Should there be baseball at all this year?
In late June, I posted about cautiously looking forward to the 60-game Major League Baseball season. Well, two weeks have passed, and I’m starting to wonder if the powers that be should just cancel the whole thing.
The COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of slowing down. And even if the stands are empty, what about the players and everyone else associated with the sport? No one is immune. Among the big names diagnosed with the coronavirus are the Braves’ all-star first baseman Freddie Freeman and Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman. The Phillies’ Scott Kingery is now in camp after tough bout with COVID-19.
I know MLB is adopting major precautions, and is certainly taking this seriously. But is it enough?
Curious about what happened to baseball during the flu pandemic of 1918-1920, I did some Googling.
Baseball and the 1918-1919 flu
During the 1918 season, players, umpires and even fans wore masks. The season began on time but ended regular play a month early. That meant the World Series ended in September, rather than October. In that contest, the Boston Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs in six games, with the final game Sept. 11.
The shortened season, however, was because of the U.S. entry into World War I, apparently, and not the pandemic.
However, that final World Series game, played at Braves Field over Fenway Park due to its larger capacity, had a role in starting the flu’s second wave.
“On Sept. 11, 1918, the day that the Red Sox won the title, Boston newspapers reported that 500 bilious sailors at Commonwealth Pier had contracted ‘the grippe,’ ” wrote Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith in “War fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War.”
“The next day, 96,000 Bostonians stood in line to register for the draft — sneezing, coughing, and breathing on one another in crammed registration halls. In a matter of days, the contagion spread as fast as the fear of death.”
A close call for the Babe
That pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In my own family, I lost a great-great grandmother and her son, my great-great uncle, a World War I vet, who died a day apart. About 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected, and the number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.
Babe Ruth was almost one of them.
Roberts and Smith report that Ruth, then a star pitcher and burgeoning slugger with the Red Sox, caught the flu in 1918. The team doctor treated his throat with an excess of silver nitrate, causing him to gag, choke and then collapse. He was rushed to the hospital, where a physician packed his swollen throat with ice. Within a few days, the Bambino was much improved.