Same Song, Different Stadium

Bonnie Price

Joseph L. Price sings the national anthem at Louisville Slugger Field, one of the Minor League Baseball parks the Whittier College religious-studies professor is visiting to gather material for his forthcoming book on how ballparks express cultural values.
August 14, 2011

With a song in his heart and a book in the works, Joseph L. Price is exploring America through two of its most enduring symbols: baseball and the national anthem.

Since April he has been on a cross-country tour of Minor League Baseball parks, where he sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" and records his observations on local culture for a forthcoming book, Perfect Pitch: The National Anthem for the National Pastime.

"I'm basically seeing how the particular character of the ballparks expresses the values of the community," says Mr. Price, a religious-studies professor at Whittier College, who sang at a White Sox game in 1977 when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

At his stop in Nashville, for example, he saw a commemorative plaque dedicated not to a famous baseball player or a local leader, but to George David Cheatham, a beer vendor who sold drinks to thirsty fans at Herschel Greer Stadium for more than three decades, until his death in 2009.

"It indicates that they respect vendors who add enthusiasm to the ballpark," Mr. Price says.

Local identity also shines through in the snacks served at each park, he says, such as flaky biscuits in Montgomery, Ala., crab pretzels in Frederick, Md., and clam chowder in Lowell, Mass.

Mr. Price has been accompanied the whole way by his wife, Bonnie, and they are making the trip in a used recreational vehicle, towing a 1995 Saturn behind. So far they've visited more than 80 parks, with a few hiccups along the way: The RV broke down along a country road in Farmville, Va., and it began oozing hydraulic fluid in Monterey, Mass. Each problem, though, allowed for encounters with friendly mechanics and helpful townspeople, Mr. Price says.

So far, Casper, Wyo., has been his favorite place to sing. The ballpark's bring-your-dog night reminded him of his own pet at home, and the team's mascot, Hobart the Platypus, selected one lucky woman as "sweetheart of the game," awarding her a bouquet of flowers. But it was the fans' friendliness and warmth that impressed Mr. Price the most. Several of them complimented him on his no-frills performance of the anthem, something he says is intentional.

"When it is performed as it is written, it unifies," says Mr. Price. "When someone performs it in their own way, it becomes an individual performance. But when you perform it in the traditional way, it becomes identified as a consecrating ritual."

Mr. Price will log his 100th game in Reno, Nev., on August 29, and will round out his tour with a performance at Arrowhead Credit Union Park in San Bernardino, Calif., on September 4.