Baseball Has Dealt  With Pandemics Before

Mark Blaudschun

On Thursday, the 2020 Major League Baseball season was scheduled to open.

 It did not because of the ever increasing Covid-19 virus numbers .

For those of you fretting over a world with no sports, including major league baseball, we now give you evidence that The Show indeed goes on.

 Push the clock back more than a century to 1918.  

Major League baseball is virtually the only big time game in town and the United States and the baseball world  are dealing with The Great War, a pandemic and the start of what would become a two-year siege.

It is called The Spanish Flu and it might have actually started in China, but was basically traced to a military base in Kansas, carried into the country by troops returning home from Europe.

Before it would be controlled more than two years later, the numbers would be staggering.

More than 50 million deaths world wide, which would include 675,000 deaths in the United States.

 It was a different era, of course,  where communication and knowledge were muted by lack of technology.

 There was no nation wide shutdown, no pause or stop button pushed across the United States, despite clear evidence that something was wrong.

The War was the prime topic and it had been raging for a few years before the United States was eventually pulled into the conflict. 

Here is how the United States Surgeon General Rupert Blue described the symptoms of the flu:

 "People are stricken on the streets or while at work. First there is a chill, then fever with temperatures from 101 to 103, headache, backache and running of the eyes and pains and aches all over the body and general prostration.

Persons so attacked should go to their homes at once, get into bed without delay and call a physician.''

Adding to the drama was a new strain of the flu, which was killing thousands of people and moved at warp speed in large gatherings, infecting people with an attack on the respiratory system.

Baseball, without competition from the NFL, which was two years away from being hatched, was the escape portal for the country.

And it dealt with the pandemic as best it could. Because of the War and the Spanish Flu, the season was shortened and the World Series was played in early September, rather than early October.

Players and umpires wore surgical masks during the game. The Spit Ball, which was then legal, was banned during the World Series.

It was a wise move. After a parade in Philadelphia on Sept. 28th, the virus spiked, killing more than 12,000 people over a six-week period.

The reigning power were the Boston Red Sox with a phenomenal young pitcher, slugger and character named George Herman Ruth. and the Chicago Cubs.

What was less noticeable was the first sign of the Spanish Flu in spring training--then held for many teams in Hot Springs Arkansas.

A marvelous book titled "War Fever" by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, chronicles the events of the times through the eyes of three prominent figures in the Boston area, Babe Ruth, symphony director Karl Muck and Harvard Law student Charles Whittlesey. 

"By the end of spring training, (Red Sox manager Ed) Barrow, a cold man who tended towards a glass half-empty worldview, was sanguine about his team. Except for one curious development toward the end of March, George Whiteman and Sam Agnew (two Red Sox players) fell ill with the grippe and several other players soon became sick."

The same day, Henry Daily of the Boston American reported, "A perfect epidemic has run through the entire city and almost everyone complains.''

"A reign of grippe? A perfect epidemic? Or just the flu-sick for a few days then back to work? No one on the team seemed too concerned.

Yet out in Haskell County, Kansas,a physician named Loring Miner had recently contacted the U.S. Public Health Service to report some strange influenza patterns. There seemed to be a new kind of flu.

And it killed.

The book traces the 1918 baseball season and recalls how Ruth was one of the thousands of people infected during the spring. ""Later that night, Ruth complained of a terrible fever. His temperature climbed to 104 degrees, his body ached, he shivered with chills and his throat throbbed. He had all the symptoms of the flu, a condition that he shared with millions of other Americans in the spring of 1918. 

But the Red Sox misdiagnosed Ruth and prescribed a remedy which put him in the hospital, which was graphically detailed in the book.

""The treatment hit Ruth like a line drive to throat. He  choked and gagged, writhed in pain and finally collapsed. Immediately he was rushed to the eye and ear ward of Massachusetts General Hospital. There a physician packed his throat in ice. Soon rumors shot through Boston that the "Colossus worth more than his weight in gold'' was on his deathbed.'

Ruth recovered, but it was a warning shot that indicated the baseball season would have issues beyond balls and strikes and home runs and strong pitching performances by one of its best players.

The Spanish Flu did eventually claim two baseball related victims--Silk O'Louglin, a prominent major league baseball umpire and Boston Globe baseball writer Eddie Martin who covered Ruth and the Red Sox.

By September, the war-shortened, labor threatened, baseball season was coming to an end-in Chicago and in Boston.

But the Spanish Flu, with thousands of soldiers coming back from Europe acting as carriers, was about to spike.

Again, a vivid account in War Fever describes the scene as the epidemic roared through Camp Devins, near Boston, where 45,000 troops were training.

"The camp's chief nurse recalled, "One day fifty were admitted, the next day 300, then daily average became 500; into a 2,000 bed hospital, 6,000 patients crowded. "On a single night''one person remembered, "the men were dying like flies.''

It rapidly spread through Boston where the public was advised not to unnecessary travel. There was no cure for the illness. Workers dealing with the public wore gauze masks.  Streets were empty, often stacked with dead bodies wrapped in sheets, waiting to be picked up. 

Schools,  restaurants, movie theaters concert halls closed. Public meetings were banned. Requests to other areas of the country were made for doctors and nurses, Church services were called off.

Sound familiar?

All of this was the backdrop for the 1918 baseball season. One hundred years later, here we are again. 


Mark Blaudschun