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How Babe Ruth and baseball confronted another major pandemic

In 1918, Spanish flu swept through MLB. Babe Ruth beat it twice

Babe Ruth...

We’re living in unprecedented times, as the global economy grinds to a halt and the novel coronavirus has reached pandemic levels. By the time you’re reading this I’ll bet my university has suspended classes, joining dozens of institutions across the continent. Heck, our own Prime Minister is in self-isolation for two weeks after his wife tested positive for the novel coronavirus upon returning from a UK trip.

There are clues from history’s past about how to deal with pandemics like this, however, and one that has captivated my mind lately is the 1918-1919 outbreak of Spanish influenza. As the last year of World War I raged in Europe, an H1N1 virus spread rapidly through a poor, malnourished, often unhygienic wartime population. The rapid movement of people and goods only exacerbated the pandemic, leading to about a quarter of the world contracting the virus.

All while this was happening, there was baseball. Ty Cobb hit .382 for the Detroit Tigers, and Babe Ruth was leading the Boston Red Sox to their last World Series championship for 86 years. The Yankees were in the midst of a fourth place finish in the AL.

Boston, funny enough, was one of the epicenters of the American theater of the pandemic. The first recorded case of the Spanish flu in the US came in August 1918 from a group of sailors who had arrived in Boston, and by the end of the year 45,000 people in Massachusetts were infected.

The arrival of the virus so late in the season meant that MLB pushed on - media attention wasn’t even particularly focused on the pandemic, with the war dominating coverage and fans often dismayed by what they saw as cowardice on the part of players, staying stateside with their teams rather than fight in the trenches of Western Europe. MLB eventually ended the season early, after the Secretary of War issued a “work or fight” order, mandating all able-bodied men enlist or work directly in the war effort.

Yet the World Series was still played, with the Red Sox topping the the Cubs in six games, in the only Fall Classic to be completely played in September. In one of the more cloudy legends surrounding the Babe, Ruth was developing pneumonia after contracting the flu and still managed to pitch two games in the Series.

The offseason, after the Armistice and return of servicemen to American shores, was where baseball was hit most by H1N1. At least six MLB players, an umpire, and three Negro League players were killed by the disease, with pitchcaller Silk O’Laughlin the most famous and senior member of the baseball community to pass.

The Spanish flu’s impact on the globe was massive, but the impact on baseball was perhaps underwheliming, or overshadowed. The war dominated 1918, and attendance per game rose 92% in 1919, before the Black Sox scandal and Babe Ruth’s emergence as a near-mythical Yankee pushed the pandemic from the minds of baseball fans everywhere.

Baseball’s history is one of challenges and obstacles; institutionalized racism, steroid scandals, and labor disruptions have all hurt the sport, and been avenues for improvement. Indeed, Field of Dreams makes that clearest:

The novel coronavirus is a real threat, and we need to do what we can individually, and collectively, to keep ourselves safe and healthy. Right now, part of that means postponing the time of year we look forward to the most. But just like after world wars, scandal and Spanish flu, baseball will be back.