Baseball players wearing masks, a shortened season, empty seats in the stands, a key Red Sox pitcher getting sick.
This is the outlook as a new and bizarre season gets underway, but we’re not talking about 2020 here. This was all going on in 1918 when the Spanish flu was ravaging the nation.
And the aforementioned key pitcher was not the recently sidelined Eduardo Rodriguez, but a higher-profile lefthander by the name of George H. Ruth.
In fact, the Babe caught the flu not once, but twice – and his initial treatment nearly killed him.
Ruth first got sick in May of ’18, a hectic time with the country mobilized for World War I and many baseball players already drafted and missing from team rosters.
The situation created a historic turning point for Ruth, who was draft-eligible but was never called up. Missing a significant amount of offense, Manager Ed Barrow eyed his free-swinging star pitcher, who had won 24 games the previous year, for everyday play. It didn’t hurt that in March, when the Sox held a batting practice in front of troops at Fort Pike, Ark., the 23-year-old Ruth swatted five balls over the fence.
But already, several members of the team had contracted a mysterious illness.
In their book, “War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War,” Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith recount how after fraternizing with troops at Fort Pike, the Babe in May spent a day with his wife at Revere Beach outside Boston, “eating a picnic basket full of sandwiches and drinking warm beer…”
That night he spiked a 104-degree fever and other flu symptoms. When he reported to pitch at Fenway the next day “looking like a ghost,” the team doctor sent him home, but not before swabbing his throat with potentially caustic silver nitrate.
Ruth later choked and collapsed, ending up in the hospital, but he recovered to play the rest of a wartime-curtailed, 126-game season culminating in a World Series win over the Cubs. But you couldn’t call it the “October Classic” – it started on Sept. 5, the earliest Series ever.
Ruth, who batted .300 for the season and hit 11 home runs – best in the league during that dead-ball era – managed one hit in five at-bats against the Cubs, but in 17 innings of pitching won two of the Red Sox four Series victories.
With Spanish flu, a national scourge, only about 15,000 fans – less than half Fenway’s capacity – watched on Sept. 11 as the Sox took the deciding game six, 2-1, behind the pitching of Carl Mays, who split the four Series victories with Ruth.
Red Sox fans are aware that the 1918 World Series was the last the team would win until 2004, a span known as “The Curse of the Bambino,” mythical punishment for the sale of Ruth to the Yankees after the following season.
But that wasn’t the end of what Ruth must have thought was his own personal curse.
After the Series, he returned to his home town of Baltimore, where for a second time he caught the malady that eventually killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.
Once again, the Babe prevailed. That was his good fortune and a gift to all of us who take pleasure in the colorful history of our Grand Old Game.
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com), an occasional contributor to What’s Up Newp and What’s Up Rhode Island, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.