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DiMaggio to City: Be Tough in This Crisis

DiMaggio to City: Be Tough in This Crisis

New York Sports Experience Exclusive

When New York City was being hammered by a fiscal crisis in 1978, legendary New York Yankees centerfielder Joe DiMaggio co-scripted and delivered a filmed message that blasted those who “never made a clutch hit in their lives,”  some who “fled the city” and “others who hid behind locked doors.”

Added DiMaggio, then 63, “But this city never gave up, never stopped building… Today we have a choice. We can chose whether New York lives or dies. Choose life… We’re going to be all right.”

The script was for a 90-second commercial for Manhattan-based The Bowery Savings Bank, a business that DiMaggio promoted in several other commercials from 1972 to 1992. Above, New York Sports Experience shows 60 seconds of the spot, the only known place where any portion of the commercial resides online. 

For the spot, DiMaggio was filmed during a 48-hour span in the city, including in Washington Square in Manhattan and the Yankees’ Yankee Stadium home in the Bronx. DiMaggio played his entire 13-season Major League Baseball (MLB) career with the Yankees and still holds the MLB record for recording at least one hit in the most consecutive games (56 straight in 1941).

The commercial was shot during trying times in the city that draw parallels to current fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic. In the mid-1970s, New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy. The city was further hit when United States President Gerald Ford denied the city a federal bailout, a development famously captured in an October 1975 (New York) Daily News cover headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” In August 1978, Ford’s successor Jimmy Carter signed a bill that extended federal loan guarantees to the city.

“The timing was such that New York was just getting the first evidences of federal support in the form of loan guarantees, and perhaps the first realization that businesses were retuning to New York,” The Bowery senior vice president of marketing Pazel Jackson explained in 1979 to freelance journalist and New York City native Mark N. Grant.

Ad copy that echoes the The Bowery commercial appears in the campaign’s below 1978 print component. Jackson said DiMaggio made changes to the script that stayed for the commercial shoot, including a portion that does not appear in the print version.

“The part about what you would do during a slump, how you would approach overcoming it,” shared Jackson. “The words written by the writer were quite different and Joe did not feel it was a realistic expression of what a person temporarily down and out would do. He meant you would step up and keep taking full swings each time until you finally came out of it. Ironically, it was the greatest response we’ve ever had from any commercial, and it produced deposits it was not geared to.”

DiMaggio’s remark in the commercial about “the coming of war” is also not in the print ad. After his first seven seasons with the Yankees, DiMaggio did not see MLB action for three years while he served in the United States military during World War 2.

In 1979, DiMaggio told Grant about work for The Bowery, “I didn’t like the commercials I was approached to do, until The Bowery people contacted me… I felt that you couldn’t go wrong telling people to put money in a bank. Also, I think I owed it to New York.”

The 1978 spot was directed by Independent Artists’ Richard Black, who collaborated with the bank’s Manhattan-based advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. DiMaggio had found comfort with Black, who had directed other DiMaggio commercials for both the bank and Mr. Coffee. The 1978 spot showed “a new, heightened DiMaggio as guardian angel of New York,” Grant surmised.

Bob Spero, a writer on the Ogilvy creative team, is credited with the idea of signing DiMaggio to serve as a television spokesperson for the bank.

“After a decade of war, assassinations and Watergate, people were cynical about famous people of all kinds,” Spero told Grant in 1979. “I think people felt him to be an honest, decent person. I wanted him to talk as a person, not as a banker.”

On DiMaggio’s fiscal crisis message, Spero said, “It wasn’t a transformation. It was just that 90 seconds gave him a chance to flesh out.”

Babe Ruth ‘Crashed’ DNC After Riot

Babe Ruth ‘Crashed’ DNC After Riot

New York Sports Experience Exclusive

Although newspapers documented the behavior of Babe Ruth for years, headlines about the New York Yankees legend from a five-day stretch in June 1924 stand out for their claims of illicit activity both on and off the field.

Babe Ruth (left) presents a bat to Democratic presidential nominee and New York governor Al Smith at Smith’s campaign headquarters on the day Ruth “covered” the Democratic National Convention

For a wire story published on June 24, The Brooklyn Standard Union opted for the header “BABE RUTH DRAWS $50 FINE FOR RIOT AT DETROIT.” On June 25, a day after the opening night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) held at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, The San Francisco Examiner topped a syndicated piece with “Babe ‘Crashes’ Convention as Reporter.”

The latter story was a first-person account by Ruth of the opening day of the DNC.

Also on the first day of the DNC, Ruth played in a Yankees-Washington Senators game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. As touched on during a live 2020 virtual video tour now available exclusively to New York Sports Experience guests, Ruth’s Yankees career had already generated significant national acclaim. The Yankees were the defending World Series champions. The previous October against Manhattan’s New York Giants, the Yankees won the first of the franchise’s 27 championships.

The scene at the Democratic National Convention is shown on June 24 1924, the day Ruth wrote about happenings there

Ruth’s DNC story hinted at an incident that had occurred the same month in a road contest against the Detroit Tigers, a game the Tigers had forfeited to the Yankees. In the top of the ninth inning with the Yankees leading, players and fans rioted on the field, including against police. Yankees players claimed Tigers pitcher Bert Cole was aiming to bean the opposition, including a pitch to Ruth’s head that Ruth barely dodged.

Cole and Yankees player Bob Meusel, who charged Cole after being hit by a pitch, received fines and suspensions. In issuing the $50 punishment to Ruth, American League president Ban Johnson cited Ruth’s “frenzied effort to participate in the trouble.”

Ruth brought a friendly pitching foe, the Senators’ part-time comedian Nick Altrock, to at least part of Ruth’s DNC adventure. On the day of the convention’s launch, they showed up together at the Midtown Manhattan campaign headquarters of Democratic presidential nominee hopeful and New York governor Al Smith.

Nick Altrock (seated) of the Washington Senators and Babe Ruth appear in a skit performed before the first game of the World Series at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan on October 4, 1922

A Smith campaign official, future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, had asked Ruth to support he governor’s presidential bid. After Ruth noted Smith’s rise from poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and a shared Catholic upbringing, he signed on.

“If I could handle the delegates the way you handle the bat, the result would be all right,” Smith told Ruth at their June 24 meeting. Ruth came with a bat that he had signed with a message for Republican President Warren Harding. After Harding died in 1923 before Ruth could present him with the bat, Ruth signed the same bat with a note to Smith.

Babe Ruth (left) and 1924 Democratic presidential nominee John W. Davis appear together on October 19, 1928, in support of Al Smith’s presidential run

Smith would fail in his 1924 nominee bid to attorney John W. Davis, but four years later became his party’s presidential nominee with Ruth among his campaigners.

The 1924 DNC was held at the second Madison Square Garden, which overlooked Madison Square Park until its 1926 destruction. In addition to Altrock, Smith and Harding, Ruth’s DNC story included mention of several more personalities, including Yankees manager Miller Huggins and journalist Hendrik van Loon. Two months earlier at a newspaper publishers event, Ruth had met with van Loon at the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel then located where the Empire State Building stands today.

Journalist Hendrik van Loon (left) meets with Babe Ruth at the original Waldorf-Astoria on Fifth Avenue on April 26, 1924

Also mentioned in Ruth’s dispatch are noted sportswriters Grantland Rice and Ring Larder, humorist Will Rogers (“Bill,” to Ruth), cartoonist Rube Goldberg, and New York-based syndicated columnists Mark Sullivan and Arthur Brisbane.

Ruth’s story also references “Bryan,” presumably Williams Jennings Bryan, who was the Democrats’ 1896 nominee for president and had become a newspaper editor.

Will Rogers (left), Babe Ruth and Ruth’s wife Claire Ruth meet with hospital patient Merrill Cohan in Boston on April 25, 1929

Bryan’s brother Charles Bryan became Davies’ 1924 vice presidential running mate after the longest presidential nomination process in DNC or Republican National Convention history. At Madison Square Garden, Davis was chosen after 103 ballots.

The below footage shared during some New York Sports Tours visits to the 69th Regiment Armory (the primary home arena of basketball’s New York Knicks in the team’s early years) shows celebration on the south side of the Garden on the left with the curved-roof armory down the street on the right.

Ruth’s DNC writing gig was assigned by the Christy Walsh Syndicate, run by Ruth’s marketing agent Christy Walsh. Walsh would often employ ghostwriters for articles.

If copy style is a guide, Ruth may have written the DNC piece himself. An editor’s note that introduces the story sets the scene: “Babe Ruth attended the Democratic convention today to write his impressions. He was accompanied by a stenographer with instructions from Babe to ‘take down everything.'”

Christy Walsh (left), whose publication syndicate published Ruth’s Democratic National Convention story, poses with Ruth at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939

Ruth’s published piece, which started after a Madison Square Garden dateline, follows in italics below

This looks like the world series with a roof on it.

I’ll bet a Republican would be about as popular in here as I was in Detroit last week.

When does the show begin?

Here comes Will Rogers and Rube Goldberg. It looks like all us writers are on the job today.

I got permission from Manager Huggins to be absent from practice in order to get my lame back rubbed. What’ll he do when he finds out where I’ve been? Don’t know, unless he refuses me permission for the next Democratic convention.

No kidding—my back’s sore. Caught cold and then strained it in yesterday’s game.

Move over for Will Rogers. Here, Rube, room for you, too!

What do you think of this thing, Bill? Me—I”m supposed write a story from a ballplayer’s standpoint. Look out, that’s my sore back.

Where’d you get that press badge, Bill? All they gave me was this. I’m supposed to be sitting up there in the gallery, but nothing doing. If they’re going to change me from a ball player to a paper reporter, why, I’m going to sit right down here with Brisbane, Mark Sullivan and Lardner and Bryan and all the rest. Do you know Hendrik van Loon? Mr. van Loon this is Mr. Rogers.

Say Bill, you ought to have been with us. We just came from Governor Smith’s headquarters. Nick Altrock was along. Also a banker from Los Angeles and a publisher from Santa Barbara. You see I keep good company when I’m not playing ball.

You ought to have seen the governor shaking hands. I thought signing balls was bad enough. I got the best of Al Smith because I do my hand shaking with fountain pen, while he’s got to stand around and have his arm pumped by everybody in New York who happens to wear one of his buttons. I gave the governor a bat. About a year ago I had my picture taken with President Harding at the stadium and he asked me for an autographed bat. By the time we played again at Washington President Harding was dead.

I’ve had the bat ever since and thought it would be nice to give it to Governor Smith. He sure took it seriously and when I told him how I had put the bat aside to give to President Harding there was a tear in the governor’s eyes. He’s a human fellow, alright.

In between handshakes the governor and I talked. He had a black suit and a close shave. Funny thing, never says a word to me about politics, all he asked about was baseball. I told him I wished him worlds of luck and just as he started to say something about my chances for home runs, a lady delegate from Texas comes along and I’m out.

It wasn’t long after that till I found myself in an argument with the big cop running the press gate at the garden. He and Van Loon got into an awful argument as to whether I belonged in the “active press” or not. While they argued I quietly “crashed the gate” and nobody ever knew who I was.

Now I’ve got to go and get my back rubbed before Huggins finds out where I’ve been.

New York Sports Lit Notre Dame Lore

New York Sports Lit Notre Dame Lore

New York Sports Experience Exclusive

In December 2020, four months after former New York Jets head coach Lou Holtz was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

In 1976, this development would have likely proven inconceivable by Jets fans. That year, Holtz notched only three wins in 13 games in his only season with the Jets.

Holtz went on to serve as head coach of Notre Dame’s storied football program, at a university whose reputation has been significantly boosted by New York sports developments.

Lou Holtz appears as the new head coach of the New York Jets, at the 21 Club in Manhattan on February 10, 1976

 

The famous Notre Dame rallying cry “Win one for the Gipper,” borrowed as a political slogan for the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, rose from sports action at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Francis (Frank) Wallace, the New York sportswriter who introduced the Gipper story that became legend, is also credited with Notre Dame’s acceptance of the now-iconic Fighting Irish nickname.

 

“We may always be worthy of the ideal embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish'”

Military units from the 69th Regiment in Midtown Manhattan, who did battle in the Civil War, World War I and other conflicts, may have helped deliver the nickname to Indiana-based Notre Dame. The regiment’s Fighting Irish moniker, a reference to many Irish immigrant members, predates Notre Dame’s. The nickname was in use starting years before the regiment’s massive and still-standing 69th Regiment Armory was opened on Lexington Avenue in 1906.

Soldiers exit from the front entrance of the Fighting Irish’s 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan on August 20, 1917

Longtime New York City sports columnist Jimmy Cannon was among the New York City natives who saw the connection. “We were proud of Notre Dame because they were called the Fighting Irish, just as we were honored because the 69th regiment was referred to as an Irish outfit,” Cannon wrote in 1956, nearly half a century after he was born in Manhattan.

After Wallace graduated from Notre Dame in 1923, he landed in Manhattan as a sportswriter for the New York Post. He was unhappy with such Notre Dame nicknames as Ramblers and Rovers. Used by news outlets to describe the long distances the football team would travel via ground transportation to many away games, the names struck Wallace as insinuations that Notre Dame players were not as dedicated to school work as other college athletes.

While the Fighting Irish was being used by some reporters to describe Notre Dame football, Wallace failed at the Post to gain traction for his contrived Blue Comets nickname for the team. In 1927, Wallace moved from the Post to New York’s larger-circulation Daily News, embraced the Fighting Irish name and, in doing so, convinced others throughout the country to do the same.

Wallace’s move was the tipping point for the school. The same year, Notre Dame’s president gave his blessing, stating, “The university authorities are in no way averse to the name ‘Fighting Irish’ as applied to our athletic teams… I sincerely hope that we may always be worthy of the ideal embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish.'”

For a dozen years starting in 1918, the Notre Dame football program was well known because of fiery head coach Knute Rockne, a former Fighting Irish player-captain. Following Notre Dame football’s undefeated season in 1919, for which it would be awarded a couple retroactive national championships, the team’s visits to the New York were always a popular draw.

Army, based in Greater New York, would become the Fighting Irish’s biggest rival. Subway Alumni, the nickname now standard to describe Notre Dame supporters in and out of the United States who never attended the college, started with New Yorkers who took the subway to Notre Dame-Army games.

In addition to winning seasons and a geographically widening schedule that Rockne requested, the school’s football rise is due in large part the result of famed motivational speeches by Rockne and the coach’s ability to land favorable coverage of the team by newspaper and radio reporters in large markets outside the school’s South Bend home.

Rockne saw major benefits in having a hustling student publicist for each of his teams, to pitch stories and arrange photo opportunities. Wallace had served as Rockne’s student press aide, and recognized the media and marketing power of New York City.

“The Four Horsemen Rode Again”

A year after Wallace graduated from Notre Dame, Grantland Rice, writing for the New York Herald Tribune in his popular nationally syndicated column, introduced the nickname the Four Horsemen in reference to four seniors who played in the Notre Dame backfield in a game versus Army at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds.

On October 18, 1924, the four players — Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden, Don Miller and Harry Stuhldreher — led the Fighting Irish to a 13-7 upset win en route to an undefeated Notre Dame season. The game brought the only defeat of the year for Army.

George Strickler, Rockne’s student publicist after Wallace graduated, had suggested the Four Horsemen nickname to Rice in New York. During game week, Strickler had seen The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a feature film about the biblical figures of Death, Pestilence, Famine and War. At halftime at the Polo Grounds, Strickler offered the analogy to a group of reporters that included Rice.

In a story about the contest that appeared on the front page of the Herald Tribune, Rice wrote, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon, as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”

In his 2010 Notre Dame football book The Gipper, veteran New York Times sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh reports Rice’s Four Horseman line “is considered the most memorable, and best, lead ever written by a sportswriter under deadline pressure.

With a boost from Strickler, who coordinated a photo of the four players on horseback two days after the game, the nickname was cemented. The quartet rode the recognition for years after college. For one-game contracts, they joined existing professional teams that would advertise that the games featured the Four Horsemen. “One week, we each made $4,000,” Miller recalled years later.

Eighty four years after the Four Horsemen game at the Polo Grounds, a United States postage stamp with the 1924 photo of the players on horseback was issued in commemoration of the foursome.

“Out of this came the legend of ‘The Gipper'”

On November 10, 1928, Notre Dame came to Yankee Stadium for its final game of the season, with two losses versus undefeated Army. At the stadium, Rockne reportedly delivered his now-iconic “Win one for the Gipper” speech, invoking a nickname for the late George Gipp. In 1920, the same year he became first Fighting Irish All-America football player of the 1920s, halfback Gipp died of pneumonia at age 25.

The Fighting Irish went on to upset Army, 12-6. After a scoreless first half, Notrre Dame’s Jack Chevigny had scored on a short touchdown run. Wallace would write that Chevigny shouted “One for the Gipper” immediately following the touchdown.

Many accounts, including in Rockne’s 1931 autobiography, have Chevigny scoring the winning touchdown. In reality, teammate Johnny O’Brien did. Rockne said when he had visited a dying Gipp in the hospital, Gipp asked the coach to tell Notre Dame players to win for Gipp as motivation against Army. With Army an annual opponent that had defeated Notre Dame in 1925 and 1927, many question why Rockne waited eight years after Gipp died. No media reports filed the day of the 1928 game mention the speech.

Wallace was the first to report of Rockne’s address, after he said Joseph Byrne, a top Notre Dame alumni representative, told him about it over Sunday drinks the day after the game, at the Ritz Carlton hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Although many accounts have the speech being delivered at halftime — including on a walkway plaque outside the location of the original Yankee Stadium — Wallace wrote that the speech came before kickoff.

“Football people knew that Rockne would fire the boys up in his speech before the game,” reported Wallace in time for a Sunday evening edition of the Daily News. Wallace, who would become president of the Notre Dame Alumni Association in 1949, said Byrne was among those present at the pre-game speech.

In his Daily News story, Wallace wrote, “This is what he told them — and then, perhaps, you can understand the cold forgetfulness of self of those Irish kids. ‘On his deathbed George Gipp told me that some day, when the time came, he wanted me to ask a Notre Dame team to beat Army for him.”

Perhaps sensing that some readers may have been skeptical, Wallace continued, “It was not a trick. George Gipp asked it. When Notre Dame’s football need was greatest, it called on its beloved ‘Gipper’ again.”

Wallace’s details were made even sharper thanks to headlines crafted by Daily News sports copy editor Harry Schumacher. A banner headline read, “Gipp’s Ghost Beat Army.” A subhead reported, “Irish Hero’s Deathbed Request Inspired Notre Dame.”

Celebrated New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin would write many years later about Wallace’s Daily News piece, “the story of George Gipp soon became an American legend, as common to sports fans as a familiar fairy tale is to a sleepy-eyed youngster. The Gipp myth gained fantastic momentum through an era of newspaper sports writing that saw athletes likened in print to Greek gods. Out of this came the legend of ‘The Gipper.'”

Hank Anderson is among those who have questioned reports about the words attributed to Gipp, a noted gambler and playboy. Anderson would serve as Notre Dame’s head coach in the early 1930s, had been a teammate of Gipp and, according to Kavanaugh in The Gipper, was “the last player to visit and talk with Gipp before he died. ‘I doubt very much he would have said that,’ Anderson told the author shortly before he died in 1978. Anderson and some others who knew him best said it would have been out of character for Gipp, even on this deathbed, to have made such a request to Rockne.”

The call to “Win one for the Gipper!” was not part of the public story of the speech until Rockne reported a similar line in a 1930 story ghostwritten for him for Collier’s magazine a year before Rockne died in a plane crash. Collier’s was a national weekly magazine, with its editorial offices in Manhattan.

The Collier’s story claims Gipp told Rockne, “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s alright. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”

Knute Rockne, All American

Wallace’s report of the speech differs from its portrayal in the 1940 feature film Knute Rockne, All American. The movie places the speech during halftime, which aligns with Rockne’s autobiography.

In the film, the inspiration for Rockne’s speech was dramatized by Ronald Reagan, who played Gipp. The Gipper name became semi-synonymous with Reagan, who always claimed Gipp was his favorite role and promoted the connection during his successful campaigns for the United States presidency.

The line came nearly full circle in 2004, 80 years after Madison Square Garden played host to the only Republican National Convention held in New York before or since.

Among the more memorable Garden scenes from the Republican convention, where George W. Bush accepted his party’s second presidential nomination, were from the third night. During a memorial for Reagan, who had died the same summer, many delegates and other attendees, including former president George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara Bush, hoisted signs that read, “WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER.”

Barbara Bush displays a Gipper sign at the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden[/caption

Sports Delivered 1918 Pandemic Warning

Some baseball players in 1918 used gauze masks in an effort to thwart the Spanish flu.

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.

Brooklyn boxing star Jim Stewart, depicted on a 1910 tobacco card, was among the victims of the 1918 pandemic.

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.”

Dr. Royal Copeland, New York City’s health chief (here as a U.S. senator), took heat from a Brooklyn sportswriter.

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.

New York City horse racing figure Jack O’Brien died soon after he was hit with the Spanish flu at Aqueduct racetrack.

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.”

Former City College of New York basketball manager Dan Daniel (in suit) would voice concern about the virus.

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.

A police officer in New York City wears a gauze mask during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

“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.

The velodrome in Newark, New Jersey, was among the Greater New York venues impacted by the H1N1 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.

Soccer is played at Brooklyn’s Lenox Oval in 1919, a year after part of the venue’s soccer season was 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.”

Swimming star Harry Elionsky (center) recovered from the Spanish flu after newspapers had pronounced him dead.

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.

Brooklyn’s Kingston Avenue Hospital successfully treated track and field’s defending national 440-yard champion.

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.”

Competitors at the rescheduled 1918 PSAL indoor track and field chamionships in Manhattan salute the flag.

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.

World squash champion Walter Kinsella (right) was the father of two young girls who died from the Spanish flu.

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.

A horse racing personality died of the Spanish flu at New Netherland (the tall brown hotel) near Central Park.

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.

On November 11, 1918, New York City crowds celebrated Germany’s war surrender while the pandemic continued.

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.

Eddie Bennett (left) watches Yankees Babe Ruth (scoring on a homer) and Lou Gehrig in a 1927 World Series game.

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.

Eddie Bennett became an MLB batboy in New York and served for nearly 12 seasons with the New York Yankees.

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.

Babe Ruth appears at the opening game of the 1918 World Series, a month before he reportedly had the Spanish flu.

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.