If living without sports and other forms of entertainment during the coronavirus pandemic seems alien, it pales compared with the upheaval of 1918.
World War I dominated daily life, the Cubs and Red Sox staged a brief World Series mutiny and in the backdrop was the growing threat of the Spanish flu that public health officials at the time underestimated.
“It’s a bad flu right from the beginning, but when it comes back to America in late August 1918, it’s a killer,” said Randy Roberts, a Purdue University history professor and author of “War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America in the Shadow of the Great War.”
- The pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide and about 675,000 in the United States.
- It came in four waves — the second of which made for a deadly fall in 1918 — until finally petering out in December 1920.
- The disease — also known as “the blue death” because of how patients’ oxygen-depleted blood, or cyanosis, tinted their skin — sometimes attacked with such swiftness that someone could feel well in the morning and be dead by evening.
- The War Department and some states issued travel restrictions and bans on public gatherings, but those orders weren’t always followed to the letter.
Influenza was a big enough challenge for sports to overcome, but the war effort siphoned many able-bodied young men from athletics. Many college campuses, including Northwestern and the University of Chicago, hosted Army camps.
Army camps and Navy bases fielded football teams; Bears greats George Halas and Paddy Driscoll played on one.
The War Department had a say in major decisions about the college football schedule. Could you picture one of today’s power-conference coaches taking marching orders from the Pentagon about his team’s schedule?
The Cubs and Red Sox faced off in the World Series in early September — before the virus exploded in Chicago and Boston.
Sports leagues of all levels had temporary shutdowns, but they were anything but universal. A high school game in one Illinois town could be canceled while a game in a nearby town played on.
By the end of 1918, Chicago had an excess death rate — the rate above normal that most likely would be attributed to influenza — of 373.2 out of 100,000, according to J. Alex Navarro, medical historian at the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.
“That gives you roughly 10,000 deaths in Chicago for just the fall wave,” said Navarro, who co-authored a Journal of the American Medical Association paper on U.S. cities’ handling of the 1918 pandemic that has been incorporated into the modern-day guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Looking at it through Chicago’s lens, here’s how war and pestilence touched different facets of the city’s sports world.
College football: The sport’s loss may have been George Halas’ gain, helping lay the foundation for the Bears.
It’s a minor miracle the virus didn’t spread through the college football ranks, given the close association between military service teams and traditional campus “elevens,” as teams often were called back then.
Student Army Training Corps (SATC), established on college campuses, were part of a military network that shipped many of the same young men overseas to fight in Europe and back again.
The Army and Navy had football teams that played against each other and traditional college teams. Because of volunteerism and the draft, service teams such as Naval Station Great Lakes and Chicago Naval Reserve (aka Municipal Pier) had athletic talent to rival Pittsburgh and other college powers.
The first reported cases of the Spanish flu in the United States occurred in spring 1918, and they were regarded as “mild” in news reports.
But influenza spread throughout Europe, and as soldiers and sailors traveled back and forth, a second wave of the outbreak hit the U.S. with a vengeance in the fall, striking many military bases first.
That was the case with the North Shore’s Naval Station Great Lakes, where the first outbreak in the Chicago area occurred.
“Chicago grew to a bustling metropolis of 2.7 million by the time influenza arrived on September 8, 1918, when a few sailors at the nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Station fell ill with the disease,” Alex Navarro wrote. “A week later, seven Army cadets from the Northwestern University SATC unit came down with influenza.”
Influenza spread so quickly at Great Lakes, where 100 sailors died in a day, that in late September sailors were banned from weekend liberty to keep them out of downtown Chicago. Alderman W.O. Nance dismissed the outbreak as a recurrence of the 1890 Russian flu: “It’s just an old friend, or enemy, rather, traveling under a new alias,” the doctor said, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Seemingly untouched by the epidemic were future Pro Football Hall of Famers George Halas, Paddy Driscoll and Jimmy Conzelman, who played for Great Lakes before helping establish two of the NFL’s first teams: the Decatur Staleys, the forefather of the Bears, and the Chicago Cardinals.
“They had put their football team in separate barracks, so those guys were quarantined from everybody else,” said Timothy P. Brown, author of “Fields of Friendly Strife: The Doughboys and Sailors of the WWI Rose Bowls.”
Brown contended that those conditions — war, quarantine and playing football — created bonds that Halas used to establish what became the NFL: “I think for him, it was a huge deal.”
“The war generally created this network of football players who got to know one other,” Brown said. “Up to that point, the college game was the only thing that mattered. … But the wartime military teams was the first time all-star teams of current and former college players could get together, compete and get a lot of attention. They got a lot of press coverage.”
Halas’ future Bears connections from the military extended beyond his Great Lakes teammates. Former University of Illinois teammate and Bears co-founder Dutch Sternaman was drafted in the Army and assigned to Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kan. Hall of Fame Bears center George Trafton was assigned to Camp Grant in Rockford. Former Northwestern fullback Bob Koehler captained the powerful Chicago Naval Reserve team stationed at Municipal Pier (now Navy Pier) and in later years played for Halas’ Decatur Staleys and the Chicago Cardinals.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Halas and his college football colleagues.
Before the fall, college football officials considered abandoning the season because of the challenges the war effort presented. In September, the Big Ten, also known then as the Western Conference, handed control of athletics to the War Department, which later ruled the conference could carry on with its schedule. But the department restricted travel in October so players, many of them committed to SATC units, could remain close to campus. Military officials also wanted to reduce their exposure to influenza.
Walter Eckersall, a Tribune sports columnist and namesake of Eckersall Park on the South Side, wrote about a “rough year for football”: “Instead of the coach having the first say in football matters, he is now secondary. The commandant of the Student Army Training Corps unit is the boss.”
The Big Ten tweaked its schedule for October and November, but then state and local shutdowns for the Spanish flu left coaches scrambling to make last-minute changes or forced them to miss games altogether.
The Spanish flu had been on the rise in the Chicago area since September, and on Oct. 16, the Illinois Influenza Advisory Commission banned all nonessential activities.
“Athletic contests attracting crowds, whether indoors or out of doors, will be prohibited,” the Daily Tribune reported.
Great Lakes had four games canceled during the 1918 season.
“They went up to Pittsburgh to play Pitt, which was the top team in the country at the time,” Brown said, “(and) they arrived and then the game got canceled by the public health authorities.”
Here’s a snapshot of how complicated scheduling football could be.
Days before Great Lakes’ Oct. 12 game in Urbana, Illinois filed a “professionalism” objection based on the fact Driscoll played for both the Hammond Clabbys (football) and the Cubs (baseball) in 1917. Driscoll would have played his senior season at Northwestern in 1918 had he not joined the Navy. He went on to play a starring role in the Bluejackets’ 7-0 win over the Illini.
Great Lakes missed the next week’s scheduled matchup against the University of Chicago at Stagg Field, which the joint board of health called off. That same weekend of Oct. 19, Chicago Naval Reserve traveled to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame but had its game canceled “at the 11th hour” by the SATC commandant, Capt. William P. Murray, who had arrived on campus the month before.
Great Lakes’ Oct. 26 game against Kalamazoo Normal and Northwestern’s game versus Michigan State (then called Michigan Agricultural College) were canceled after state officials in Michigan shut down its borders because of the pandemic. And Naval Reserve’s game against Illinois in Urbana was cast into doubt because of the state of Illinois’ recent ban on public gatherings.
So Naval Reserve challenged local rival Great Lakes to a game, and the Bluejackets quickly accepted. But then Naval Reserve withdrew once the Illini approved a game behind closed gates. Fortunately for Great Lakes, Northwestern coach Fred Murphy contacted Great Lakes athletics officer Cmdr. J.B. Kauffman to set up a game with two days’ notice.
“It was actually the only game (Great Lakes) played on base that year,” said Jennifer Steinhardt, archivist of the National Museum of the American Sailor. “Our field was so muddy that neither team could score any points whatsoever. There wasn’t a football field on base at that time, so it really was just a field. And they weren’t expecting that many people to show up, but I think 15,000 did, which obviously did not help the mud situation.”
Great Lakes went on to tie Notre Dame 7-7 on Nov. 9, breaking a 39-game home winning streak dating to 1907 in what was the Irish’s only home game that year. Then the Bluejackets beat Navy.
“It was actually a really weird story,” Steinhardt said. “The Naval Academy was winning until the very end when they fumbled, and (Harry) ‘Dizzy’ Eielson looked like he was going to score when a sub from the Naval Academy jumped off the bench and tackled him.”
The referee issued a penalty and planned to set up the Bluejackets at half the distance to the goal, but the academy superintendent said, “No, they would’ve scored a touchdown, so they deserve a touchdown,” according to Steinhardt.
“And he forced the ref to give Great Lakes a touchdown,” Steinhardt said. “And they scored the extra point and won the game.”
The University of Chicago Maroons, coached by football visionary Amos Alonzo Stagg, had more problems beyond navigating state restrictions on public gatherings.
During the previous spring, the Tribune declared “prospects on the Midway are not gloomy — they are worse,” as Stagg already had lost several players to military duty.
At the beginning of October, his players were sworn in as soldiers under the control of SATC commandant Maj. Henry S. Wygant, according to Tribune archives. Stagg, like other coaches, had to deal with abbreviated practice hours set by the War Department and lean on younger, unseasoned players (freshmen were allowed to play in the Big Ten for the first time since 1905).
Around the same time as the mid-October ban, the Maroons lost five football stars to officer training camps, including end Herb “Fritz” Crisler and halfback/quarterback Bobbie Cole.
The next week, 30 cases of influenza broke out among mechanics trainees on campus. On Oct. 26, the quarterback and coach’s son, Amos Alonzo Stagg Jr., aka “Young Stagg,” broke his collarbone against Loyola Academy a week before the Big Ten opener against Purdue and was lost for the season.
The Maroons finished 0-5 in the Big Ten.
Northwestern wasn’t immune to the topsy-turvy nature of the 1918 season either.
The Purple (as they were called until the switch to Wildcats in 1925) got the OK from Evanston’s health commissioner to play Ohio State on Nov. 2, but Ohio’s military and health authorities held the Buckeyes back from traveling to Evanston, so Murphy scrambled to book Chicago Naval Reserve.
In a Nov. 9 game that was moved back a month because of the quarantine, Northwestern pummeled Knox, of Galesburg, Ill., 47-7. “About 300 watched the game and were stingy with cheers,” the Tribune wrote.
Meanwhile in Chicago, city health commissioner John Dill Robertson declared in a letter to the Chicago Association of Commerce: “All bans are off.”
The next week, Northwestern beat the University of Chicago 21-6. According to Tribune archives, “the field was sloppy, and the rain and fog obscured the play, but it was a gala ‘homecoming day’ for the … Purple students and alumni, and the drizzle of the weather could not quench the sizzle of their enthusiasm.”
Halas’ Great Lakes team finished the season 6-0-2, then beat the Mare Island Marines 17-0 in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1919. Halas was named MVP.
“He still holds the record for longest interception return (77 yards) in Rose Bowl history that wasn’t a touchdown,” said John Prue, Great Lakes’ morale, welfare and recreation director.
Notable: A former University of Chicago baseball player, Pvt. Phillip W. Hartzell, died in battle in France in September 1918. … Hiram H. Wheeler, backup quarterback for the 1904 Illinois team and one of the university’s first two African American letter winners, “died from pneumonia (on Oct. 16) just as he was to leave for France as a YMCA army secretary with Negro regiments.”
Baseball: The Cubs and White Sox escaped influenza — but not controversy.
Ever since the U.S. joined World War I in April 1917, baseball helped promote recruitment, war-related charities and raising money for the war fund. American League clubs had drill instructors assigned to each team to put on a pregame show for fans and indoctrinate ballplayers, potential recruits, in military customs.
Like college football, the baseball world worried that the war would scuttle its season, but it managed to thread the needle between the military’s demands and the pandemic and put on an abbreviated season.
The War Department allowed baseball to finish by Sept. 1 and permitted a World Series as long as it was done by Sept. 15. After that, players were subject to a “work or fight” edict, as long as the work was essential to the war effort.
Author Jim Leeke estimated about 200 players served in the military, the majority of them drafted.
The Cubs’ Bill Killefer reported for duty with the Army that fall at Camp Custer near Battle Creek, Mich. White Sox manager Clarence “Pants” Rowland took on a role supplying sporting goods to servicemen.
Chicago History Museum chief historian Peter Alter said, “We have pictures of White Sox players in their uniforms at a recruiting station in the South Loop, asking young eligible men to sign up for military service.”
The defending champion White Sox played spring training games at an army camp in Texas, while the Cubs entertained soldiers at camps in California, New Mexico and Texas. Cubs owner Charles H. Weeghman bought $100,000 in liberty bonds in April.
However, many ballplayers were criticized for flocking to “bombproof” jobs at shipyards and steel mills in what some believe was a hedge against being conscripted. They often joined semipro shipyard teams.
When White Sox outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson got a draft notice in May from his home state, South Carolina, according to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), he said: “Well, the old boy will be out there slugging the Dutchman pretty soon. And if I ever draw a bead on one of them birds, it’ll be all off with him.”
But Jackson instead got a job with Harlan and Hollingsworth shipbuilding in Wilmington, Del., and was immediately promoted to painting inspector, according to SABR.
“That was very controversial,” said Leeke, who wrote “From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War.” “If you were working in an essential war industry, you were usually exempt from the draft, so when Shoeless jumped from the White Sox to a shipyard team, that was pretty controversial. And the ballplayers that followed him, they got a lot of grief.
“But a lot of that was unfair, I think, because those jobs needed to be done. The ships needed to be built, and they weren’t breaking the law.”
Later that May, Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder, the founder of the Selective Service System, issued a “work or fight” order to go into effect after July 1. “Holders of needless jobs,” including bartenders, waiters and elevator operators, could be subject to the draft if they didn’t find “essential work” that aided the war effort, but War Department officials didn’t initially know how the rule applied to baseball players.
Owners appealed to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, and according to the Tribune, he said: “Grindstones and hollyhocks, and likewise gadzooks. What is this baseball anyway? I never heard of it before.”
While military and baseball officials sorted out the matter, the exodus continued. Some owners weren’t happy about it and even threatened to ban such players when they tried to return.
“(White Sox owner Charles) Comiskey wasn’t sympathetic at all with anybody that went to a shipyard or steel mill club,” Leeke said.
In June, Comiskey cut pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams and catcher Byrd Lynn from the roster for taking the “Joe Jackson route” and pursuing shipbuilding jobs, “putting them under suspension and ordering their Sox uniforms taken from them,” the Tribune reported.
“I don’t consider them fit to play on my ballclub,” the Sox owner declared angrily in the article. “I would gladly lose my whole team if the players wished to do their duty to their country … by entering the Army or Navy, but I hate to see any ballplayers, particularly my own, go to shipyards to escape military service.”
Said Leeke, “He took it badly, though later, like all the other owners, he welcomed the shipyard players back in 1919.”
The War Department eventually exempted baseball players from the work-or-fight order until after the World Series in September between the Cubs and Red Sox. The first three games were played at Comiskey Park because of its larger capacity before the series moved to Boston, a concession to cut down on travel.
In a way, the war restrictions did baseball a favor by forcing the season to end by mid-September — just as the second, deadlier wave of influenza was starting to flare up in many cities. It was the only World Series played entirely in September.
The series started under an omen. The day before Game 1 at Comiskey, a labor group was suspected of bombing a federal building in downtown Chicago, killing four people. The Cubs lost the opener in a 1-0 duel between Hippo Vaughn and Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth.
“Despite warnings from (Boston) health officials about a citywide (influenza) outbreak, the World Series between Ruth’s Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs still went on as planned, fueling the plague and infecting patrons at Fenway Park,” according to “War Fever.”
Said “War Fever” author Randy Roberts: “The Series starts Sept. 5, and it’s over by Sept. 11. By the last three games, it’s definitely spread into the city of Boston. … Undoubtedly people going to Fenway caught it. … It should have been closed, but they didn’t know at that time.”
Boston’s “mortality death rate” accelerated Sept. 12 and peaked Oct. 3, according to Alex Navarro’s paper, and influenza and pneumonia ultimately killed 710 more people of every 100,000 than typical yearly levels, compared with Chicago’s rate of 373 per 100,000.
That wasn’t the only eventful part of the World Series.
Before Game 5, the Cubs and Red Sox staged an hourlong strike — they refused to put on their uniforms — to try to get a larger share of the proceeds, which suffered from lower-than-expected attendance.
But after a brief meeting with league decision-makers, they agreed to play “not because we think we are getting a fair deal … (but) for the sake of the wounded soldiers and sailors who are in the grandstand waiting for us,” Red Sox outfielder Harry Hooper said, according to the Associated Press.
“As we would say today, the optics were just terrible,” Leeke said. “We’re at war, you guys are squabbling. There were wounded troops in the stands from area hospitals.”
On the field, Vaughn led the Cubs to a 3-0 victory in Game 5, though the Cubs lost the series in six games.
“It was a very strange and subdued World Series, and it wasn’t very well-attended,” Leeke said.
Said Red Sox historian Gordon Edes: “It may have been the most joyless World Series ever.”
Vaughn was supposed to play on an all-star squad against one of Rube Foster’s Negro League teams, the Chicago American Giants, but city officials canceled the Giants’ fall schedule because of influenza concerns, according to a Nov. 2 article in the Chicago Defender.
“(The American Giants) were regularly kicking their butts,” Alter, the Chicago historian, said of the all-white baseball teams. “Yes, there was this public health outcry — but there was also this concern that this team of all-black players was beating this supposed all-star team of white players.
“That’s not mentioned in the Defender, but one wonders with race relations in that year (blacks were migrating from the South, often filling jobs vacated by white enlisted men) if that was an undercurrent of why. And the park (the Sox’s former South Side Park, then called Schorling Park when it was the Giants’ home) was shut down as well.”
Even after all baseball was done and the war ended on Nov. 11, hard feelings against some baseball players lingered.
Tribune columnist I.E. Sanborn wrote: “The harm done the good name of baseball by the comparatively few who sought bulletproof jobs during the season was more than offset by the fact that more than 50 percent of the players who were on the rosters of the two major leagues in March were in actual service either in the Army or the Navy by October, and a considerable number of the athletes in both big leagues were fortunate enough to get overseas before the armistice was declared.”
Tribune reader Lt. Elmer E. Leopold wrote a letter to the editor about Jackson in February 1919: “Before it is too late I wish to recall the ‘Joe Jackson case,’ and how he on the eve of being drafted turned in his suit and went to the shipyards in order to evade shouldering a rifle and fighting for his country.
“Joe Jackson would have looked mighty fine in a khaki uniform, but he was too much of a slacker to put one on. … I believe Mr. Comiskey too patriotic to put this player back on his team.”
Unfortunately for Jackson, his reputation only would turn for the worse. He became the chief scapegoat of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which eight White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series against the Reds for money, and he and the others later were banned from baseball.
Notable: 1918 marked the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at a World Series. … After the World Series, some Cubs players played in semipro games in Chicago but didn’t violate the “work or fight” rule because they did so within the Sept. 15 grace period. Paul “Nick” Carter, Phil Douglas and Hippo Vaughn went off to various locations to do essential work. … Cubs owner Charles Weeghman shelled out at least $50,000 to acquire Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander from the Phillies, only to see him get drafted in January. “I shall ask no exemption. I’m ready to go. I am no slacker,” he said, according to the Hartford Courant. Alexander served with the 342nd Field Artillery Unit in France and missed all but three April games for the Cubs. Author Jim Leeke chronicles his story in the book “The Best Team Over There: The Untold Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War,” publishing through University of Nebraska Press in 2021. … Bill Lange, a former Cubs outfielder from 20 years earlier, would’ve shipped out to the war in October but caught the flu. … Former White Sox player Larry Chappell, a private in the medical corps, died of pneumonia after contracting influenza. Chappell was traded to Indians in a 1916 deal that brought Joe Jackson to the South Side. … Chicago native Lt. Alexander Thomson “Tom” Burr died in an airplane accident in Cazaux, France, on Oct. 12. “He was once on the pitching staff of the New York Yankees under the management of (former Cub) Frank Chance,” the Tribune wrote. … Former Cubs catcher Harry E. Chapman died of influenza-induced pneumonia Oct. 21 at Camp Clark in Nevada, Mo. … Chicago native Newt Halliday, a former Pirates first baseman who was training at Great Lakes, died of pneumonia April 6 at 21 .
Other sports: Basketball had a delayed reaction to influenza, while high schools on the whole had a spotty response.
Many communities closed their high schools during the height of the pandemic.
“Chicago did not, interestingly enough,” said Alex Navarro, the influenza historian. “The rationale was students were better off being monitored.”
Other public gatherings in Illinois were closed by mid-October, but according to Navarro’s article on influenzaarchive.org: “Closing schools may have mattered little by this late date anyway, as absentee rates had already reached as high as thirty percent, and would spike to nearly fifty percent within a week.
“Not all of these absences were due to illness; some were the result of worried parents. Others were due to mischievous students who took to sniffing pepper in order to induce a coughing or sneezing fit, knowing that they would be sent home for a week.”
Public and Catholic schools in Chicago called off games or even seasons because of the flu or the war. St. Ignatius ended its football season after beating St. Rita in October to yield its playing field to SATC drills.
It was a particularly daunting season for Hyde Park High School, which was coming off an undefeated 1917 season in which it was crowned Cook County champion. Coach Charles Colwell left the team in September to join the SATC unit at Northwestern.
In an “unadvertised crowdless practice game,” the University of Chicago’s second team beat Hyde Park 41-0 on Oct. 18. That scrimmage violated the Chicago Public High School League’s ban on games and practices for that week, and three Hyde Park players were suspended.
To make matters worse, seven Hyde Park players, in a sort of group protest, marched down to a recruiting office and enlisted in the tank corps. At least one more reportedly enlisted the next day.
“Senn will lose some men to the Army also, and other teams have their service stars, but there is no eleven wrecked to the same extent as Hyde Park, which probably will have to draw on its lightweight (similar to junior varsity) players to finish the season,” the Tribune wrote.
After realizing that the recruits might get the call to duty any day, Hyde Park hoped to get in one more game as a complete team and tried to persuade rival Englewood to move up a scheduled makeup game, but Englewood coach Albert Barradell balked.
“Let Hyde Park take its medicine and not play the baby act by trying to make us the goat,” Barradell said. “We will lose three men, too, but we will play when we are scheduled.”
Englewood added salt to the wound, beating Hyde Park 6-0 in the city championship game Nov. 23. About 3,000 people attended.
In basketball, colleges and high schools played out their seasons in the late winter and early spring of 1918, long before influenza’s devastating second wave hit the U.S..
After that October wave passed, a Tribune article dated Dec. 20, 1918, shows some teams started their 1918-19 seasons, including the Great Lakes sailors’ opener against the YMCA.
Isolated cases of the flu affected basketball in Chicago.
City College had a game postponed against Friends School, a Quaker institution, because of an outbreak there. University of Chicago two-sport star Wilson Stegeman contracted influenza but traveled with the team to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a February game against the Wolverines after having “recovered from the influenza sufficiently to be in condition” to make the trip.
Paddy Driscoll, George Halas and Con Eklund played basketball for Great Lakes, which beat Knox 52-11 and trounced Camp Sherman 72-15. Penn State beat the Bluejackets 48-22 in a March game in which Halas backed up Driscoll at one guard spot.
As “Great Lakes Recruit: A Pictorial Naval Magazine” noted, “Each of the trio was annexed from the football team, and they have proved themselves as capable on the basketball floor.”
Notable: P.J. “Paddy” Carroll, a Chicago boxing promoter and onetime Illinois heavyweight champion, died in October 1918. … Illinois basketball player John Felmley contracted influenza during the 1919-20 season. … Jack Cartwright (Pullman Soccer Club) and Edward Liquorish (Lincoln Park soccer), both of whom enlisted through Canada and went overseas together, were killed about a week apart in October 1918.