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By Zach Cavanagh
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on general society are unprecedented, with shutdowns of this magnitude not seen in more than 100 years.
The sports landscape has been almost completely shuttered across North America and the globe, but how did the sports world handle the last pandemic of this impact, the 1918-19 Spanish flu?
North American sports in 1918 were much different than today, and not just because of the lack of television, big-money media contracts and merchandizing.
The NFL was still two years away from being created as the American Professional Football Association. The predecessor of the NBA, the Basketball Association of America, was still 28 years from establishing itself. The NHL was only a year old, and its teams still played against other leagues’ champions to compete for the Stanley Cup. Even the Rose Bowl Game was in its infancy, with its first true annual installment in 1916 and the actual Rose Bowl still four years away from its inauguration.
However, even in those nascent days of North American sports, the 1918-19 pandemic created three historic events on local, national and international levels that may have set precedents for our present months to come.
#DidYouKnow in the 1918-19 school year, football championships weren't held until March because of the Spanish Flu?
— CIF Southern Section (@CIFSS) April 21, 2020
Spring Football Champions
On the local level, the CIF did exist—if only in the Southern Section from 1913-17 before becoming a statewide organization in 1917—with a handful of high school boys sports being officially run, including football, baseball, basketball, swimming, water polo and track and field.
On the whole, the 1918-19 pandemic didn’t have a large effect on the CIF-SS championship landscape, as the first cases of influenza in Southern California didn’t come until September of 1918. Baseball, track and water polo held their championships in both years. Swimming’s 1918 entry isn’t listed in the CIF-SS record book, but the 1919 championships were held.
The 1919 CIF-SS boys basketball playoffs were canceled outright due to the pandemic.
In the fall of 1918, the football season continued on, as long as officials would allow. The season was halted before the CIF-SS semifinals, when the California Board of Education shut down high school athletic activities.
However, the season was not deemed over at that point by CIF-SS. The State CIF had canceled the state championship and even rescinded a rule passed by the Southern Section to allow athletes an extra semester of eligibility due to the pandemic. CIF-SS soldiered on.
On Feb. 12, 1919, CIF-SS stated the football semifinals would be played on Feb. 21. In those semifinals, Fullerton defeated Santa Monica, 60-0, and Coronado of San Diego defeated Redlands, 14-0. Those games set up what is still the latest football game ever played in CIF-SS history, when Fullerton defeated Coronado, 18-0, for the CIF-SS title on March 8, 1919.
The 2020 football season may not start on time, and the CIF-SS has stated its willingness to push the start and end date of some fall sports. Could we see a CIF-SS football championship push into 2021? Possibly, but the March 8 date will be hard to beat.
The Rise of the Bambino
On a national level, the professional team sport of the day was the national pastime, baseball. The 1918 season, in particular, brought a level of intrigue, with historic results that shaped nearly a century of baseball history.
The flu pandemic first appeared in the United States in March of 1918, but the MLB season still went off as scheduled with Opening Day on April 16. With baseball deciding to play through, the flu had numerous effects on the season.
As we see today going to grocery stores and the like, face masks were prevalent in 1918 America, including on the diamond. Many players, managers and umpires wore masks during games on the field of play.
Despite the measure, many players still became sick. Most prominent among those afflicted was Babe Ruth, who with several of his Boston Red Sox teammates contracted the flu during spring training. As some players had to be drafted into service for World War I and others became sick, the major league rosters were significantly reduced.
That meant that Ruth—who was primarily a pitcher in the 1917 season, with a 24-13 record, 2.01 ERA and a career-high 35 complete games—had to play more games in the field. Ruth went on to lead the league in home runs that season with 11. Ruth had only hit nine home runs in the previous four seasons and went on to hit 714 home runs in his 22-year career.
With more players taken off rosters due to World War I and the ongoing pandemic, MLB halted the season early and pitted the Red Sox against the Chicago Cubs for the World Series on Sept. 5. On Sept. 11, Boston defeated Chicago in Game 6 to give the Red Sox the World Series championship.
Ruth played one more season with Boston before being sold to the Yankees in December of 1919, invoking the famed “Curse of the Bambino.” The Red Sox would not win another World Series for 86 years.
Year with No Cup
On an international level in North America, the Stanley Cup itself became victim to the 1918-19 pandemic.
At the time, the Stanley Cup was not solely awarded to the NHL champion. It was still contested as it was conceived, as a “Challenge Cup,” with winners of multiple leagues competing for it.
The 1918-19 NHL was a far cry from today’s 31-team league. The NHL operated as a three-team league, with potential teams having financial troubles and Montreal’s No. 2 team, the Wanderers, not resuming play after the Montreal Arena burned down. The then-Toronto Arenas withdrew from the season early due to financial trouble, and the Montreal Canadiens bested the Ottawa Senators for the NHL title.
The 1919 Stanley Cup Final pitted the Canadiens against the winner of the three-team Pacific Coast Hockey Association, the Seattle Metropolitans. The two teams had battled to a 2-2-1 tied series through five games when tragedy hit.
Several Montreal players had contracted the pandemic influenza, which left the Canadiens without enough players to compete. Montreal offered to forfeit the Cup to Seattle, but the Metropolitans refused. Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall died days later of pneumonia brought on by the flu, and the Stanley Cup was not awarded.
The year 1919 is one of only two years in which the Stanley Cup was not awarded, both of which are still engraved on the Cup itself. The other instance was the 2004-05 season that was canceled in its entirety due to a lockout over the owners’ insistence on a salary cap.
The NHL is pushing to complete its season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, with plans of an amended 24-team tournament at neutral sites. However, if the COVID-19 pandemic pushes on, there might be a third year without a Stanley Cup champion to be inscribed on the trophy.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.