Six days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Major League Baseball returned to the field with a new ritual. During the seventh-inning stretch, a moment typically reserved for Take Me Out to the Ball Game, another song played at parks around the country: God Bless America.
Everybody sang along, that night and for weeks afterward.
In a riveting World Series that year between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Yankees, one of the most enduring memories came during Game 3 in New York, when 56,000 people at Yankee Stadium joined in a melancholy rendition of the tune as a tattered flag recovered at the World Trade Center site fluttered on a pole above the center field scoreboard.
At a time when the US was still in shock over al-Qaeda’s strike on US soil, baseball was there to help start the healing.
“It sent chills down and a lot of tears,” MLB commissioner Bud Selig said. “Almost overpoweringly emotional.”
Ten years later, God Bless America has become woven into the fabric of the baseball experience. It is played on Sundays, holidays, special occasions and — in the case of the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers — at every game.
Certainly, when the song is sung, Sept. 11 is prominent in the minds of many New Yorkers. Grief psychologist Barbara Okun said it takes several generations for a tragedy on such a massive scale to lose its visceral impact and fade into history.
And with troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Irving Berlin tune has taken on a broader significance.
“I think everyone was grieving then, but things change in their meaning and functionality. I think it’s different,” said Okun, a professor at Northeastern University. “I really look at when we do something patriotic, it’s not just for those victims — it’s for all the victims of tyranny and warfare and terrorism.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, major sporting events throughout the US came to an abrupt halt.
Selig postponed the full schedule of games for almost a week — the longest stoppage in a baseball season other than for strikes since 1918, when World War I forced the cancellation of the final month of the season.
The New York Mets’ Shea Stadium became a staging area for relief supplies.
Mets manager Bobby Valentine helped run the operation, organizing “people coming in off the streets” to lend a hand.
Mets and Yankees players visited first responders. The Yankees all went to an armory where families were waiting to hear about their missing loved ones.
When games resumed on Sept. 17, teams wore the US flag on their uniforms. The Mets wore caps with the NYPD (New York Police Department) and NYFD (New York Fire Department) inscriptions rather than their interlocking NY. Opposing players met on the field for handshakes before the start of the games.
All the teams, at the request of the commissioner, swapped Take Me Out to the Ball Game for God Bless America.
The Mets put on a spirit-raising show for 41,000 fans when baseball finally returned to New York on Sept. 21. Mike Piazza, after choking up during pregame ceremonies, hit a homer in the eighth inning to lift the Mets over the Atlanta Braves.
“It was probably the most special night I’ve spent at a ballpark with the Mets,” Mets executive vice president David Howard said. “Piazza’s homer, it was magical.”
The singing of God Bless America sticks with Valentine.