SMITHSONIANMAG.COM |
April 30, 2020, 7 a.m.

Even before Babe Ruth reached the Red Sox spring training camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and took his first tentative steps toward revolutionizing the game of baseball, the influenza virus destined to convulse the world lurked nearby.

Many epidemiologists believe that what became known as the “Spanish Flu” in all likelihood took shape in early 1918 in Haskell County, Kansas. Loring Miner, a successful country doctor and health official, first noticed the odd strain of influenza. He had never encountered one like it. The “grippe” tore into residents of the county—the characteristic chills, blinding headache, high fever, hacking cough, and debilitating body aches came on fast, and for some rugged, healthy residents of the county just as rapidly killed them.

Americans were on the move in early 1918, and the flu Miner identified moved with them. In early March, it showed up in the shamefully overcrowded barracks and tents of Camp Funston, Kansas, one of the Army’s hastily and poorly constructed cantonments to train soldiers for action in the war in Europe. At Funston more than several thousand doughboys sickened, dragging themselves to the camp hospital or infirmaries. Thirty-eight died. Those who recovered, and many others who were not sick enough to seek medical treatment, soon boarded trains for other camps further east. Many traveled to Camp Devens, near Boston, and from there to the Western Front. Others spent time at such posts as Camp Pike, on the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas. Everywhere they traveled it was like the contagion was packed in their kit.

Around the same time, in the second week of March, professional baseball players, eager to escape northern winters, began to trickle toward the warmer climes of the South. Babe Ruth, carrying his left-handed golf clubs, and his Red Sox teammates boarded trains bound for their quarters in Hot Springs. Babe moved about the train like a Newfoundland puppy, greeting other ballplayers, making plans for golf and other “relaxations,” jabbering about anything that jumped into his head, and shaking hands with other passengers, especially with the soldiers who got on at every stop. Boston Globe beat reporter Edward Martin noticed Ruth’s bonhomie, commenting how the moon-faced athlete “was the life of the party and fraternized with a lot of the soldier boys from Camp Devens.” Always generous, Babe “passed around his cigars and did not overlook any of the lads in khaki.”

Martin informed his readers no golf matches were set on the train, “but it is understood that there will be other games played.” For Ruth, those games—gambling at the casinos and racetrack, drinking in the saloons, enjoying nights at the brothels—were the sine qua non of spring training. But he did not ignore the ballpark, where he discovered an added pleasure, one not on his usual list. The war had decimated the Red Sox roster. Almost a squad of veterans was missing in action, casualties of the draft. Their absence left the team dangerously short on hitters. Ruth, who at the time was one of the best pitchers in the league, swung a bat as hard as he heaved a fastball, and he relished the chance to strut his stuff.

The top officials of the Boston Red Sox, Ed Barrow, left, and Harry Frazee, seated center, talk with Babe Ruth, center top, and Stuffy McInnis about the upcoming baseball season in 1918.

(Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images)

For manager Edward Grant Barrow, an old school “small ball” man, Babe’s stuff was purely a circus act. Instead of choking up on the bat and laying down bunts or chopping singles the way Ty Cobb did, Ruth gripped the bat low near the knob, and swung with a ferocious long-arcing, uppercut action. He often missed the ball by a foot or more, but when he connected, when he “banged that old apple” with the sweet spot on the barrel of the bat, it was a sight to see. The ball seemed to explode off his bat, climb high in the air, and sail over the heads of the outfielders.

He hit balls where none had ever been hit before. In one game, he belted a home run over the fence and into the middle of an alligator farm. “The intrusion kicked up no end of commotion among the ‘Gators,” reported Martin. Another time, he took a few swings and then “calmly announced” that he was going to knock one over the fence. Then he did it.

On yet one more occasion, in a game scheduled for Camp Pike, he entertained “the khaki boys.” Although lightning, thunder, and rain forced the cancellation of the contest, Babe’s batting practice performance was one for the ages. While the soldiers cheered, he drove five balls over the right field fence. The next day, a Boston American headline announced Ruth’s unprecedented power display: “BABE RUTH PUTS FIVE OVER FENCE, HERETOFORE UNKNOWN TO BASEBALL FAN.”

Babe Ruth warming up for pitching
Babe Ruth warms up before a 1918 game.

( The Stanley Weston Archive via Getty Images)

During the exhibition season in Hot Springs, Babe Ruth the slugger, the Boston “Colossuses” was born. On the field it seemed like such an innocent time. But for some odd reason, an unusual number of Red Sox players began to suffer from sore throats and fevers. In Hot Springs, reporters noticed it. One called it “the reign of grippe.” Another wrote, “A perfect epidemic has run through the entire city, and almost everyone complains.”

A reign of grippe? A perfect epidemic? Or just the flu—sick for a few days then back to work. No one on the team seemed too concerned. Yet out in Haskell County, Loring Miner had recently contacted the U.S. Public Health Service to report some strange influenza patterns. This seemed to be a new kind of flu. And it killed.

***

It all happened so fast. On May 19, 1918, the first warm day of the year, Ruth took his wife, Helen, to Revere Beach for an afternoon outing. Located just north of the city, it was the nation’s first public beach, a working-class “people’s beach” that featured amusement rides, a boardwalk, and an elaborate pier, as well as swimming facilities. Babe spent the day in the sun, eating a picnic basket full of sandwiches and drinking warm beer, swimming on a full stomach, and enjoying his own celebrity by playing a game of baseball in the sand with some locals. He couldn’t have been happier.

Later that night, Ruth complained of a terrible fever. His temperature climbed to 104 degrees, his body ached, he shivered with chills, and his throat throbbed. He had all the symptoms of the flu, a condition that he shared with millions of other Americans in the spring of 1918. This first wave of influenza coursed through U.S. training camps and followed soldiers aboard transport ships set for France. By May, hundreds of thousands of troops—countless infected—sailed across the Atlantic each month, carrying the virus into the packed trenches on the Western Front. There the virus mutated and then a more lethal strain returned home later that summer. Wartime censorship, however, prevented American reporters from writing many stories about the emerging epidemic. Although some people died, most struck with the virus that spring struggled through the aches and sweats of the fever and recovered.

Ruth might have been among the lucky ones, but the Red Sox physician made matters worse. The day after his trip to the beach, Babe was scheduled to pitch. He showed up at Fenway looking like a ghost, feeling miserable, obviously ill, and in no condition to take the field, but determined to throw nonetheless. Team doctor Oliver Barney “took a look at the big fellow, decided that the trouble was something more than a mere sore throat, and recommended four or five days of complete rest in bed.” Barrow agreed and immediately crossed Ruth’s name off the lineup card, sending him home with the doctor, who liberally swabbed his throat with a caustic compound of silver nitrate, probably a 10 percent solution, to ill effect. Among the dangers of using silver nitrate to treat tonsillitis, the standard American Journal of Clinical Medicine noted in 1914: “Caution: Great care must be exercised that no excess silver-nitrate solution oozing from the swab drops into the throat, lest serious results follow; for as we know, cases are on record in which edema [swelling] of the glottis, severe spasms of the larynx and other spastic affections of the throat, even suffocation, resulted from such accidents.”

The treatment hit Ruth like a line drive to the throat. He choked and gagged, writhed in pain, and finally collapsed. He was rushed to the eye and ear ward of the Massachusetts General Hospital, where a physician packed his inflamed throat in ice. Soon rumors shot through Boston that “the Colossus . . . worth more than his weight in gold” was on his deathbed.

Two days later, the news from Massachusetts General significantly improved. “Babe’s great vitality and admirable physical condition have started to throw off the aggravated attack of tonsillitis [sic],” noted the Boston Herald and Journal. “The prophecy now is that the big lad will be out of the hospital in four or five days” and would be ready by the end of the month to travel west with his teammates.

Ruth’s brief spell of illness came at a time when he was emerging as baseball’s first slugger, cracking 11 home runs, more than five entire American League teams would hit that year. In the context of America’s deadly attacks on the Western Front, Ruth’s awesome power, his violent, full-bodied swings, resonated with the country’s glorification of unrestrained force. Whenever “The Colossus” stepped to the plate, carrying his mighty “war club” like a cudgel, he struck “the fear of the Lord” into opposing pitchers.

By the end of June, when Ruth was back on the field, journalists had begun to compare American fighting forces in France with Babe’s performances on the home front. “The story of Babe Ruth’s mighty hitting, his Homeric smashes, kindles a glow in the hearts of all those who know baseball,” commented a Boston Herald and Journal columnist. “In Italy, in Normandy, in Alsace, and in a hundred camps along the firing line, men meet and ask for the latest news of the gifted hitter of home runs. The story of each succeeding circuit clout is received with acclaim. It lightens and breaks the dangerous tension of a soldier’s duty and it’s not stretching a point to say that in his own inimitable way the Colossus is contributing a worth-while gift to the morale of Uncle Sam’s fighting men both in the new and the old world. He is the hero of all present-day baseball.”

Increasingly, Ruth’s power at the plate became a metaphor for America’s power in the war. As his reputation ascended, his German heritage vanished into the mist of the past. Reporters molded Ruth into an emblem for all that was good in America. This ballplayer who “only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization” was transformed, as Harry Hooper dimly said, “into something pretty close to a god.”

***

On August 27, during the team’s final homestand at Fenway Park, as the Red Sox moved closer toward playing in the World Series, the epidemic’s second wave arrived at Commonwealth Pier in Boston. That day, two sailors reported to the receiving ship’s sick bay with chills, fever, sore throat, and coughing—the usual symptoms of influenza. The next day, eight more staggered into the infirmary; the following day, 58; and by the end of the week, there was an average of 150 a day. The receiving ship—a massive floating barracks where the sailors slept and ate as they waited to depart—was “grossly overcrowded,” a petri dish for multiplying victims of the disease.

Soon the outbreak overwhelmed the limited medical facilities, and short of beds, physicians transferred patients to Chelsea Naval Hospital, just north of Charlestown. But the sailors were not suffering from the ordinary flu. Struggling to breathe, the patients coughed violently and displayed a bluish complexion with purple blisters.

In less than a week, the killer had made its way into the neighborhoods of Boston. On September 3, the first civilian struck by the flu had entered Boston City Hospital. That same day, 4,000 men, including 1,000 sailors from Commonwealth Pier, marched the streets of Boston in a “Win the War for Freedom” parade. The sailors’ contact with civilians and shipyard workers spread the disease throughout the city.

Two days later, when the Red Sox and Cubs began playing the World Series in Chicago, John S. Hitchcock, head of the communicable disease section of the Massachusetts State Department of Health, warned Boston officials about the developing crisis: “Unless precautions are taken the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population of the city.”

Hitchcock’s urgent warning proved prophetic. Boston, a major port where soldiers and sailors came and went, would soon become the epicenter of a pandemic that killed more than 675,000 of the nation’s 105 million inhabitants.

When the World Series resumed at Fenway Park on September 9, an increasing number of civilian cases appeared in Boston. Undoubtedly, crowded public events—three World Series games, parades, rallies, and a draft registration drive—fueled the plague. The contagion afflicted passengers riding ferries, trollies, and subway cars. And it infected the patrons of dance halls, theaters, saloons and Fenway Park.

Yet before the Series began no one publicly campaigned to call off the games or forewarned Red Sox fans about the dangers of sitting in the bleachers, rubbing elbows and shaking hands. In fact, reading the Boston papers during the week of the World Series one could hardly tell that a mutant virus had already contaminated the city. In the first week of September, most front-page stories broke the latest reports from the Western Front and Fenway Park. Boston reporters gave the impression that the influenza outbreak remained a problem contained among sailors at Commonwealth Pier.

Belatedly, on September 11, 1918, the last day of the Series, William Woodward, the city’s health commissioner, issued a warning: people should avoid “crowded cars, elevators, or buildings”—that would have included Fenway Park, though he did not urge people to stay home entirely. Perhaps, Red Sox fans took the warning seriously, or maybe some resented the fact that the players nearly went on strike over diminished playoff bonuses before Game Five. Nonetheless, over the course of two days, a precipitous decline in attendance at Fenway Park reveals that something prevented the Red Sox faithful from showing up.

a player at bat wears a mask
A baseball player wearing a mask during the 1918 pandemic.

(George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images)

In a stadium that could hold about 35,000 spectators, empty patches of seats checkered the stands. For Game Five, 24,694 fans showed up. The following afternoon for Game Six, the same day Woodward issued his warning, merely 15,238 saw the Red Sox win the championship.

After the World Series ended, no Red Sox victory parades were held and no wild celebrations erupted. Consumed with the war while the pandemic spread, baseball mattered little amidst more than 3,000 cases of influenza.

Over the next few weeks, the situation worsened. On September 25, the Boston Health Department reported that nearly 700 citizens had already died from influenza and pneumonia. Besieged physicians and nurses could barely keep pace with hospitals overflowing with desperate patients. The next day, after Woodward advised Mayor Andrew Peters, the city closed all movie houses, theaters, concert halls and dance halls. Soon, the closure order extended to schools and all “public gathering places,” forcing high schools and colleges to cancel football games.

The streets emptied as hysteria paralyzed the city. Rumors fed widespread panic. One story circulating around town claimed that a German sub had penetrated Boston Harbor and emitted a deathly gray gas that drifted ashore and poisoned people with germs.

No cure for influenza existed—no medication, no vaccination, no antibiotics, no miracle drug. As the death toll rose, patrolmen stacked decomposing corpses wrapped in white sheets on the sidewalks, waiting for the meat wagons to scoop them up. The stench of putrefying bodies poisoned the air. The Boston newspapers published daily tallies of the deceased.

Under government orders to find “essential work” after the World Series ended, Ruth signed with Charles Schwab’s Bethlehem Steel plant in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. But he hardly worked there. Ruth expected to play baseball and get paid for it. Years later, a Bethlehem worker complained that Babe and the other ballplayers avoided real work. They just played ball, as everyone suspected. “Babe Ruth used to show up at the plant an hour before practice. He’d be wearing fancy trousers, silk shirts and patent-leather shoes. He’d just walk around talking to people about baseball. There wasn’t anything essential about what he was doing.”

Ruth played sporadically for the Lebanon team. The little surviving evidence of his time there doesn’t indicate how many games exactly he played, but he was back home in Baltimore in early October. His extended disappearance from the team was likely caused by a bout of influenza, as reported by the Baltimore Sun at the time. In Ruth’s old neighborhood, “Pig Town,” a gritty waterfront of stockyards and slaughterhouses, the grippe tore through the crowded miserable hovels. The outbreak was so severe that Baltimore’s city hospitals could no longer accept new patients.

In Boston, during the third week of October, as the death toll waned, city officials announced that the worst had passed and removed the closure order on October 20. By that time, more than 3,500 Bostonians had died from the flu. After being confined to their homes for three weeks, massive crowds flocked to theaters and dance halls. Patrons packed cafés and saloons, celebrating the end of the closure order with suds and spirits.

Ruth spent much of the winter at his farm cottage in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where he regained his strength. He built up his body that winter chopping pine trees, splitting wood, and shouldering logs. Forever restless, when he got bored, he threw parties or invited children from an orphanage for a day of games. His wife had hoped that a quiet life in the country, 20 miles away from Boston, might bring them closer together. She disliked the crowds and the spotlight that her husband drew whenever they went out in the city. Perhaps, she thought, Sudbury would be different. Perhaps, she’d have him all to herself. “Someday people are going to find I’ve kidnapped my own husband and run away someplace where we can lead a simple life, away from grandstands and managers and photographers,” she said.

But Babe did not share Helen’s fantasy. He loved the attention and the company of fawning women. He was always on the go, searching for his next adventure.

Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith are the authors of War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War.

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