Pandemics & Sports – The Spanish Flu, 1918 – 1920

Never has the way of life had to change so quickly in the days of living with the deadly and dangerous novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

With the NBA struggling to reconcile itself with the sudden and tragic death of star Kobe Bryant, it became one of the first major leagues to take the momentous step to put pause on its season. With the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19, the NBA commissioner, David Silver, had little choice but to shutter up the league for the foreseeable future, regardless of the business implications.

Gobert however, did himself little favours by mocking precautions against the virus, as seen from the below video. He subsequently apologised.

Undoubtedly, sport must take a back seat during this time of international crisis, given the grave implications that COVID-19 will have on the health and safety of people globally.

“Sports during a time of national crisis gives the illusion of normality, and we always ask ourselves, ‘Should we cancel everything or not?’

RANDY ROBERTS, AUTHOR: “WAR FEVER: BOSTON, BASEBALL, AND AMERICA IN THE SHADOW OF THE GREAT WAR,

With basically every sport on pause (apart from WWE) for an undetermined time, has the world of sport ever faced up to pandemics in the past?

The Spanish Flu & Sport, 1918 – 1920

The 1918 influenza pandemic, also referred to as the Spanish flu lasted from January 1918 until December 1920. Its effects were sobering, with the death toll estimated to be up to 50 million people, with over 500 million being infected with the virus (roughly 29% of the world’s population). So far reaching was this pandemic that no one was spared, even US president Woodrow Wilson contracted the virus in 1919 when negotiating the Versailles Treaty.

Sport, much like today, was effectively cancelled.

RIGHT NOW, WE DON’T KNOW IF WE’RE GOING TO CANCEL THE ENTIRE MLB SEASON, AND IT WAS THE SAME THING IN 1918. IT WAS MADDENINGLY FRUSTRATING. THE OWNERS DID NOT KNOW IF THERE WAS GOING TO BE A SEASON, IF THERE WAS GOING TO BE A WORLD SERIES, OR HOW LONG THE SERIES WOULD LAST. THE OWNERS HAD TO PAY FOR THEIR STADIUMS AND THEIR PLAYERS, SO THEY WERE INVESTED IN HAVING, IN SOME WAY, A SEASON.”

Randy Roberts, author: “War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War,

But not everyone complied.

One peer reviewed paper from 2007 focused on the impact the Spanish flu had on Minnesota. It states that “many sporting organizations responded negatively to closing orders”.

“in November 1918, the bowlers of St. Paul drew up a petition that requested permission to begin bowling again. Minneapolis football teams chose to ignore the ban and attempted to play against each other in front of large crowds. Police were called in to disperse the crowds and halt the games.”

“Several establishments serving alcohol and food deliberately broke the closing order to continue their regular business. One saloon was discovered with the back door route open.”

Lessons Learned from the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota

The most high profile sporting casualty of this pandemic was the 1919 Stanley Cup (see this great Guardian piece for more information). By the time Game Five of the final, between Montreal Canadiens against the Seattle Metropolitans was over, one player, Joe Hall, had collapsed on the ice. Subsequently, players from each team suffered symptoms consistent with the Spanish flu, with the Canadiens having four other players in hospital with Hall. The team tried to forfeit the cup to the Seattle-based team, who refused. With this impasse, five hours before Game Six, the series was cancelled. The famous Stanley Cup bears the words: “Series Not Completed”. This is the only time in the competition’s history this has happened.

Meanwhile, baseball saw both players and officials succumb to the pandemic, including Cy Swain, Larry Chappell and umpire Silk O’Loughlin.

Much like the Spanish flu, we have no idea how long this shut down will need (and must) continue for.