The cancellation of multiple sports events in Greater New York as a result of the novel coronavirus is reminiscent of sports in the metropolitan area during an influenza pandemic more than 100 years ago.
“Spanish Influenza Plays No Favorites”
Known as the Spanish flu, the respiratory virus started in 1918 during World War I and continued into 1919. Its death toll was more than 25,000 in New York City and an estimated 675,000 in the United States. Boxing was one of the hardest hit sports. Although boxing was illegal in New York state between late 1917 to 1920, New Jersey’s board of health cited the Spanish flu as the reason it banned fights in its state during part of 1918.
Among the athletes who died of the virus were former professional heavyweight star Jim Stewart, 31, of Brooklyn, and champion lightweight boxer Al Thomas, 27, a New York City native.
In an October 1918 piece on the fighters’ deaths, New York boxing columnist Jack Skelly wrote, “Spanish influenza plays no favorites. It knocks out the sturdy boxers, when the dangerous disease attacks them, as well as the weaklings. Some of our rugged ringmasters have been unable to battle or ‘beat’ the plague and have taken the final count like other human beings.”
“Do Not Think for a Holy Minute That You are Immune”
In mid-March the same year, a case had been confirmed in the New York City borough of Queens. Five months later, New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Royal Copeland, stated, “We have not felt, and do not feel, any anxiety about what people call ‘Spanish influenza’ and we considered it so unimportant that it did not seem necessary to make a public discussion of the situation.”
Brooklyn Daily Eagle sports columnist Thomas Rice recognized that sportswriters could become loud messengers, to convince the public of the virus’ severity.
Ten days before boxer Stewart died, Rice wrote, “The best way of getting a line on the influenza situation in Great Britain is not through the big daily papers, but through the sporting papers. Little attention is paid to the subject in the regular papers, but in the sporting sheets it is quite common to note that this, that or the other athlete was not able to fill an engagement because he was down with the ‘flu.’”
Rice had added, “As athletes of sufficient importance to be of news value are only a very limited proportion of the population, and as many of those of such importance do not take the occasion to get into print, it is easily deduced that the total number of persons affected is much larger that we be thought from ignoring the subject in the regular newspapers.”
Indeed, the news coverage that followed Stewart’s death prompted raised public awareness. The spotlight further intensified in October, when former champion jockey Jack O’Brien, 31, died from the virus. The Brooklyn resident and father of two was a popular trainer of a stable of race horses when he was hit by the virus during competition at the Queens racetrack Aqueduct. O’Brien had also been a champion roller skater when that sport was popular at Brooklyn’s Coney Island.
Rice was indignant when writing about the deaths of Stewart and O’Brien. Targeting Copeland’s health department, Rice turned sarcastic.
“The department can certainly throw the bull and needs no more evidence of its championship in that respect,” Rice taunted. “That championship for our fair city must be a great comfort to the sufferers or the families to those who have died, as a substitute for the lack of public education in regard to preventing and treating the disease.”
With the start of commercial broadcast radio two years away, newspapers wielded great power in shaping public opinion.
In his sports column on October 14, 1918, Dan Daniel of New York City’s The Sun wrote about the virus having canceled many college football games the preceding weekend. Two New York City schools, Fordham and New York University, were among the affected.
“In most instances, the health officials were not averse to the playing of the game in the open air and sunshine, but the college officials saw fit to impose quarantine restrictions,” wrote Daniel, a former City College of New York basketball manager. “In this they were wise.”
With athletes symbolic of prime health, that more of them were being stricken by the disease became a potent news angle.
Rice wrote in his sports column, “Because you are young and strong and husky, and in training, and knock out your sparring partners every day, or do ten miles road work every afternoon, do not think for a holy minute that you are immune to the flu or that it must have less serious effects upon you than it would upon some pigeon-chested lad who spends all his spare moments in the Public Library.”
“The ‘Flu’ Quarantine Has Not Been Lifted”
Among the Greater New York sports news items that brought additional public attention to the Spanish flu were cancellations of high school football games at Brooklyn’s Commercial Field (now Hamilton Metz Field) and in Garden City near Queens.
On October 19, 1918, the New York Herald reported of games scheduled for that day at the two locations, “Because of the influenza, St. John’s Prep and St. Paul’s School were forced to cancel their games… The ‘flu’ quarantine has not been lifted at Garden City and two recent deaths in the faculty of St. John’s made it necessary for the calling off of its game.”
St. Paul’s School of Garden City had been scheduled to play Queens’ Flushing High School. Flushing had considered a cancellation of its previous game because three of their players were suffering from the Spanish flu. The first St. Paul’s game had been set against Bronx’s Morris High School at Clason Point, located in the South Bronx and accessible by the East and Bronx Rivers.
“The occasion was to be a big one to Flushing students, as they were to make the journey to the grounds in a special boat,” the New York Tribune reported on game day.
Despite the speculated cancellation, the game went on without the three Flushing players. Morris won, 13-6. The New York Herald reported of the game, “Morris also played without the services of the regular backfield. These players are down with the Spanish influenza.”
“Disorganized the Football Team and Caused Its Disbandment”
On October 23, the New York Herald reported of another New York City school football program, “Several cases of the Spanish influenza have broken out during the past week among the gridders of Brooklyn Prep. The disease will probably prevent the eleven from playing for several weeks.”
The virus carried into basketball season. On December 4, 1918, the Standard Union of Brooklyn noted, “St. John’s Prep basketball… began only recently because of the wide swath cut by Spanish influenza among the students… The ‘flu’ not only disorganized the football team and caused its disbandment, but held up most of the practices heretofore, because players, around whom the regular five is expected to be formed, were slowly recovering and were forced to report late.”
Medical historians concur there is a high likelihood that the Spanish flu originated outside of Spain. An H1N1 virus, it was labeled Spanish in the United States and some other World War I countries, where censors stopped public dissemination of many newsworthy developments not regarded as beneficial to morale.
In contrast, Spain was neutral during the war and the nation’s news on the pandemic could be freely published in war countries. Newspapers in Spain were publishing reports about the virus in May 1918 and its coverage would include headlines about the king of Spain having contracted the virus. Ultimately, a Kansas military camp was regarded as a potential place of origin for the virus.
After the disease reached Greater New York, some sports venues took precaution.
The Newark Velodrome in northern New Jersey, the site of the world track cycling championships in 1912, was closed in October 1918 because of the flu outbreak. Ultimately, all of the season’s remaining bicycle races at the velodrome were canceled.
The same month of the velodrome decision, a scheduled soccer competition at Brooklyn’s Lenox Oval (one of two athletics grounds in the city named Lenox Oval) was canceled after some players contracted the virus. At the time, Connecticut’s Bridgeport Telegram reported, “The Spanish influenza is playing havoc with the soccer game all across the country.”
“Players Were Shocked to Hear About the Death”
That October, among the victims of the virus was a Greater New York soccer standout. The New York Tribune reported, “Soccer players were shocked to hear of the death from Spanish influenza of Sam Bustard of Paterson Football Club, formerly famous as centre halfback for the Brooklyn Celtics, who before they disbanded because of the war had captured the New York State championship five times.”
Some New York City athletes overcame the disease.
After famed record-setting open-water swimmer Harry Elionsky contracted the Spanish flu, multiple published newspaper reports pronounced him dead. In reality, Elionsky, 25, would resume his long-distance swimming career after three weeks of treatment at Pelham Bay Naval Training Center in the Bronx. He would live another 38 years.
In October, less than two weeks after serviceman Cornelius Shaughnessy of Brooklyn won the 440-yard race at both the junior and senior Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national track and field championships, he contracted the virus.
Shaughnessy was on duty at Brooklyn’s Federal Rendezvous Naval Militia Armory, which had served as his sponsor at the AAU national events. Shaughnessy recovered after he received treatment at Brooklyn’s Kingston Avenue Hospital, which specialized in the healing of contagious diseases.
New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organizer of the 2020 New York City Half Marathon that has been canceled because of the coronavirus, is closely associated with another armory in the city that was hit by the Spanish flu.
Since 2012, Manhattan’s Fort Washington Avenue Armory has been home to the annual NYRR Millrose Games, the world’s longest continuously running indoor track and field competition. In 1918, when the building was better known as the 22nd Regiment Armory, the cavernous space was set to host the annual indoor track and field championships of New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL). The competition was then postponed until two months later, when Bronx’s Public School 40 won the team championship at the armory.
The New York Tribune reported on the postponement, “It was deemed advisable by the school authorities to defer the competition, owing to the prevailing epidemic.”
Some athletes received experimental vaccinations to combat the virus, including at Rutgers in northern New Jersey. Following postponement of a scheduled October college football game between host Rutgers and Lehigh because of the Spanish flu, New Jersey’s Plainfield Courier News reported, “The Rutgers players were vaccinated… and were a very sore lot.” Rutgers went on to defeat Lehigh, 39-0, part of a five-game Rutgers winning streak.
“One Has Little Difficulty in Grasping a Sense of the Chaos”
The same fall, New York Tribune sports columnist W.J. Macbeth wrote, “the depressing influences of the Spanish influenza scourge… has made necessary the prohibition of gathering together, even in the hours usually reserved for physical recreation… one has little difficulty in grasping a sense of the chaos which obtains in the circle of college sports at present.”
“However,” Macbeth proclaimed of the 1918 college football slate, “there seems to be no reason for despair for the season. Those big games which require travel for no greater than one night will not be taboo. With the arrival of cooler autumn weather the influenza plague gives signs of abating, so that by mid-November the representative college and service elevens should be ready for spirited contests.”
“The Deadliest Event in Human History”
However, the pandemic continued to take lives in 1919. That January, following his first year in professional baseball, outfielder Jake Felz of the minor league Jersey City Skeeters died from the Spanish flu. The previous year, Felz had batted .273 for the Skeeters, an International League team.
The Spanish flu cost the lives of competitors, family members of athletes, and other sports backers.
Among the virus’ victims were two daughters, 6 and 4, of Walter Kinsella of New York. Kinsella was the five-time defending world squash champion. He was also an acclaimed player of court tennis, a sport that uses walls as part of the court and pre-dates today’s more popular form of tennis.
Horse racing patron Jesse Lewinsohn, 46, died of the disease at Hotel New Netherland on Fifth Avenue near Central Park. Lewinsohn, a former executive in his family’s copper trading business, had owned many race horses.
The New York Times recognized Lewinsohn as “a familiar figure at the race tracks, both in America and in Europe.” He was survived by his wife of eight years, Edna MacCauley Lewinsohn. A former New York showgirl, MacCauley married Lewinsohn after she gained notice as a mistress of famed New York financier and Lewisohn friend Diamond Jim Brady.
A former thoroughbred race track in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn was one of the sports facilities that stopped its season prematurely in the fall of 1918. Three years earlier, former race car champion Harry Harkness had purchased the track and converted it into an automobile and motorcycle raceway. Harkness’ death from the Spanish flu would result in the destruction of the facility.
One of Harkness’ major events at Sheepshead Bay Motor Speedway was the eponymous Harkness Gold Trophy 100-mile race. Filmed at the 1917 Harkness Gold Trophy competition, the above footage finishes with a shot of Harkness handing the winner’s trophy to champion Louis Chevrolet. A former New York City bicycle maker, Chevrolet had co-founded and remains the namesake for the Chevrolet automobile company.
In January 1919 at age 38, Harkness died in his apartment building in Midtown Manhattan. By the end of the year, his race track was closed because of lack of financial support. The facility was demolished and subdivided into building lots.
Harkness died from the Spanish flu at 270 Park Avenue, a location that will be featured in an upcoming New York Sports Experience documentary short. In 1919, the address also served as the home to another sports figure, who sparked a major sports development that year.
For more than a year, the Spanish flu swept across socioeconomic lines. About one-third of the world population is estimated to have contracted the virus, with between 50 million and 100 million resulting in death. A 2020 perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine identifies the pandemic as “the deadliest event in human history.”
“Have Been Made Full or Half Orphans by Spanish Influenza”
The virus produced thousands of orphans in New York City. On November 8, 1918, three days before World War I was halted with Germany’s surrender, an Associated Press news bulletin (AP) proclaimed, “Heath Commissioner Copeland estimated tonight that there are about 21,000 children in the city who have been made full or half orphans by Spanish influenza.”
When he was a teenager, Brooklyn native Eddie Bennett lost his parents to the Spanish flu. A spinal injury that deformed his back and limited his growth did not stop his plan to participate in big-league baseball. He would become the most famous batboy and mascot in the 1920s and into the 1930s.
After one season with the Brooklyn Robins (later the Brooklyn Dodgers and now the Los Angeles Dodgers) that ended with Brooklyn’s first National League title in four years, Bennett served as New York Yankees batboy and club mascot for nearly 12 seasons.
In Bennett’s first two seasons with the Yankees, the club won its first two American League pennants. In his third season, the Yankees won their first World Series. Two more World Series championships came to the Yankees with Bennett.
The schedules of New York’s Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs and other area professional sports teams were not noticeably impacted by the Spanish flu.
“Babe Ruth… Fell a Victim to the Scourge”
In 1918 and 1919, New York City was without pro sports league teams in football, basketball and hockey. Like tennis’ annual men’s and women’s amateur United States National Championships tournaments (now professional tennis’ US Open) in Queens, MLB games fell outside New York’s virus peak.
A decision had already been made because of the prioritization of World War I that the 1918 MLB season would be shortened. Indeed, the season’s World Series started on September 5, the earliest World Series game to date.
The Boston Red Sox won the series, in what proved to be the franchise’s last World Series championship of the 20th century. Boston pitcher and future Yankees legend Babe Ruth earned two of Boston’s wins in the series.
According to some reports, Ruth had the Spanish flu during his post-season playing schedule.
On October 14, the Daily News of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, reported, “Charles S. Kelcher of the Bethlehem steel team has been informed that ‘Babe’ Ruth is ill at his home in Baltimore. Md., suffering with Spanish influenza. This accounts for Ruth’s absence from the local lineup in Saturday’s game.”
Four days later, the Star-Gazette of Elmira, New York, noted that Ruth had contracted the virus, adding, “At the close of the baseball season, Ruth accepted essential employment at the Lebanon plant of the Bethlehem steel corporation and became a member of the Lebanon team, Bethlehem steel league. While called to Baltimore on a business mission he fell a victim to the scourge. His condition is not serious.”
Ruth joined the Yankees during spring training in 1920, and thereafter lifted the sport to record heights. In 1935, Ruth’s last year as a player, AP credited batboy Bennett for having helped Ruth obliterate the MLB record for total career home runs.
“Babe Ruth particularly believed in his magic,” AP remembered.