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Comparing 2020's Pandemic Sports to 1918's

By Emma Spring ’22

Masked spectators at a college football game in 1918 (Photo Credit: The Oregonian)
Masked spectators at a college football game in 1918 (Photo Credit: The Oregonian)

Just over 100 years ago, Babe Ruth, one of the greatest baseball players in history, became severely ill. In 1918, America was the epicenter of the Spanish Flu, and Babe Ruth became sick with the disease—twice.

Today, as the coronavirus continues to ravage the sports world, teams and leagues throughout the nation continually scramble to get ahead of the virus, but many still face challenges. NBA players are sequestered together in Orlando hoping to control the spread of the virus in a “bubble;” The NFL is mandating daily testing and masks to be worn by all fans; and despite extensive protocols in baseball, just this past month, nearly half of MLB’s Miami Marlins tested positive for the coronavirus. As sports continue to face challenges, a look back at the 1918 influenza pandemic might serve as context to sport’s response to the pandemic we face today.

Like the coronavirus, the influenza outbreak was highly contagious, quickly spreading throughout the world with the help of cross-country troop interaction during World War I. The CDC reports that the “Spanish Flu,” as it was known, killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide. Similar to today, quarantines were put into place: schools, businesses, and churches shut down, and patients flooded hospitals. Meanwhile, sports, which grew tremendously in popularity by distracting Americans from World War I, helped to spread the virus.

Baseball in 1918 struggled to decide whether to continue the season, echoing the same situation baseball faces today. There was pressure to shut down for health concerns, but many resisted shutting down for fear of losing revenue. Franklin D. Roosevelt's “Green Light Letter” urged baseball to continue, and it did, albeit while many fans and players wore masks. Ultimately, the season was cut one month short, not because of the virus, but because major leaguers had to fight in the war. The “Work or Fight” rule required all able-bodied men with an “unnecessary” occupation to enlist in the military, so many did.

A rushed September World Series brought thousands of fans, some 128,000 through 6 games, to Fenway Park to witness a recovered Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox’s win over the Chicago Cubs. With help from a “Win the War for Freedom” parade through Boston, the crowds helped fuel a new, deadlier strain of the influenza. According to WGBH, approximately 5,000 Bostonians and countless others across the United States fell victim to the influenza virus in this second wave.

The second wave hit young adults particularly hard, so high school sports were canceled, and the college football season was shortened. A few months later, the Stanley Cup Finals between Montreal and Seattle were canceled when players were hospitalized after contracting the virus.

An NBA game tips off in the Orlando, FL bubble with virtual fans in attendance (Photo Credit: NBC Sports)
An NBA game tips off in the Orlando, FL bubble with virtual fans in attendance (Photo Credit: NBC Sports)

Unlike the response to COVID-19, sports generally continued—with fans—across the country in 1918. This directly led to the deaths of thousands, including many players.

Now in 2020, as many desire to return to sports, lessons from the past prove that things should not be rushed. It’s worth remembering the deadly impact of the second wave of the influenza pandemic, as returning to normalcy so fast cost many lives.


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