Stefan Bondy, New York Daily News, April 18, 2019
For 18 years, Yankee Stadium regularly used Kate Smith’s 1939 recording of “God Bless America” in the middle of the seventh inning. But they ditched it altogether this season, replacing Smith’s rendition with different versions of the song. Why? As the Daily News learned, the Yankees were made aware of Smith’s history of potential racism.
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.”
Smith, who died in 1986, endorsed the “Mammy Doll” in 1939, which was based on a racist caricature of a black woman in the same vein as Aunt Jemima.
The Yankees are investigating these claims and there are some conflicting notions regarding the song “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” in particular, because it was considered satire at the time and recorded with African-American artist Paul Robeson. Still, her shocking lyrics from 1939 are neither humorous nor ironic in 2019 — and the Yankees acted swiftly.
The Yankees started playing “God Bless America” — most frequently with Smith’s version — following the 9/11 attacks. Smith was memorialized by a statue outside of the Philadelphia Flyers’ arena, where her version of “God Bless America” was regularly played before games. She was honored in 1982 by Ronald Reagan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.