How MLB coped with other world-wide situations including WWI, WWII and the Pandemic of 1918

By Sally Tippett Rains

With major league baseball shut down, ballparks are padlocked and fans stay in their homes or venture out to “essential” places donning face masks and glove. With each passing day, fans longing for the normalcy that baseball brings.

Curt Smith, an author, sports expert and former speech writer for George H.W. Busch did a Zoom talk for the baseball Hall of Fame and addressed how baseball has coped with other world-wide situations including World War I, World War II and the Pandemic of 1918.

The pandemic of 1918 caused great havoc on the baseball world. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) “The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history.”

wear masks from 1918It was caused by an H1N1 virus and spread worldwide during 1918-1919, and it is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. (Ad to the right was from a newspaper in British Columbia in 1918)

In the presentation, Smith said, the U.S. faced a double whammy in 1918 with the pandemic and World War I.

Back then there was no television or social media to spread the word. In fact, the first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh didn’t go on the air until 1920.  There was no one to tell people to quarantine at home, no one to tell them to wear face masks, keep a “social distance” and all that is happening today.

All that was known at the time was that everyone in the country was affected in some way—either having a loved one in World War I or a loved one sick or dying from the flu.

players wearing masksBaseball games were going on – and as you can see from a photo that is in the HOF in Cooperstown, along with others in the video production– players were wearing masks. There was no commissioner at the time and everyone was fending for themselves.

It was a different story in World War II. Smith also talked about how during Ww II,  Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had become the first commissioner of baseball in 1920 and was still commissioner in 1945 wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt a month after Pearl Harbor was bombed to address whether baseball should be played that season. FDR wrote him back and that letter became known as the “Green Light Letter”

Baseball was faced with what to do. The players would want to fight, said Smith in the talk.

“Baseball worked with the government,” Smith said. “Landis asked FDR what to do. Roosevelt answered with the green light letter.”

The letter is shown in the presentation and basically said FDR thought it would be in the best interest of the country if the season went forward.

To hear Smith’s conversation with a representative from the Hall of Fame click the video link below.

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