Wow, that was fast!
One day after the New York Yankees decided they were “erring on the side of sensitivity” and abruptly ended playing Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” at their seventh-inning stretch, the Philadelphia Flyers literally sacked their longtime fan favorite and good-luck charm.
What’s caused the ruckus are songs she recorded in the 1930s that today are considered racist. The PC police have struck again.
Being the man responsible for first playing the wonderfully patriotic song at a Flyers game instead of the national anthem 50 years ago, I heard my phone explode as reaction on social media went viral and, for the most part, virulent.
Comments ranged from friends and fans vowing to turn in their tickets, to boycotting sponsors, to lamenting “a gutless decision” – as well as “It’s about time!”
As vice president of the Flyers, I first played the song on Dec. 11, 1969, to shake up the growing number of Flyers fans displaying a lack of respect during the pregame ritual of the national anthem at the Spectrum.
The nation was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War and racial unrest was tearing at our collective fabric. Many fans at Flyers games were apathetic or rude when it was played: sitting, chatting, eating, rarely removing hats, some even sitting having a smoke.
I wasn’t sure what song to use as a replacement but knew I had the right one when I found Kate’s vinyl record at a used-records store on South Street.
That fateful night at the Spectrum, the young, inexperienced Flyers were hosting the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs.
I gave the word to the sound booth and soon heard: “Ladies and gentlemen, would you please rise and join in singing Kate Smith’s recording of ‘God Bless America'?"
There was an eerie hush, followed by a growing buzz and some derisive shouts. By the time Kate’s amazing voice hit that impossible high ending note, the crowd was astir.
Ed Snider, the Flyers’ rather intense owner, was shocked. He bolted from his seat, stormed over to me and screamed in my face what he thought of my brainstorm.
“I told you I was thinking about doing it,” I said.
“But I didn’t think you were crazy enough to actually do it!” he shouted.
By the end of a crackling game in which the Flyers hustled, hit, and won, 6-3, fans streaming up the aisle told Snider how much they loved the song.
Ed came over to me sporting a warm, disbelieving smile and shaking his head.
“I don’t know how you did it, you crazy SOB,” he said, hugging me.
The next day The Inquirer snickered that since the Flyers had won one in a row, “they might want to keep her in the lineup!”
Thus was born the magical love affair between Kate Smith and “her boys,” a bunch of colorful, toothless Broad Street Bullies. Kate Smith quickly became a cherished member of the Flyers family and a Philly icon.
I played “God Bless America” only 21 times over the first three seasons – solely for a key game -- and it worked like a charm. The Flyers won 19 of those games, tied one, and lost only once, a far cry from their dismal losing records in those days. (By the end of the 2018-19 season, her record stood at a sparkling 101-31-5.)
It would be four long years before we could get Kate Smith to sing live before an adoring crowd at a Flyers game at the Spectrum.
Her New York agent flatly dismissed our many invitations.
“Miss Smith sings for presidents and kings, the pope,” he sniffed, “not for a hockey game.”
But Kate had an elderly uncle living in West Philly and he began sending her clippings of the Flyers’ good fortune. That’s all it took and she soon made the first of her four live game appearances at the opening game on Oct. 2, 1973, where the Flyers shut out Toronto, 2-0.
Maple Leafs goalie Doug Favell, a former Flyer, said when they rolled out the red carpet, “I knew we were cooked!”
If all good things must come to an end, I guess this was as good a magical run as any.
She thrilled and inspired millions around the globe as “America’s Songbird” and the signature song, given to Kate Smith by Irving Berlin with the stipulation that all royalties benefit the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, continues to raise millions of dollars for their cause.
How do I feel about her demise?
I’m disappointed, especially in the heavy-handed way she was dumped.
Yanking the song and clumsily covering the statue was harsh.
I’ve been asked what Snider, who had her statue erected and who served as a pallbearer at her 1986 funeral, would’ve done.
That’s hard to answer, but I do know he had a damn strong backbone.
Just as there is a vastly different culture today in America than 80 years ago, there is a much different culture at the Flyers and their parent, Comcast-Spectacor.
Ed Snider and Kate Smith are gone. May they both rest in peace.