A little more than 100 years ago, baseball legend Babe Ruth went to a crowded public beach. He went swimming with his wife, drank some beer and had a picnic. From this seemingly casual public excursion, he ended up catching the Spanish flu, which he would then beat, catch again and beat again.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world, sports leagues everywhere have been grappling with the impossible question of when they should return to live play. And although it may seem like it, this situation isn’t entirely unprecedented.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic lasted through 1919, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide and infecting up to one third of the population. It came in three waves and spread easily through the global movement of troops fighting World War I.
Competitive sports played a role in both the war and the pandemic. Beginning in the early 20th century and during WWI, sports built up morale and military preparedness in the United States. This ended up being a double-edged sword, as this source of growing entertainment also helped to spread the deadly Spanish flu.
Three popular sports and their reactions to the Spanish flu show us that sports (and specifically sports crowds) are a breeding ground for disease spread — and that every precaution available should be taken before returning to play as usual.
Despite some players getting sick during spring training, baseball went ahead with the season due to fear of lost revenue, with players, umpires and coaches alike all wearing masks.
After recovering from his first bout with the flu, Ruth guided the Boston Red Sox to a World Series victory shortly before falling ill and recovering a second time. The Red Sox beat the Cubs in Game 6 of the World Series, an event many attribute to be one of the initial spreaders for the second wave, which killed nearly 5,000 people in Boston alone. This would be the Red Sox’s last World Series victory for 86 years.
The 1918 season did end up getting cut short by a month, but only because baseball was considered a nonessential job and players were drafted into the war effort, not because of concerns over the flu.
Several major and minor league players, as well as one umpire, died of the flu, serving as a reminder that no one — not even the powerhouse that is U.S. baseball — leaves unscathed. However, the sport persevered and returned in 1919, with unexpectedly strong attendance.
College football, one of the most popular sports in the United States at the time alongside baseball, played a season during the Spanish flu pandemic. Also like baseball, the football season was a shortened one. Due to the second (and deadliest) wave of the flu, college campuses in fall 1918 were closed and cities were placed under quarantine, meaning that crowds in attendance at football games wore masks and were smaller than usual.
The Cal football team had a fairly strong season in 1918, going 6-2, a highlight being a win against rival Stanford. There was no clear national champion that year, as constantly changing schedules meant not all teams played the same number of games.
Ultimately, the college football season was greatly affected by both the pandemic and the war, and arguably even more affected than baseball was.
In 1919, the NHL was only 2 years old, and by the time the Stanley Cup Final rolled around in March 1919, concerns over the flu had largely faded. The flu wasn’t making the front pages anymore, and people felt ready to move on with their lives.
But after five games of the series between Montreal and Seattle, news reports began to surface that the players were in poor condition. It was soon announced that the sixth game was canceled, after several players were hospitalized. A few days later, player Joe Hall died of the flu. An attempt at a triumphant return to sports had resulted in tragedy.
Flash forward to June 2020, and the NBA has planned a tentative return to play for July 30. NHL teams will return to training camp July 10, and college football players have returned to campus for voluntary workouts, despite reports of positive COVID-19 cases.
As sports leagues start to plan their returns amid the coronavirus pandemic, if only one thing can be taken away from the 1918 flu pandemic, it should be this: Don’t rush it. Sports can be exciting, uplifting and entertaining, but only if they’re safe.