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This Year’s World Series Isn’t the First Played During a Pandemic. Here’s What Happened to Baseball in 1918

6 minute read

This year’s pandemic means there is no crying—or spitting—in baseball. After a shortened season roiled by attempts to make baseball work in the year of COVID-19, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays are facing off in a World Series as unusual as the games that came before.

But this is not the first instance of America’s pastime facing disruption in a moment of global pandemic.

In 1918, the so-called Spanish flu started to appear in the U.S. by March but Major League Baseball opened without delay on April 15. However, the season would end up shortened—though not due to the disease.

President Woodrow Wilson was an avid baseball fan who had played center field and second base for the Fighting Wildcats at Davidson College as a freshman. As President he attended 10 Washington Senators games and threw out the first pitch in 1913. (It was a much better throw than Dr. Anthony Fauci’s effort this year. “The ball was well thrown and speedy and it went straight as an arrow,” declared the New York Sun of Wilson’s arm.) However, when 1918’s baseball season began, the United States had was focused on fighting World War I. With the country at war, Wilson—who never made any official presidential statement about the flu pandemic—chose not to throw out the Opening Day pitch.

He wasn’t the only one skipping baseball because of the events of that year. Many ballplayers entered the service; for example, by 1918 about a dozen Boston Red Sox players had enlisted. Players and staff were also missing from the roster as they were felled by the flu. During spring training, a number of Red Sox players came down with the grippe, suffering from fevers and sore throats. Soon even Babe Ruth would be struck—but in his case, the treatment was worse than the illness.

As Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith write in War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War, on May 19, 1918, Ruth and his wife Helen went to Revere Beach for a swim and picnic and a pick-up baseball game on the sand. That night, Ruth came down with a 104°F fever, body aches, chills and a raging sore throat; though it’s impossible to confirm that he had the pandemic flu, his symptoms were consistent with it.

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To ease his painful throat, the team doctor administered silver nitrate, a common treatment but one that required careful dosing. Unfortunately the doctor accidentally applied too much and soon Ruth was in agony and choking. After several days at Massachusetts General Hospital, Ruth recovered and returned to the game. Ruth was struck by the flu and survived a second time in the postseason.

By that time, however, many members of the public had begun to wonder why the games, played by healthy young men, were continuing despite the war. Before the season began, many Americans agreed with preacher Billy Sunday, who in 1917 said, “the idea that baseball is a luxury and ought to be postponed until after the war is over is ridiculous.” Even President Wilson had hoped that baseball would continue as a welcome diversion from war and pandemic news. (Team owners, naturally, hoped the games—and the revenue—would continue too.) But by the end of 1917 there was mounting pressure on the owners to shut down the games.

The owners agreed before the season started to reduce the schedule from 154 games to 140, and made an effort to show that baseball was making its fair contribution. In addition to a nine-inning game, there were now drills with bats wielded as if they were rifles, Liberty Bond drives and Red Cross charity events. Then, a “work or fight” order issued by the Secretary of War in July ended up shortening the season even more, to as few as 122 games. As the season was squeezed, there was a series of doubleheaders in both leagues. A commemorative ball from one of those last games between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers is in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame with its inscription: “Season ending on Labor Day on Account of War.”

But what about the World Series?

In War Fever, Smith and Roberts write that it was just a few weeks before the start of the series that Babe Ruth and two other Red Sox teammates got notices from their draft board informing them they had to find “essential occupations” by Sept. 1 or face enlistment. The Series, between the Sox and the Cubs, was scheduled to start on Sept. 5. It would be the only World Series ever played in September.

Ruth’s place on the ball field was about more than just competitive advantage. The 1918 season had been the year that Ruth revolutionized the game from the Ty Cobb “deadball era” of choppy, small hits and bunts used to move the runner around, to the colossal over the fence home runs that Babe excelled at hitting. During this time, says Georgia Tech history professor Johnny Smith, “the sports writers, particularly in Boston, constructed an image of him as all that is good in America. His power at the plate at a time when no one else was hitting home runs or swinging for the fences the way that he did becomes a metaphor for American manpower in the war. The difference in the war is going to be American manhood, American strength. Ruth demonstrates that the powerful American man is what decides the outcome on the ball field just like powerful American manhood will decide the outcome in this war.”

A compromise was reached that allowed the season to end on Labor Day with the Series to be played immediately after—and with Ruth on the roster.

Boston Red Sox historian Gordon Edes called it “the most joyless World Series ever.” Against the backdrop of war, fans were becoming disillusioned with the game. They were also preoccupied by other threats. The flu was thought to be waning by then, but in fact in many places it was still pummeling the population. And the day before the Series started in Chicago, the Federal Building, which housed a post office, was bombed, killing four. (A young postal worker who escaped injury that day was Walt Disney.)

Once the season ended, Ruth joined the labor force at Bethlehem Steel in Lebanon, Pa. By then, the second more lethal wave of the influenza was striking in Boston. Dr. John Hitchcock, the head of the communicable disease section of the Massachusetts State Department of Health, issued a warning on September 5: “Unless precautions are taken the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population of the city.”

It was already too late. Boston was now the epicenter of the epidemic. The Red Sox won the World Series, but there would be no victory parade or public celebration of the champions.

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