These appear to be unprecedented times for everyone, and the sports world is no exception. Virtually every league for every imaginable sport has shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. Surely no one alive today can remember such an uncertain time.
The closest comparison for our current predicament can be found by turning the calendar back one century.
The Spanish influenza pandemic that began in 1918 eventually infected one-third of the world’s population and killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, including 675,000 in the U.S.
The outbreak peaked as World War I was winding down in the fall of 1918. High school and college football games across the country were canceled, and a marquee match between heavyweight boxers Jack Dempsey and Battling Levinsky was pushed back to November in Philadelphia, one of the American cities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Boston, considered to be the origin of that fall’s outbreak, was the site of the 1918 World Series. Baseball’s regular season was cut short on Sept. 2 due to the war, and for the only time in history, the Fall Classic was played entirely in September. News of the flu’s spread was initially drowned out by coverage of the war and the World Series, which Babe Ruth’s Red Sox won in six games over the Chicago Cubs.
Like many other cities that fall, Minneapolis banned high school football games, though some schools ignored the order and police had to intervene.
In Bemidji, Mayor Charles W. Vandersluis ordered all public places closed on Oct. 12.
Coach J.W. Smith’s Bemidji High School football squad played only four games that season. The team experienced a six-week gap, likely flu-induced, between a 7-6 victory over Blackduck on Oct. 9 and a season-ending 39-0 win against Thief River Falls on Nov. 23. The shutout win clinched the district championship for BHS, which finished with a 4-0 record, in a game the Pioneer described at the time as “bitterly contested” and “featured by open field running, line smashing and very little forward passing.”
Bemidji wasn’t alone in playing an abbreviated schedule.
Most college football games were canceled in 1918, leaving teams with uneven numbers of games played, ranging anywhere from five to 11 games in the Big Ten alone. Michigan (5-0) and Pittsburgh (4-1) were declared national champions by various organizations despite only competing in five outings apiece.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers, composed of players from the school’s Student Army Training Corps, went 5-2-1 that fall playing a schedule that included two contests against military teams. Minnesota tied for fourth in the Big Ten, going 2-1 in just three conference games by defeating Wisconsin and the University of Chicago, and falling to Iowa in the Hawkeyes’ first win in the rivalry series.
Elsewhere, perhaps no other sport was affected more than hockey.
The 1919 Stanley Cup Final was canceled after five games when the Montreal Canadiens’ lineup, as well as coach George Kennedy, was decimated by the flu in March of that year.
The best-of-five series was hosted entirely by the Seattle Metropolitans and was even at 2-2-1 due to Game 4 ending in a 0-0 tie. Game 6 was to have been the deciding contest on April 1, but with only three healthy Montreal players available on the team’s 13-man roster, the series was canceled hours before the opening faceoff.
Veteran Montreal defenseman Joe Hall died of flu-induced pneumonia four days later. Kennedy reportedly never recovered completely from the flu and died two years later.
Kennedy decided to forfeit the series, but Seattle coach Pete Muldoon didn’t wish to accept the Cup under such circumstances. As a result, the Stanley Cup was not awarded due to a no-decision for the only time in history.
Though the news of 1918-19 may sound somber, sports did eventually return to normal.
Fans filled stadiums. Teams returned to their field of play. The Stanley Cup has been handed out 99 times since.
The world was changed by the 1918 pandemic, but in time, life returned to normal. Sometimes it helps to remember that humanity has withstood its share of challenges. Sports included.