Have I got a story for you.
It is the perfect story for these times, even though it is more than 100 years old. It is the true story of Edward F. Martin, a baseball writer for the Boston Globe covering Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox while a world war raged and the worst pandemic ever ravaged this country, especially Boston.
An abridged version of the story runs in the print edition of SI out next week. Even in its trimmed form it stands as one of the longest pieces the magazine ever has published. For the unabridged story, and the full effect of its arc that is so relevant to what is happening today, you must read the online version. It is being published in chapters in the manner of old periodical serials, the way Melville, Dickens and Stowe once rolled out their work–or if you prefer a more modern parlance, like a Netflix show.
The first five chapters (out of 13 total) drop Monday, the next four on Tuesday and the final four on Wednesday. As Mark Twain once observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” This story proves that piece of wit.
The rhyming nature of the events of 1918 and 2020 is eerie. The insidiousness of a pandemic. The conspiracies of how it began and the mystery of how and when it would end. Second and third surges. The question of baseball’s social import in difficult times. (So essential was baseball considered in 1918 that U.S. soldiers in France during World War I were issued bats and balls along with their guns.) And alas, during such sacrifice and suffering, players and owners bickering over money because of declining revenue.
I allow Eddie to “narrate” the story. Eddie often used a literary device for his spring training coverage in which he presented his dispatches in the form of a letter addressed to a friend back home. As an homage to Eddie, and in recognition of his front row seat to history, the story is told by Eddie in letters addressed to me.
Through Eddie we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters.
His beautiful young wife, Delia.
His father, Edward Sr., an extremely popular Boston fire captain.
Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who is obsessed with winning the pennant, and his gruff but shrewd manager, Ed Barrow, who wears a suit in the dugout and never played pro ball.
Tim “The Silver King” Murnane, a former player who became a legendary baseball writer.
William Creighton Woodward, who picked a bad year to become Boston health commissioner.
President Woodrow Wilson, who initially saw baseball as an essential diversion from the war, and Newton Baker, his secretary of war, who reversed course and ordered an early end to the season.
Most colorfully, Doc, Slam, Stuffy, Hoop, Bullet Joe, Sad Sam and the rest of the 1918 Red Sox, all of whom seemed to have a nickname and an insatiable thirst for fun, none more so than George Herman Ruth. Eddie chronicles not only how the Babe that year becomes a two-way player and completely changes the game, but also how on and off the field the mischievous Ruth is a carrier of calamity. Eddie gives us the vicarious thrill of “riding the rattler” with the Sox–traveling with the Babe and the boys on sleeper cars.
Let me tell you how Eddie became my muse. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down baseball, as well as all sports, the usual nuts and bolts of baseball coverage struck me as trifling. Nothing mattered outside the context of a global pandemic. I knew I had to write inside that context.
I knew about the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 and knew that a popular umpire, Silk O’Laughlin, was one of 675,000 Americans who died from it. Worldwide, 50 to 100 million people died. It was worse than the Black Plague of the 14th century. One day a person could be young and robust, with no underlying health conditions, and the next day they could be dead. It was that sinister.
I thought O’Laughlin was my entry to understanding baseball in the time of a pandemic. But as I researched O’Laughlin, I came across Eddie. The more I scraped and brushed away the cobwebs and dirt on a lost chapter of history, the more I knew this story had to be written. And the more I found the more I wrote.
Gentlemanly, and fervently devoted to baseball, his wife, and his faith, Eddie became a kindred guide for me toward understanding how 1918 helps explain life in a pandemic today. That he wrote prolifically and well for the Globe provides the equivalent of a diary left behind–a veritable gold mine for a historical narrative.
This is more than a baseball story. It is a public health story. It is a scientific whodunit. And at its core, it is a love story amid the horrors of war and pestilence.
It was the author James Baldwin who once wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
Life in a pandemic can be daunting. Survival, not typically a concern in modern life, becomes a conscious thought. Normalcy is a horizon that never gets closer. Spikes and surges are wraiths that haunt us. You struggle to make sense of such upheaval.
But then you read.
One hundred two years ago, baseball, the war and the pandemic all converged in Boston, making it truly the Hub of the Universe. Eddie Martin was there for it all. Starting Monday, join Eddie and me in the telling of the story, and return as each surprise-filled chapter reveals something about the past–and ourselves.