Yankees and Flyers made right call distancing themselves from Kate Smith, and any argument to contrary is silly

Alex Reimer
April 23, 2019 - 10:43 am

The Yankees and Flyers have distanced themselves from old-time singer Kate Smith, because of her recently unearthed racist tunes like “That’s Why the Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninnies’ Heaven.” This is undoubtedly the right call, and not indicative of any slippery slope.

Smith’s grandiose version of “God Bless America” has been a staple at Yankee Stadium ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, blaring over the loudspeakers during the seventh-inning stretch. Last week, the Yankees told the New York Daily News they were going to “err on the side of sensitivity” and stop playing the song. The Flyers, who made Smith a franchise mascot following her live rendition of “God Bless America” during the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals against the Bruins, also said they will no longer subject fans to her version of the patriotic number. The team covered up a statue of Smith with black cloth as well. 

“The NHL principle 'Hockey is for Everyone' is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for,” the club wrote in a statement. “As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”

Unsurprisingly, the two songs in question are reprehensible. The chorus to “That’s Why the Darkies Were Born” features Smith roaring about how “someone had to pick the cotton” and “somebody had to slave.” The message to “Pickaninnies’ Heaven” is just as grotesque, with Smith bellowing racist tropes about African-American orphans going to a special heaven with “great big watermelons” and “old Black Joe.”

There’s no indication that Smith, who recorded these songs in the early 1930s, carried these racist views deep into the 20th century (she passed away in 1986). Maybe she never held them to begin with, and was just singing the songs of the times, so to speak. That seems to be her family’s defense, with one of her nieces telling Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate that “Aunt Katherine was probably one of the kindest people” she had ever met.

While that might be true, sweet ol’ Aunt Katherine still decided to sing and attach her name to vehemently racist little ditties. Not every mainstream pop star from the Depression era features bigoted tunes in their catalogue. Smith is the exception here. 

On ESPN’s “First Take” Monday, right-wing commentator Will Cain compared Smith’s racist lyrics to Barack Obama’s early opposition to gay marriage, which is downright idiotic. Point me to the speeches where Obama spouted homophobic slurs and stereotypes, and then we can have the conversation. Opposing same-sex marriage while supporting civil unions is not the same as singing about black kids eating juicy watermelons and picking cotton. Sorry.

My good pals Gerry Callahan and Mike Mutnansky tried to introduce the slippery slope argument on Tuesday’s “Mut & Callahan,” with Callahan prattling on about how Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and Martin Luther King Jr. abhorred homosexuality. That is equally silly. In terms of historical significance, it’s safe to say Smith ranks just a few notches below one of our founding fathers and leader of the Civil Rights movement. Plus, we can all agree Jefferson and MLK did lots of good for the world. Smith’s greatest domestic accomplishment was singing “God Bless America” before the Flyers won a playoff game 45 years ago. 

If even one Yankees or Flyers fan of color now feels uncomfortable honoring Smith, that’s one fan too many. She is a rightful casualty of inclusion. We can survive with another version of "God Bless America" from somebody who also didn't sing about how "darkies" were born to pick cotton.

Related: Tuesday’s Mashup: Tom Brady leaves comment on Zdeno Chara’s Game 7 Instagram post