The New York Yankees have played “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch since 9/11, and for most of that time, the version fans would hear booming from the speakers was Kate Smith’s well-known rendition. But the Yankees have stopped playing her recording of the song.
Why did the Yankees eliminate Smith from their seventh-inning routine? According to the New York Daily News, it’s due to several songs Smith recorded in the late 1930s that include shockingly racist language and imagery. From the Daily News:
Smith was a famous singer before and during WWII who recorded the offensive jingle, “Pickaninny Heaven,” which she directed at “colored children” who should fantasize about an amazing place with “great big watermelons,” among other treats. She shot a video for that song that takes place in an orphanage for black children, and much of the imagery is startlingly racist. She also recorded, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which included the lyrics, “Someone had to pick the cotton. … That’s why darkies were born.”
The Daily News reported that the Yankees are investigating the recordings of both of those songs, including the circumstances surrounding them, because Smith’s personal feelings and intentions aren’t clear. “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was recorded with African-American actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson, and according to the Daily News, was considered to be satire at the time. But Smith also endorsed the Aunt Jemima-esque “mammy doll” in 1939, which is based on a racist stereotype most notably on display in the 1939 film, “Gone with the Wind.”
While the intention is unknown, the racist language used in the songs was enough to make the Yankees act.
“The Yankees have been aware of a recording that had been previously unknown to us and decided to immediately and carefully review this new information,” a club spokesman told the New York Daily News. “The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”
Smith’s version of “God Bless America” is played at other sporting events, most notably before Philadelphia Flyers’ hockey games. The Flyers started playing the song in 1969, and it became such a tradition that Smith even sang the song live several times. Singer Lauren Hart now performs “God Bless America” for the Flyers, but with Smith’s vocals accompanying Hart’s performance.
The Yankees are still playing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch, but are using several different versions instead of Smith’s. In fact, the Daily News reported that the team had plans to spruce up the “God Bless America” portion of the seventh-inning stretch with live performances even before Smith’s old songs were discovered.
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