What can we learn about how the U.S. is handling the Covid-19 lockdown by looking back to WWI and the Spanish Flu?

by Tim Carroll

Between World War I and the Spanish Flu, October 1918 was perhaps the U.S.’s last month without sports — until now.

The United States entered World War I in April 1917. In the spring of 1918, professional baseball players were notified that the government was going to issue a “work or fight” order, forcing men to work in defense industry factories or to join the military. 

The baseball season was forced to end a month early that year. A month after winning a World Series championship with the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth was working in a Pennsylvania steel mill. On top of that, in the fall of 1918, the U.S. expanded the draft to include all men between the ages of 18 and 45, pulling many additional men out of professional sports. 

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Then, in October 1918 — just a month before the end of the war — the Spanish Flu hit the U.S., cancelling football and all other sports for the month of October. 

Babe Ruth’s steel days were over. He was bedridden with the disease. 

All ten sports cartoons in this article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1918 and were created by cartoonists Jim Nasium (1874-1958) and Charles Bell (1874-1935). 

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May 19, 1918: Baseball players are needed in America’s shipyards, navy yards and steel plants to help win World War I. The baseball season may be halted at any time as ball players are asked to do their part in America’s defense plants.   

May 24, 1918: Provost Marshal General Crowder issued a work or fight order for pro baseball, threatening to end the season early. Of National League baseball players, 80% were of draft age, so the order would effectively end the season once it took effect. 

June 30, 1918: Pro baseball protested the work or fight order, asking that they be considered essential workers like actors and theatrical performers. Shipyard and munition plants attempted to lure players away, offering $200 to $300 per month for pro ball players to play on their semi-pro teams on the weekends while working in the factories or shipyards Monday through Friday. 

July 28, 1918: Former Cleveland mayor, Secretary of War Newton Baker, delayed the work or fight order for baseball, allowing the season to continue until Sept. 1. 

Aug. 23, 1918: Sports Cartoonist Jim Nasium writes the poem “Our Game” as a tribute to the role baseball played in raising the boys who were then fighting in Europe as the baseball season closed out. 

Aug. 25, 1918: Secretary Baker gave the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox immunity from the Sept. 3 work or fight order so they could play each other in the World Series. 1918 was the only year the World Series was played in September. 

Sept. 3, 1918: Big League Baseball ended a month early in 1918 due to the work or fight order, which required players to get a defense job or join the military. Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson joined the Army and Tris Speaker of the Cleveland Indians became a Navy aviator. Cleveland star shortstop Ray Chapman starred at halfback on the Naval Reserve football team. 

Oct. 5, 1918: The Spanish Flu forced theatres and saloons to close, and college football games started to be cancelled.

Oct. 7, 1918: A month after baseball ended early, the Spanish Flu postponed sports throughout the country. Shipyard sports teams continued to play until the government shut them down 17 days later, on Oct. 24.

October 28, 1918: The Spanish Flu hit the U.S. hard in the fall of 1918, killing 1,050 soldiers at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe alone. The deadly epidemic had faded by the end of October, however, allowing sports to resume the first weekend of November. World War I ended Nov. 11, 1918. Baseball was back again in the spring of 1919. 

Tim Carroll is the author of World War II Akron and World War II Cartoons of Akron’s Web Brown. Purchase Tim’s books at https://www.timcarrollbooks.com/. For speaking engagements, write to timothycarroll27@gmail.com. 

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