By Michael Pearson
It’s the last week of the 1918 baseball season. The Boston Red Sox are on the cusp of winning the World Series on the back of baseball legend-in-making Babe Ruth. World War I is still raging in Europe. And a killer virus is stalking the streets of Boston.
This is the backdrop for the latest work by Georgia Institute of Technology historian Johnny Smith —a story that resonates today amid the spread of the coronavirus and its impact on our lives.
“We are living in a moment where a global pandemic has disrupted everyday life in ways we have not seen since 1918,” said Smith, the J.C. “Bud” Shaw Professor of Sports History in the School of History and Sociology.
War Fever, Smith’s book with his frequent collaborator, Purdue University historian Randy Roberts, is only partially about the flu pandemic. The book is the interwoven tale of three figures — Ruth, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Karl Muck, and an Army officer from the Boston area named Charles Whittlesey, who led the “Lost Battalion” that held off German forces in the Argonne Forest. It examines the impact of anti-German xenophobia and the flu pandemic on Boston in the fall of 1918.
The book tells how many of the patriotic rituals we expect at sporting events today — the playing of the National Anthem and other patriotic tunes, honors for members of the military — stem from World War I. It also speaks to widespread anti-German sentiment, including sudden doubts about Muck, one of many people of German descent whose loyalties were questioned during the war.
The effects of the flu also are an integral part of the tale Smith and Roberts weave, from Ruth coming down with a case of the flu during the season and nearly dying from a treatments — presaging the coming epidemic — to the possible effects of the virus on attendance during the decisive sixth game of the series.
They also offer a new argument that the series helped further spread the flu throughout Boston, which ultimately saw some 4,500 deaths. An estimated 675,000 people in the United States and 50 million people worldwide died as a result of the flu that emerged that year.
With all of this going on, the Red Sox victory “failed to generate celebrations in the streets of Boston,” Smith says, as news from overseas and the flu epidemic stole all the headlines.
War and illness led to the biggest disruption in sports until now, Smith notes, with hundreds of contests, football games, boxing matches, and other events canceled or postponed.
Similar cancellations swept through the sports industry a few weeks ago, with every major sports league suspending operations, leaving millions of suddenly homebound Americans with no sports to entertain them. Of course, the world is different now than it was a hundred years ago. Streaming video will help fill the gap left by sports in a way that the early 20th century communications tools could not, Smith said.
But he predicts that once the virus’ grip on society has eased, sports will return to its place as a unifying diversion, a role it has long filled.
“It happened in the ‘20s because the culture shifted to looking for an escape from the war and the flu,” Smith said. “It happened after 9/11. It’s as if the stadium serves as a cathedral of normalcy. And there will come a time when we will fill the arenas again and celebrate this return to normalcy. And it will be a very moving moment.”