Historical Context: Sports, the Coronavirus and What Looms Next

The year is 1918.

At this point in our history, World War I has waged on in Europe for four years.

Individuals destined for myriad versions of fame, such as actress Rita Hayworth, businessman and founder of Wal-Mart Sam Walton, and historical and inspirational leader Nelson Mandela are born.

The now world-famous Cleveland Orchestra is established and the dollar paid to see them perform was worth 17 times more than it is today.

And on March 4th of this very year the influenza epidemic that would go on to kill between 40 and 50 million people recorded its first American victim in Kansas. Just a week later the virus had been diagnosed in Queens, New York. Its spread was undeniable.

And yet, on April 15th , 1918 Babe Ruth climbed on top of the mound at Fenway Park and pitched the Boston Red Sox to a 1-0 Complete Game Shut Out Victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. That contest took less than 2 hours to play and was witnessed by 7,180 fans. It was the first game of the 1918 baseball season.

Ruth would lead Boston in WAR that year, and it would be the last time for 86 years that the World Series Championship would belong to the Red Sox.

In between Opening Day and the Red Sox ascension as champions, both the war and the rampant disease took a toll on the sport. An agreement was made to shorten the regular season by 14 games, and the World Series was slated to run from September 5th thru 14th , well before both Germany’s formal surrender (November 11, 1918) and the first spike of American deaths from the Spanish flu in October and November. While the importance of the sacrifice made by the world’s armed forces should never be forgotten, our focus from hereon will be on the impact of the Spanish flu.

Baseball lost many former minor and major leaguers to the epidemic while it ran its brutal course, among other individuals of significance. The pastime’s biggest loss from the Spanish flu would come just after its first fatal peak. Umpire Silk O’Laughlin, a veteran of 5 World Series and crew chief for the 1917 Series between the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants would pass away on December 20th. He had worked the regular season just three months previous.

Meanwhile, just one day later a little, 3-team hockey operation now known as the National Hockey League would open up their second season of operation on December 21st despite the passing of Ottawa defense-man Hamby Shore in October. He had been the NHL’s first loss to the disease.

The NHL played 18 games per team that season despite having planned to play 20. This however, was one twist of fate that had nothing to do with the matters of life and death that had been occurring around the globe. Rather, the instability of the Toronto Arenas franchise led to their own inability to complete the season. The cease of their operations shortened their schedule as well as the schedules of the league’s other 2 teams to 18 games.

Still, the show would go on and NHL Champion Montreal would take on the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup in late March of 1919. The “first to three wins” series was a fascinating one that was hosted entirely in Seattle and showcased the different rules of both leagues during the contests. Oddly, Seattle led the series 2-1 after 4 games after Game 4 ended in a tie. Game 5 was played on March 30th and despite the fact the Canadiens tied the series at 2 games a piece, it would be the last game of an undecided series.

Game 6 was canceled as the epidemic had taken hold of members of both teams, the news coming literally hours before puck-drop. In the end, Montreal defense-man Joe Hall would surrender to the flu he caught during the series. He passed away on April 5, 1919 just 5 days after both diagnosis and preparing himself for Game 6. Sadly their would be one more casualty from the 1919 Stanley Cup, Canadiens manager Joe Kennedy would also pass two years later from complications of the disease that never subsisted.

Credit to “The Hockey Guy” on Youtube

Despite all this, the 1919 baseball season went on, and is best known not for the epidemic that ravaged the country, but for being the year of the Black Sox scandal. Over time, the Spanish Flu came to pass and now is another era in history, but the people of the time, and the lessons that can be learned from them should not be forgotten.

This is all very relevant today. On just Saturday, Washington State officials announced the first confirmed American death from the Wuhan Corona-virus. To date, there are just over 3000 deaths worldwide from the disease (and counting), which is a far cry from the unabashed potency of Spanish Influenza, but regardless, questions arise. There is an absolute public health risk potentially right at our doorstep. Certain decisions, and possibly sacrifices, may need to be made for the utility of all people.

For this reason, Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s major baseball league, has announced that it plans to play their remainder of its preseason games sans-spectators. This comes after both Japan Rugby Football has announced the cancellation of league games and J League soccer is halting its schedule until at least March 15th. The Olympic Games, expected to be hosted in Tokyo this summer, are now also in question of being canceled.

Naturally, Japan is a lot closer to the origin of this new disease with origins in China, and its people currently have a lot more to lose. However, if this infection is spreading as may be suggested then there are real, genuine questions about the necessity, practicality and safety of continuing professional sports in the United States.

The late 1910s flu epidemic is the closest parallel that I could draw. Yes, all four major American sports have seen their schedules halted since a century ago. The most common causes are due to natural disasters (eg: hurricanes and earthquakes), terrorist attacks (Boston Marathon bombing), or power outages (Game 4 1988 Stanley Cup Finals, see around the 10 minute mark of the video). The difference is that these examples are usually localized postponements. The only time full, nation-wide league schedules have been halted in American sports have been when the NBA temporarily ceased games after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the September 11th terrorist attacks paused both the MLB and NFL schedules, and when any of the four leagues have had their own labor disputes. Baseball, and less famously hockey, even continued during World War II.

All of this context brings us here to today. And to be fair, I’m not sure what the answer is. Baseball was a much beloved distraction during four of the hardest years in this country’s history. There is genuine value in that and its important that people continue to live their lives as best as they can when times get hard. That’s one of the benefits of living in a free society. All four American sports would provide a much needed sense of business as usual, and a dependable coping mechanism in a situation where this disease really becomes a threat.

However, the world is smaller today than its ever been. Cross-continental flights are a regularity. NBA players play back-to-back games in 2 different cities routinely. The 7000+ fans that saw Opening Day at Fenway Park in 1918 were less than 4 times fewer than the number that came to the ball-yard on an average night in 2019. They also likely didn’t travel from as far away as they would today. Further and most importantly, players and officials did indeed lose their lives over 100 years ago. Perhaps the times allowed for that to be a little more acceptable then. Today it absolutely wouldn’t be. Blood would be on the hands of the league officials and ownership that decided the game should go on.

A third option would be to play games without spectators. This would keep the general public safe and allow for the number of people needing to be checked limited. Modern technology allows for better sports viewing from the comfort of your own home than from the field or arena anyway. Not much outside of the all-mighty dollar, would be lost from this set up.

Ultimately, it is for the leagues to decide, and they will have quite the decision on their hands. I don’t want to see any games go away more than anyone else, and I wonder what the prospective Players’ Unions will have to say about having their players potentially put at risk. You would have to figure, is Chris Paul any more likely to pick up the corona-virus in a mostly empty arena than he is to pick it up along with his dry-cleaning?

I’m leaning towards the third option, something Italian soccer league Serie A is already trying. Let the players play, with the understanding that every effort will be made to enhance their safety. If they balk at this premise though, I would totally understand and accept that. At that point, this whole scenario will have to be reconsidered.

Mostly though, let’s just hope that this is nothing more than unnecessary speculation that will never have to come to pass. The history will hopefully remain the only reminder we have of a different time. A time where at least one game was played with medical masks in use.

Richmond Newspaper Article about Minor League Baseball game played in medical masks

Hopefully, for the memories of those like O’Laughlin, Shore, Hall and Kennedy among countless others, never again.

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