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Culture Q&A

Johnny Smith

A pandemic amid a world war

When over there came over here

A pandemic amid a world war

Johnny Smith (Illustration by Sergio Ingravalle)

Baseball is starting up again and COVID-19 is still throwing fastballs. This isn’t the first time such good and bad news coexisted: Johnny Smith, professor of sports history at Georgia Tech, is co-author (with historian Randy Roberts) of the excellent War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War (Basic, 2020). Here are edited excerpts from our April interview.

How did the 1918 pandemic begin to spread through America? As early as Aug. 27, sailors at Commonwealth Pier in Boston who had come from the Western Front were sick. This was not your normal, ordinary flu. The men couldn’t breathe. Their skin turned purple. They had blisters on the surface of their skin. But in the first week of September, while health authorities are observing what’s happening at the pier, soldiers and sailors are in a Liberty Loan parade. Nearly 100,000 men in Boston go into various public halls registering for the draft. Many events—war bond drives, three World Series games at Fenway Park—allow the virus to spread. 

One of your main characters, Babe Ruth, became a celebrity that year. In 1918 the seeds were planted for him to evolve from a dominant left-handed pitcher into a slugger. The Red Sox needed ­hitters, and Ruth loved to hit. He approached hitting differently than most dead-ball hitters did. Most chopped at the ball or bunted: It was a game of small ball, scientific ball, calculation. Ruth was not about calculation. He was all brawn. His power was a metaphor for American manpower. While soldiers are battling out on the trenches on the Western Front, here’s Ruth. 

But he couldn’t stop a pandemic. By the third week of September Boston health officials knew the mayor should shut down the city, or at least parts of it. A closure order told people not to be out in restaurants, saloons, dance halls, theaters: People must stay home for their safety. We could argue that health authorities in Boston waited too long to respond, but here’s one major lesson from 1918: Cities that were as proactive as possible in issuing the closure orders were able to mitigate fatalities. 

You mention the parade on Sept. 3 through Boston, when officials didn’t know how bad it was. I’m astounded that on Sept. 28 Philadelphia officials refused to cancel a parade of 200,000 people—and a lot of them died the next week. In general, how did officials at that time react, compared to now? One of the major failures of the Woodrow Wilson administration was not communicating with people, being transparent. They were well aware that this epidemic was developing, but President Wilson said nothing. The surgeon general basically said this is an ordinary flu, no reason to be alarmed. But in fall 1918 many football games were canceled. The war had forced Major League Baseball to finish the regular season by Labor Day and complete the World Series by Sept. 15. If the World Series had been in October in Boston like it normally would have been, they would have had to cancel it, because the city was under a closure order. 

Ruth was not about calculation. He was all brawn. His power was a metaphor for American manpower.

In the White House on Oct. 7, the war only has a month to go, the German army is already collapsing, and its politicians are already sending out peace feelers. Wilson knows how dangerous it is to be sending troops on packed boats across the Atlantic, but he keeps those floating caskets going. Yes, young men, these soldier types who appeared to be perfectly healthy, were dying. Quickly in some cases, within a matter of hours. In the United States we lost 679,000 Americans.

In a population of about 100 million at that point, that’s the equivalent of more than 2 million deaths now. One other lesson that we can learn from the pandemic of 1918-1919 is that even when officials tell us it is safe to return to life as usual we should move with caution. We should still maintain some level of social distancing because we aren’t going to be entirely certain about whether or not the virus has totally disappeared. Because in all likelihood it will not have.

In one sense it was easier then: When people got sick in 1918, they showed it quickly, unlike with the current pandemic. Yes, and people believed all sorts of myths about what could cure you: Some said chewing tobacco or removing your teeth. Some said the Germans had infiltrated Boston Harbor and unleashed a poisonous gas.

You point out that Babe Ruth’s three focuses were baseball, booze, and brothels. His roommate, Harry Hooper, said journalists transformed Ruth from a human being into something pretty close to a god. In this period, sports writers were beginning to embrace the Grantland Rice school of sports writing, making larger-than-life characters. Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, ­published stories about Ruth’s achievements. Reading about Ruth and baseball made soldiers feel they were more ­connected to what was going on back home.

He was a manufactured hero, but you write about a real one, Charles Whittlesey. Harvard Law School, Wall Street attorney, scholarly, a loner in some ways. There’s this movement at Harvard of defending America and believing Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic message that World War I would be the war to end all wars. So Charles Whittlesey enlists and commands a battalion that is cut off, isolated from the rest of the American line. It’s called the Lost Battalion, and for days the German army pounds it. The Americans don’t have supplies. They don’t have food for over 100 hours.

Whittlesey refused to surrender. When the Germans demand it, he supposedly tells them, “Go to hell.” He never uttered those words, but that becomes part of the myth of Charles Whittlesey, a symbol of courage. The Lost Battalion lost about half its men, but it survives. He comes back from the war carrying haunting memories. He has nightmares and suffers from what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. He becomes the first recipient of the Medal of Honor. He’s asked over and over again about the war. He pays a price. 

Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story to correct the season when football games were canceled because of the influenza pandemic: fall 1918.


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  • lewinkler
    Posted: Tue, 07/21/2020 09:41 pm

    Is this a typo?  "But in fall 2018 many football games were canceled."  You meant 1918, right?