 NBA All-Star Game - and was applauded by players and spectators - the chorus had subsided. Only Roseanne Barr's shrieking rendition in 1990 could get a rise out of the masses.

Of course, the Camden Yards faithful are not alone in their improvisations. Fans of other teams have taken liberties with the song.

At the Verizon Center, the word "red" is emphasized to note the color scheme of the NHL's Capitals. On occasion, Atlanta fans shout the word "Braves" at the end of the anthem for their hometown team.

At least they're moving their lips.

In a 2004 Harris poll of 2,200 American adults, only 39 percent of those who claimed to know all the words could fill in the blank after "whose broad stripes and bright stars." (Stumped? "through the perilous fight" ).

Some anthem traditionalists have composed their own counterpoint to fight slippage. For example, the Lake Elsinore Storm of the Class A California League warns those auditioning to be part of the pre-game festivities that "performances must be military style with no additional notes, verses or variations."

That wouldn't have helped Johnny Paycheck, the late country music outlaw and a member of the 61 percent of anthem-clueless Americans. Improvising his way through the song at an Atlanta Falcons game, Paycheck famously began this way: "Oh, say can you see, it's cloudy at night, what so loudly we sang, at the daylight's last cleaning."

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