MLB: What can MLB learn from the Spanish Flu Pandemic?

William Parlee
New York Yankees, Babe Ruth
(Original Caption) After making a runaway race of it all season, the Yankees won the American League pennant. They took the opening series of the year from the Athletics, of Philadelphia, and held the lead until the end; their victory was due mainly to the heavy hitting of “Babe” Ruth, Lou Gehrig; Tony Lazzeri and other members of the team; Miller Huggins is the manager. Photo shows Combs, centerfielder; Ruth, left fielder and Meusel, right fielder. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

While the New York Yankees and fans across the country sit at home wondering when baseball begins again, the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread at the same time that health restrictions are lessened to some degree in 42 states.  There are lessons to be learned as to what happened during the Spanish Flu pandemic that scourged the nation.

News in 1918 was not just about the Spanish Flu, but World War 1, and a fantastic baseball player by the name of Babe Ruth.  There was a connection though; Ruth contracted the dread virus not once but twice in a season that would see him play in only 95 games.  It was a time when Babe Ruth was making a name for himself as a great Boston Red Sox pitcher and was becoming the first-ever power hitter in baseball. That year Ruth lead the American League in home runs.  The first time he would do it, and only one of the twelve times, he would accomplish the feat.

The history of Babe Ruth and the Spanish Flu is worth studying as New York and America struggles to overcome the coronavirus.  One day in May of 1918, Ruth went for some sun at a local beach.  He went home, and within a day he was sick, his temperature reached 104 degrees.  Little was known about the disease.  The Boston Red Sox doctor treated Ruth by painting his throat with a mix of silver nitrate that not only didn’t help but made his condition worse, and Ruth had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

Losing Ruth to the virus was a blow to the Sox as they had already lost eleven players to the war effort.  Luckily for the Sox in a few days, Ruth had recovered and returned to the team.  Like most cases of flu, they are spread by human to human from water droplets from coughing or even breathing near someone infected.  Back in 1918, there was little direction from the government on how to protect yourself.  The CDC wasn’t created until 1946.

The 23-year-old Babe Ruth had to overcome many hardships in his life, including a second bout with the Spanish Flu in the same year. They lacked much direction as the baseball season continued during the Flu, although the use of social distancing and masks may not have been used. However, they did direct pitchers not to use the spitball as it was considered unhealthy.  The baseball season was finally suspended when people started dying like flies, but not before Ruth contracted the virus again.

It is unclear how the baseball season was shortened because undeterred MLB continued to a World Series between the National League Chicago Cubs and the American League Boston Red Sox.  Ruth pitched a game one shutout, and in game four, he went seven scoreless innings before giving up a run in a game the Sox would win as well.   All this when the SECOND wave of the virus hit Boston.  Without social distancing, even a pitcher that was so sick he had to lay down between innings was allowed to pitch before crowds that jammed Fenway Park for three games during the series.

By the time the virus finally relented 5,000 Boston citizens had died from the Spanish flu, a figure that was dwarfed by the 675,000 that died nationwide.  That’s a number the equals more than all that died during the American Civil War.  Boston at the time was a port that saw many coming and going from overseas, much like the New York of today.  With fans congregating at Fenway and many parades when Boston won the series the lack of social distancing took its toll on the public. Babe Ruth would again recover from the flu and would go on to be a New York Yankee, and the rest is history as he would become the most successful Yankee of all time.

As MLB ponders what a baseball season will look like and when it will be safe for players and fans alike. There is much to be learned from the Spanish Flu and the lack of government health officials involved in how to control it.  In this coronavirus, the CDC, in conjunction, local health officials and MLB, are negotiating today to decide how to proceed.  Not getting it correct could have dire consequences not only for MLB or for the nation as a whole.