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Love, Loss and Baseball: Letters From the Hub, Chapters VI - IX

The 1918 season begins, and the killer arrives.

Editor's note: Click here to learn more about the story behind Letters From the Hub. Click here to read the start of the series, and click here to read the end.

1918chapter6

Dear Tom,

Babe Ruth went to Harvard.

That sounds like an impossibility, but remember, I began this story by telling you that absolutely everything I am telling you is true, and so it is with the Babe going to Harvard. Miserable cold seized Boston on April 13, the day after we returned from spring training. Snow covered the field at Fenway Park. The team arranged for a workout at the indoor facility at Harvard, where the coach at the time was Hugh Duffy, the former Boston outfielder.

Expectations for this team were sky high, especially from Frazee, who I noted the day of the Harvard excursion “spent something like $75,000 during the winter to assemble a bang-up outfit.”

The snow melted in time for the April 15 opener against Philadelphia at Fenway. Mayor Andrew James Peters threw out the first ball. The Royal Rooters band, the musical ensemble from the rabid Red Sox fan club, provided pregame entertainment. As I wrote, the band “dashed off numbers that either made restless feet misbehave or produced visions of shell-torn towns in France.”

Behind Ruth, on the mound for his third straight Opening Day start, the Red Sox won, 7–1. Fenway Park was over 60% empty. The paid crowd was 7,184. This was what baseball looked like during war time.

It was an unusual crowd. You might call it a reflective bunch. They never failed to applaud a great play, but there was a sort of conservation of appreciation apparent.

Fenway Park in 1917.

Fenway Park in 1917.

Frankly, some people wondered whether baseball should be played at all while we were at war. In the summer of the previous year, 1917, American League president Ban Johnson offered to shut down the league for the duration of the war. President Wilson told him not to do it.

“People must be amused,” Frazee said. “They must have their recreation, despite the grim horrors of war.”

This is all you need to know about how important baseball was in the fabric of American life: U.S.soldiers were being outfitted with baseball equipment, not just guns. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith organized a fundraising drive to provide baseball gear to every U.S. military training camp. The YMCA, Hillerich & Bradsby and Spalding were among the companies to answer the call.

The program was expanded to provide baseball equipment to the Doughboys overseas. As the Red Sox opened their season at Fenway, U.S. soldiers were playing baseball in Poitiers, France, with H&B bats and official red-and-blue stitched baseballs that included a red YMCA stamp and the words “American” and “France” above and below the triangle logo. Baseball, our sport, was considered essential to the morale of our fighting troops.

Right around Opening Day, Delia’s father took ill with pneumonia. Michael F. Mulkern was as hale and hearty a man as any of the firefighters I knew in South Boston. He had left Ireland when he was just nine years old and eventually made a good life for himself, his wife and three children while working for the Boston Water Department. He was a fiercely proud teamster. Against this dreaded pneumonia, even someone as tough as Michael met a formidable opponent.

He was on my mind each day, even at the ballpark.

On April 23, the Red Sox and Yankees were locked in a scoreless game at Fenway Park. In the bottom of the ninth, Barrow, who had not managed in 14 years, had played not a lick of pro ball and who sat in the dugout in the finest of suits, happened upon an idea nobody had thought of in the previous three years: use Babe Ruth as a pinch hitter.

Barrow first tried it in the third game of the season against Connie Mack and the Athletics. In that game Boston trailed by one with runners at second and third and no outs in the ninth inning. Barrow told Ruth to bat for catcher Sam Agnew, who was off to an 0-for-10 start. Mack promptly issued an intentional walk to Ruth. The next batter, Wally Schang, delivered a game-winning two-run single.

Against New York a week later, first baseman Dick Hoblitzell, who had one hit in 28 at bats in the season, was due to bat with a runner at first base and one out in the ninth. Pitchers Bullet Joe Bush of the Red Sox and Hank Thormahlen of the Yankees had given up nothing. Barrow again sent Ruth to pinch hit. With Amos Strunk on first base, Yankees manager Miller Huggins elected to let Thormahlen pitch to Ruth.

Ruth smashed a single to center. Strunk raced to third. Huggins elected not to pitch to Stuffy McInnis, hoping for a double play by loading the bases with an intentional walk. Instead, George Whiteman came through with a sacrifice fly for another Boston win. The winning rally was made possible by Barrow’s making use of Babe’s bat.

The Red Sox were 7–1. Word was beginning to get out that Ruth, thanks to Barrow’s ingenuity, might be much more than one of the league’s best pitchers. After the comeback win the happy team piled into a 7 p.m. train at South Station bound for Philadelphia, where the Red Sox were to play a four-game series against the Mackmen.

I did not go with them. The condition of Delia’s dad had worsened. He was taken to City Hospital. Walter Barnes, my editor, told me to take as much time as I needed. The Globe would cover the games in Philadelphia with re-writes of wire reports. “Special Dispatch to the Globe” replaced the usual “By Edward F. Martin” byline.

Two days later, on April 25, 1918, Michael F. Mulkern, the epitome of the American dream, died at City Hospital. He was 59 years old.

The obituary the next day noted the funeral mass would be held at Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston. At the top of Page 1 of that edition was a headline that seemed frightening in its thickness: GERMANS OCCUPY KEMMEL HILL. The details were gruesome. At 2:30 a.m. the Germans began attacking French troops with gas grenades, while 96 airplanes dropped 700 bombs. Outnumbered three-to-one, the French stood no chance on that hill in Flanders, Belgium. Of the 5,294 French soldiers who were killed, only 57 were identified.

Newspaper clipping from the Boston Globe

With Mr. Mulkern dead and the war birthing what had been unimaginable horrors, this was the kind of day that shakes your faith. Little did I know that the situation was far worse.

I look at Mr. Mulkern’s deadly case of pneumonia much differently now than I did then. Maybe it was a warning sign we all missed—just like those at U.S. military training camps around the same time. While we were fighting the world war in Europe, a killer lurked among us.

In July 1917, construction had begun on an enormous divisional cantonment training camp at the Fort Riley facility near Junction City, Kansas. Camp Funston was more of a city than a military camp. As many as 4,000 buildings went up around grid-style city blocks to accommodate 40,000 soldiers. As in a city, there were theatres, libraries, schools and a coffee roasting house. The soldiers slept in two-story barracks with 150 beds in each sleeping room—one for each member of an infantry division. Most of the men were draftees from Midwestern states being prepared to fight overseas. Officers from France and Britain were brought in to train them.

Conditions were harsh: frigid winters, prairie dust storms and particulates of black ash caused by the burning of manure from the thousands of swine, horses and mules.

On March 11, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell, a mess cook, woke up feeling ill. He was achy and feverish. His throat burned. This was no common cold. He reported to the infirmary. He was found to have a fever of more than 103 degrees. As a precaution, Gitchell was placed in a private tent reserved for potentially contagious conditions.

Gitchell had spent the previous evening doling out meals to fellow soldiers. It was no surprise then that within hours a stream of ill soldiers followed him to the infirmary: 107 by lunchtime, 522 by the end of the week, 1,127 by the end of the month. They shared similar symptoms: high fever, terrible coughs and blue faces. Forty-six wound up dead.

You must understand how little we knew about infectious diseases in 1918. It would not be until the 1930s that this was identified as an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Influenza was not a reportable disease. No government health agency tracked it. No pandemic plan existed.

We had no tools to fight it. There were no vaccines. Antibiotics had not yet been developed. No flu antiviral drugs had been developed. There were no critical care measures. No intensive care support. No mechanical ventilation.

To this day, it is virtually impossible to know for sure where it originated. Some people speculated that it came from Europe. Spain was hit with a mild strain in February. Did the French and British officers carry it back to Camp Funston?

Another theory suggested it began in the remote Canton region of China, and that it spread to Europe by Chinese men hired to dig trenches for the French army.

Yet another theory would emerge: The outbreak began right here in America, just 300 miles west from Camp Funston in Haskell County, Kansas, a farming community so remote it included just three people for every square mile. The 1,720 residents lived in sod houses and tended to cattle, swine, grain and poultry. The pieces of this theory do fit neatly.

Among the residents of Haskell County was Dr. Loring Vinton Miner, who lived in the town of Santa Fe. Miner was a large, crusty man who turned 58 that winter. He dabbled in politics and so loved ancient Greek culture that he reread classics in that language. In January 1918 Miner noticed that an odd number of Haskell residents were coming down with a strange illness. Miner saw 18 severe cases of the influenza in tiny Haskell County. Three people died.

The outbreak happened several weeks before Private Gitchell, the mess cook, reported to the Camp Funston infirmary. What happened in between?

The Santa Fe Monitor reported that one of Haskell’s residents, Dean Nilson, “surprised his friends by arriving home from Camp Funston on five days furlough,” after which he returned to camp. It also mentioned that Ernest Elliot, a resident whose son was among the afflicted, left during that in-between period to visit his brother at Camp Funston, and that John Bottom, another Haskell resident, left to report for duty at the same base.

We do not know for certain that the virus originated in Haskell and was carried to Camp Funston. But we do know the cramped quarters at Camp Funston provided perfect conditions for its spread, that infected soldiers carried it as they moved to camps around the U.S. and the world, and that Dr. Miner, the Greek-loving country doctor, sounded the first public alarm of a deadly influenza.

Though influenza was not classified as a reportable disease, Miner found this strain so dangerous he decided he needed to warn the public. On April 5 he published a warning about it in Public Health Reports, a weekly journal produced by the U.S. Public Health Service for the express purpose of putting health officials around the world on alert about a communicable disease. It was the first recorded alert that a virus was adapting to humans.

It received little attention. It remained the only reference to influenza in Public Health Reports through June of 1918.

Your Friend in Baseball,
Edward F. Martin

1918chapter7

Dear Tom,

In May 1918 I was not worried about an influenza pandemic. I was worried about the Babe’s tonsils.

The Red Sox did not play home games on Sundays. It was against the law in Boston, as it would be until 1929. So sacredly held was the sabbath that you could not even play chess or checkers outside on a Sunday in Boston in 1918. Most people worked Monday through Saturday. Games at Fenway typically started at 4 p.m. The working class had one clear day to see the Red Sox play and yet baseball on that day was illegal.

Sunday May 19, 1918 happened otherwise to be a perfect day for a ballgame. It was the warmest day yet of the spring. Babe and his wife, Helen, took advantage of the off day and the fine weather to join many of the common folk for a day at Revere Beach, a public resort area five miles north of Boston. It was known as The Coney Island of the East. It featured amusement rides, dance halls, theaters, carousels, roller coasters and five miles of a crescent shaped sandy shore that provided the best bathing beach for miles. The Babe had been bothered by a sore throat for the past week, but this day seemed idyllic. He munched on a picnic lunch, drank warm beer, swam in the cold water and horsed around with locals in a casual game of baseball.

At home that night, Babe’s sore throat turned into something much worse. He ran a fever of 104 degrees. He had the chills. His body ached. His throat hurt. He had all the symptoms of the flu. When he showed up the next day at Fenway Park it was obvious to Barrow and Dr. W. Oliver Barney, the team physician, that Ruth was in no condition to play. (Carl Mays pitched the Red Sox to another easy win that day, 11–1.) Dr. Barney treated Ruth the same way he did any Red Sox player with a sore throat: He washed it with a swab of silver nitrate solution.

The next day, May 21, Ruth was scheduled to be the starting pitcher. He still felt awful but told Barrow he wanted to pitch. Dr. Barney refused to allow it. Ruth offered to play leftfield instead. But Barney told Ruth he was suffering from more than just a sore throat. This was serious, he said. He told him to go home and spend the next four or five days in bed.

Barney accompanied Babe home. They stopped at a Back Bay drug store to fill a prescription. There Ruth felt something gather and break in his throat. Suddenly he collapsed in great pain. He was rushed to Massachusetts Eye and Ear infirmary. His condition was listed as serious, though by evening under the care of throat specialist Dr. George Tobey he was out of danger. He could not speak. His throat was encased in ice.

The attack of tonsillitis has weakened Ruth considerably and he will have to lay around a few days and regain lost strength.

Ruth missed 10 games due to tonsillitis. By the time he was stricken, the public had come to clamor to watch him swing the bat, not just pitch. After less than a month of Ruth taking regular turns at bat, baseball writers were calling him “the Colossus” and “the greatest slugger of all time.” If it was shrewd of Barrow to use Ruth as a pinch hitter in April, then it was positively genius to turn Babe into a true two-way player in May.

babe-ruth-swinging

You can pinpoint the change in baseball history to May 6. The Red Sox were playing the finale of a three-game series against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds. I was home, taking off the six-game trip to New York and Washington for a few of my rare off days since deploying for the Vapor Valley in March.

Dick Hoblitzell was suffering from an aching hand and a worse batting average. He was hitting .102 with no home runs, surely the result of a late start to his spring training. Hoblitzell was a pleasant college fellow out of the University of Pittsburgh. He was late to camp because he took and passed an exam for the U.S. Army Dental Corps, which is why the guys called him “Doc.” And he was early to leave the team: In June he and his .159 average would be called away to the Army Dental Corps and stationed in El Paso, Texas. (Hoblitzell never did practice licensed dentistry, though he did set up a dental chair in his home and would fill cavities of neighbors and family without the use of novocaine.)

Hoblitzell also was known as “Hobby” and, owing to his education and gentlemanly ways, also as Ruth’s roommate in previous seasons. Like the others assigned to keep an eye on Ruth, Hoblitzell collected many stories about the Babe. He just never told one of them in the presence of his daughter.

With Doc hurting in more ways than one that day, Barrow penciled in Babe at first base, batting sixth. Though the Red Sox lost, 10–3, Ruth smashed a two-run home run into the upper deck in right field at the Polo Grounds. He blasted another pitch clear over the grandstand roof, but umpires ruled it a foul ball.

The next day in Washington, back at first base, Ruth whacked another home run, tying a record with home runs in three straight games. Ruth went 11-for-20. When the team returned home, Barrow decided on a new everyday lineup. He played Ruth in left field (when he wasn’t pitching), moved McInnis from third base to first and installed rookie Fred Thomas as the third baseman.

The lineup clicked—until tonsillitis stopped the Babe. Ruth’s return came in the second game of a doubleheader against Washington. There were 11,000 fans at Fenway Park, more than double the average crowd at the Fens in 1918. In an otherwise forgettable 4–0 loss to Doc Ayers and the Senators, Ruth emerged from the dugout in the eighth inning, swinging that telephone pole of a bat of his. His hickory hammer was 36 inches long and weighed between 40 and 54 ounces. Walter E. “Stonewell” Jackson, the field-level public address announcer, lifted his megaphone to his mouth and announced Ruth’s long-awaited entry into the batter’s box.

There was prolonged applause and cheering as Babe marched to the plate. It only goes to show that the dear old public approved of the way Babe stood off old Kid Tonsillitis.

Ruth was becoming not just a baseball star but also a true American icon, like Will Rogers, Al Jolson and Mary Pickford. I resisted the analogy, but some of my colleagues saw Ruth’s power as symbolic of the American might on the frontlines of the war. Soldiers in trenches in Italy and France awaited news of the latest Ruthian clout.

My main responsibilities for the Globe were to provide detailed game stories and columns chock full of news and notes. In the style of the times, I rarely used quotes from players. When I did, usually it was to provide something in the way of humor. From Murnane I learned the powers of nicknames and a good yarn. Often, I let the player tell his yarn in his own voice. That way the reader felt like he or she was in on the camaraderie I was able to enjoy every day.

Readers wanted personalities and storytelling, a far cry from the flavorless gruel in the feed bags they are forced to consume today. Sometimes when I read the sports pages now, I think I have stumbled into the business section. Ballplayers and managers are reduced to numbers, statistics, data, assets and salaries. The game is covered as if it were international banking. Nobody ever considered banking a pastime or spectator sport. Had Babe Ruth existed today he would be reduced to his Wins Above Replacement and Launch Angle.

Thank goodness it was different for me. For the Sunday Globe of July 14, 1918, I wrote a long feature on the Babe after sitting down for an exclusive interview. The only “numbers” I used in the entire story regarded his vital statistics: Ruth “just turned 24 years old, weighs 198 pounds and is 6 feet 2 in his stocking feet.”

Newspaper clipping from the Boston Globe

I wrote about his approach at the plate, his baseball background, his love of acting in high school, his wife, his hobbies (hunting, fishing, golf, vaudeville), his wellness tips (“Keep outdoors a lot, inhale that old ozone and you will keep the doctor away”) and whatever else makes the Babe the Babe. I decided to begin my story as Ruth approached a turn at bat: with the intent of blunt force trauma:

Just bust ’em. Take a good cut and bang that old apple on the nose.

This Oriole boy, who is the last word in picturesqueness and the occupant of the brightest spot in the baseball sun, is indeed a most interesting character and unquestionably one of the greatest attractions baseball has ever known.