The COVID-19 pandemic has halted all sporting events, as well as every other large gathering in the United States, and fans are wondering how and when games will return.
It’s worth it to look back at what sports looked like during the 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly called the Spanish flu. That pandemic lasted 15 months and killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide, including approximately 675,000 Americans, according to HISTORY. More than 500 million people — about one-third of the population— were infected around the world.
What did MLB look like during the 1918 Spanish Flu?
Flu masks were common in 1918 and 1919 during the influenza pandemic. Even MLB players, umpires and managers wore them during games.
Though the first case of the flu appeared in the United States in March 1918, the MLB season began as scheduled on April 16 and completed most of its slate. It cut one month off the end of the season and ended with Game 6 of the World Series on Sept. 11, which the Boston Red Sox won against the Chicago Cubs. The game played at Braves Field over Fenway Park due to the larger setting, and attendance was lower than usual.
But that game helped spread a new strain of the virus and caused a second wave of the influenza in the United States. In August, soldiers and sailors returned home from World War I and docked in Boston. Johnny Smith, a sports history professor at Georgia Tech and co-author of the new book, “War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War, told Forbes:
“And it’s during this period when the Red Sox and Cubs are playing the World Series that these social gatherings – three games at Fenway Park, a draft registration drive, a Liberty Loan parade – all of those events and the regular interactions that people had on streetcars and in saloons and so on helped spread the virus,” Smith continued. “And Boston becomes really the epicenter of the outbreak in September of 1918.”
The 1919 MLB season started one week later than it had the year before.
Was there a college football season in 1918?
The 1918 college football season also forged forward and changed the game for the next century to come.
“The football season of 1918 was one of the most peculiar in the whole history of the game and yet it will stand as an epoch-making one in the progress of the sport,” Walter Camp wrote for the “Spalding’s Official Foot Ball Guide,” per The Athletic.
Games didn’t start until October and November and teams played a condensed season. At least 18 teams did not play college football that season. Charity games were also popular.
As with the MLB season, fans attending college football games wore masks as shown in these photos of a Georgia Tech game at Grant Field in 1918. Thomas Carter was an undergraduate at the time and took the photographs. He passed them down and now his great grandson, Georgia Tech graduate Andy McNeil, can look back at them with Carter’s handwriting on the back.
Other sports suffered a deeper impact. Once the flu began to expand exponentially with large crowds, high school games were canceled as was a high-profile boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Battling Levinsky. The 1919 Stanley Cup finals were canceled when players on both teams were hospitalized.
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