Proudly (And Not So Proudly) We Sing The National Anthem

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Hermina Hirsch received a warm welcome for her National Anthem performance at Comerica Park. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
Hermina Hirsch received a warm welcome for her National Anthem performance at Comerica Park. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

About a month ago during Friday night dinner with her family, 89-year-old Hermina Hirsch half-overheard a conversation between her two sons. She remembers them saying something about "baseball" and the national anthem.

"I said to them, 'Boys, I am going to sing the national anthem,'" she told me. "Not, 'I would like to.' But I said, 'I am going to sing,'"

Hirsch doesn't know much about baseball. She was born in what was then Czechoslovakia. But she knows the U.S. national anthem really well.

"I love the song, and I do it frequently for my chapter of the Holocaust survivors when we get together once a week," she said.

Hirsch lost her parents, three brothers and aunts and uncles at Auschwitz. She moved to Detroit in 1953. But, back to that dinner with her family last month...

"That was Friday night," she said. "Sunday morning my oldest son showed up with his pocket, ahhh, radio, you know, and took a picture of me and said, 'Go ahead and sing because I know somebody who wants to hear your voice.'"

The video made a big splash online. Detroit media showed up at Hirsch's door for interviews. They asked her if she would be nervous to sing in front of a crowd.

"If I lived through the concentration camp," she told them, "it couldn’t be that bad."

Last Saturday night, Hermina Hirsch got her wish.

"When I sang at the ballgame I said, 'My goodness.' I had to lift my hand to god that I see so many people and they all cheering for me."

After she sang, Hirsch and her family watched the game together. Then they all went out for pizza to celebrate.

Hirsch took home many great memories of singing in Comerica Park, but she didn't take home a paycheck.

"No, no, no," she said. "I don't even want to be paid because this is an honor that my kids will remember when I am gone. They all came, my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. So that was enough pay for me."

And that's how it's supposed to go, right? A happy performer. A happy family. The Tigers even won that game, 5-4. But it doesn't always go that well. In fact, every once in a while, it goes very, very badly.

Meanwhile, in San Diego...

"I'm working on now actually trying to get someone to come counsel chorus members who've had to deal with this," said Bob Lehman, executive director of the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus.

On the same night as Hermina Hirsch's triumph in Detroit, the Gay Men's Chorus was set to perform in San Diego.

Lehman and about 100 members of the chorus had been looking forward to the evening since January, when the Padres invited them to perform at Pride night. They'd done it once before, last fall, and it had gone really well. This new date meant a lot to some of the chorus members.

"I had one young man from North Carolina, and he was using this as an opportunity to help his relationship with his father," Lehman said. "He thought this was something, common ground they had, professional baseball. So for him, being on the field was probably the biggest day of his life."

When the chorus performed in the fall, the members who didn't want to buy tickets to the game simply went home when the anthem was over. But this time, someone at the Padres sent an email making clear that wouldn't be acceptable.

"It kind of insinuated that we knew that we had to pay for tickets and we never should have expected to get in for free, and kind of accused of us not sponsoring the event," Lehman said.

It took a little while, but the Padres eventually apologized and conceded that the chorus members who didn't want to stay and watch the game didn't need tickets.

Which doesn't mean the team didn't make any money on the arrangement. Bob Lehman spent $360 on tickets for friends and family.

"I was hoping we could put that all behind us," he said. "We were looking forward to singing that night."

As is customary at Petco Park, the chorus pre-recorded their performance for the evening. The Padres insist on it.

"So you would think, oh, just singing along with music that everyone's going to hear, you're not nervous," Lehman said. "But it was a huge game, the Dodgers and the Padres, so there were more than 40,000 people in the stands. It was going to be our biggest live audience event ever in our 31-year history. Just as we prepared to sing, we were standing in center field and our artistic director raised his arms to start us, and, instead of our music starting, it was the voice of one woman singing the national anthem. It felt like forever. Even the 90 seconds of the song felt like longer than normal. We eventually joined in and sang along, because that's what you do to the national anthem."

"As we were leaving the field, there was some applause of encouragement, people saying, 'Keep your heads up. They'll be another time,'" Lehman said. "But unfortunately there were a couple jeers. One person yelled, 'You sing like a girl.'"

Lehman said San Diego hasn't always been the most welcoming place for the LGBT community. He said protesters showed up at his wedding.

But, he said, last Saturday night's debacle was just a mistake. And, as a result of conversations he's had this week with Padres CEO Mike Dee, the team and San Diego Pride have forged a much better relationship. Lehman says something really positive has come out of all of this, but the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus is yet not ready to commit to a future performance at Petco Park.

I wasn't able to find out whether any of baseball's 30 teams pay their performers or provide more than a ticket or two per group free of charge. Major League Baseball would only say that the league had no central policy on the issue.

This segment aired on May 28, 2016.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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