No games today. Or tomorrow. We’ll see you, um, sometime.
Organized sport has been a significant part of American life since approximately the 1840s, when a baseball fever began sweeping the land. We have had our hiccups, but never before have we sports enthusiasts been asked to go just about completely cold turkey. But we have had instances in which our little world of sport has collided with real life. For example …
World War I
The United States entered World War I in April of 1917, and there was some immediate agitation in Washington to have major league ballplayers exchange their bats for rifles. The first one to do so was 27-year old Hank Gowdy, a catcher and stalwart member of the 1914 champion Boston Braves, who by 1917 had become a backup. The overall number of enlistees from baseball was small. Things heated up in July of 1918 when Secretary of War Newton D. Baker issued his famous "Work or Fight” edict, saying that all draft-eligible men in “non-essential” occupations, baseball definitely included, must sign up for “war-related” work or risk being drafted. There was great push-back and ballplayers kept playing baseball for the most part.
Keep in mind this was a time when no other team sport mattered. The NHL consisted of four Canadian franchises. The NFL was two years in the future. The NBA was 28 long years from reality. Baseball truly was the national pastime. For the record, horse racing was perhaps the No. 2 sport, and, yes, tracks were shut down.
Baseball’s official response to the war was to shorten the 1918 season. The American League wanted to end it on Aug. 20. The National League opted for Labor Day, and its wish prevailed, The season ended on Monday, Sept. 2, and the World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs began three days later. (As all local schoolchildren should know, the Red Sox prevailed and there would be a long, long wait for another World Series triumph.)
One fallout of that Series was something that took place prior to Game 3 in Chicago. A US military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner," which, though 13 years shy of becoming our official national anthem, was a clear statement of wartime patriotism.
The years 1918-19 were also ravaged by the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. As colleague Kevin [Paul] Dupont outlines in Sunday’s Globe, there was disruption in the 1919 Stanley Cup Final, where a clinching Game 6 was called off when too many players were flu-stricken.
World War II
By now there was an NFL and an NHL, but Major League Baseball was still very much the lead dog in American sports. Baseball would be disrupted, but it would continue, doing so with the express permission of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who responded to an inquiry following the 1941 season from baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis as to whether or not baseball should continue with his famous “Green Light” letter. Yes, folks, Landis wrote the president a type-written letter and, yes, the president responded with a real, honest-to-God typewritten reply. Roosevelt said, “yes,” saying, among other things, that workers needed recreation and, “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be had for very little cost.” (Two years later a child would be born in Tampa to the La Russa family, and so much for the “two hours” business.) FDR summed it up by saying, “If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players (counting the minor leagues) these players are a recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”
And so we had baseball, although many minor leagues did cease operation. The 1944 all-St. Louis World Series gave the normally horrific Browns their only chance to become champions before their relocation to Baltimore a decade later. They lost, of course.
Lots of weird stuff happened. Spring training featured such locales as Asbury Park, N.J., (Yankees) and good ol’ Medford, Mass., where the Red Sox set up shop at Tufts. The Reds suited up a 15-year old pitcher, Joe Nuxhall. The Browns employed a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray. The 1945 World Series featuring the Cubs and Tigers was proclaimed to be “The World Series neither team can win,” by noted scribe Warren Brown. But somehow the Tigers did.
Elsewhere, there was hockey and lots of college football. Army was a powerhouse. The NIT and NCAA basketball tournaments continued on. There were many travel restrictions, and the 1942 Rose Bowl between Duke and Oregon State was moved from Pasadena to Durham, N.C., because of fears the Japanese were planning an attack on the West Coast following Pearl Harbor.
Most of all, people couldn’t wait until the 1946 major league baseball season, when the 4-Fs and teeny-boppers were gone and the “real” ballplayers would return.
John F. Kennedy assassination
JFK was slain in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the height of football season. Many colleges decided not to play the following day. The AFL postponed games for Sunday the 24th. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle did not know what to do. He called his college friend, Pierre Salinger, who was JFK’s press secretary. Salinger recommended`that the NFL games go on. “Football was Mr. Kennedy’s game,” he told Rozelle. And so they played, amid much criticism. Rozelle went to his grave saying it was his “biggest regret” as commissioner.
Robert Kennedy assassination
In the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s death in 1968, baseball was confronted with the issue of playing that weekend or not playing. The games went on. Naturally, not everyone was pleased.
1989 Loma Prieta earthquake
I was sitting on my couch, awaiting the start of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, the all-Bay Area battle between the mighty Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants. But something was off. I said to myself, “Hey, is he talking about an earthquake?”
He sure was. The 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake had just struck. The Bay Area was quite naturally traumatized, and there was much discussion as to the wisdom and propriety of continuing with mere baseball in the face of such tragedy. But baseball did continue, and 11 days later the A’s continued their march to a Series sweep. As I recall, I argued in these pages against resumption, but I was wrong. Sports always has a chance to be therapeutic.
That was never more true than 12 years later. I don’t have to go chapter and verse on the topic of 9/11. It is the dividing line in how we live our daily lives. Sports were pretty much shut down. The country needed to breathe. Most eyes were focused on New York, and 10 days later Mike Piazza hit a dramatic game-winning home run against Atlanta. Yes, it was just a game, but it resonated, as did a brilliant first-ball pitch right down Broadway by President George W. Bush prior to Game 3 of the 2001 World Series.
In each of these instances, sport was seen as either a healer or, at the very least, a spirit-lifter. What we are`facing now is different.
The only thing we know is that this hiatus is circumstantial, not terminal. And when the games do resume, I’m pretty sure we’ll all be ready.
Look at one good thing: At least nobody today is yelling at the refs.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.