In September 1918, as U.S. troops were fighting in World War I in Europe, the Spanish Flu lurked at home. The disease would kill 670,000 Americans, more than were sent to their graves on both sides combined during our Civil War. Then, as now, disregard of warnings from health experts played a major role, as described by Dom Amore in the July/August issue of Baseball Digest.
The World Series concluded in Boston on Sept. 11, with the Red Sox and their pitching and hitting star Babe Ruth, whose 11 home runs had led the league, taking the title. In nearby Hartford, Connecticut, James H. Clarkin proposed that an exhibition game between the teams be played the following week with proceeds going to the purchase of sports equipment for use by the troops overseas. Although many players refused, the 23-year-old Ruth liked the idea. Thus, the Babe put together a barnstorming team that played several games over the next 11 days.
Evidently, few players or fans realized that the deadly flu, which had struck in the spring and then slithered away during the hot summer months, was coiled and ready to again sink it fangs into the populace.
“As the World Series was played in Boston September 9, 10 and 11 ... we know what’s going on — it’s spreading,” wrote Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith in War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America in the Shadow of the Great War. “And clearly, people weren’t paying attention.”
Health officials raised warnings, although, in distant reflections of the present pandemic, they were dismissed or downplayed by those who had convinced themselves that the danger was over. Moreover, the people couldn’t wait to see Ruth, who had recovered from the flu in May. He was the biggest star of the nation’s favorite sport.
As Amore writes, “Yet even as this was happening, doctors were making house calls and the hospitals in [Hartford] were getting crowded treating victims of the influenza ... .”
Despite the warnings, the Hartford Courant reported that extra trolleys were added to make it easy for out-of-town fans to attend the games. The initial contest took place in a jammed stadium on Sept. 15. Ruth homered, although his team lost to a squad of Black all-stars, 5-1.
By Sept. 21, with 500 people in Hartford Hospital, the newspaper reported, “The spread of the disease is regarded as phenomenal by physicians.” By the following day, Ruth and his teammates prepared for a doubleheader as the disaster was erupting with incredible force.
Warnings, even if at times lukewarm, were not difficult to find.
“It is the patriotic duty of anyone taken with the disease to isolate himself or herself ... . Public gatherings held indoors should be avoided,” wrote the Connecticut Board of Health’s John R. Black.
Fans crowded the stadium, jammed together on bleacher seats. Following the day’s doubleheader, the players scattered. The cash they had raised enabled the sports equipment to be sent overseas. Ruth contracted Spanish Flu again, recovered and led the American League in home runs the following year, with 29.
Baseball’s “dead-ball era” had ended, although much of the 1918 pandemic’s legacy echoes eerily across the decades. What remains with us, for eternity it seems, is our capacity for denial of science, along with our tendency to rationalize away an evident danger and our ability to permit our wishes to trump our wisdom. These linger yet, across a century and to our great peril.