In 1918, nearly 700,000 people in the United States died after contracting the Spanish flu. By the end of its reign of terror, the virus had infected over 500 million people worldwide — more than one-quarter of the globe’s population at the time.
That’s the macabre backdrop of “War Fever,” a new book from coauthors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. Their timing is uncanny. The book arrives just in time to remind us that ours is by no means the first generation to experience the wholesale disruption of our norms and institutions by an “invisible enemy.”
In the early days of September 1918, as world war raged in Europe, the city of Boston was preparing for a World Series between the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. (What I wouldn’t give to watch a meaningless spring training game today.) On Tuesday, Sept. 3, 4,000 military men marched through the streets of the city to rally civilians in a “Win the War for Freedom” parade.
About 1,000 of those men were sailors stationed on a floating barracks docked at Commonwealth Pier, where an outbreak was brewing. Roberts and Smith, two history professors drawn to the intersection of sports and popular culture, recount a convergence of events that would put the city at the center of much unwanted attention, a flash point for the flu’s spread.
With disease in the air, “War Fever” takes readers back to a deeply unsettled moment in history through the interwoven stories of three eminent Bostonians: a scandal involving the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s German-American maestro; a tale of battlefront heroism, led by a genteel Harvard man, that would enthrall the American public as the Great War reached its climax; and the emergence of Babe Ruth as the greatest one-man force in the history of the national pastime.
Every era has its heroes and villains. Ruth’s legend is one of the most overplayed in American lore: the carousing overgrown boy who changed the game with his prodigious power. In the context of war and pandemic, however, his story gets a fresh scrub. In 1918, the young Babe was still one of the premier pitchers in baseball. His battle of wills with Red Sox manager Ed Barrow, a stern taskmaster at odds with Ruth’s playboy heedlessness, gives the book much of its color. Ruth just wanted to swing for the fences, but Barrow needed him to put the team on his back and pitch.
The saga of BSO conductor Karl Muck is more tawdry, and tragic. The declaration of war against Germany triggered a demand for “100 percent Americanism,” which quickly led to the denunciation of all German culture. (Hamburgers were suddenly rechristened “liberty sandwiches.”)
In this atmosphere, Muck’s alleged reluctance to conduct “The Star-Spangled Banner” infuriated the loudest of the country’s patriots. Their “gotcha” campaign against the maestro, one of Boston’s most esteemed celebrities, led to a federal investigation. The feds turned up little evidence of his allegiance to the enemy, but they did uncover Muck’s illicit affair with a young Boston debutante. The conductor spent the rest of the war in a southern internment camp for German prisoners of war.
The most haunting figure in “War Fever” is Charles Whittlesey, a Harvard Law School graduate who grew up in Pittsfield. A literary gentleman with a dignified bearing — his friends called him “Count” — Whittlesey became an unlikely war hero after signing up for the Army. Harvard men, as the authors note, felt duty-bound to enlist; more than 11,000 alumni, students, and faculty served during World War I, “[m]ore than any other college in the nation.”
Whittlesey was assigned as an officer in the 308th Infantry, 77th Division, which drew its ranks from New York City’s Lower East Side. It was known as the “Statue of Liberty” division for its diverse assortment of soldiers — primarily working-class, many from immigrant families. On the Western Front in early October, Whittlesey led a surge that resulted in his battalion being cut off from all allies. For four days his “Lost Battalion” of 554 soldiers hunkered in a ravine and warded off the German army, suffering massive casualties. They fought on. When the Germans sent an American POW with a request to surrender — “we are appealing to your human sentiments” — Whittlesey and his courageous men refused.
Though Whittlesey spent the rest of his short life quietly denying it, war reporters claimed he’d told the German commanding officer to “go to hell.” When he returned to the States, he became one of the war’s first Medal of Honor recipients, presented in a ceremony on Boston Common attended by an estimated 20,000.
Curiously, the authors’ subjects each owed much of their fame (or infamy) to what we might call “alternative facts.” Whittlesey went down in history, however inaccurately, as the officer who told the Germans to “go to hell.” Muck’s failure to conduct the future national anthem — the song was not officially adopted as such until 1931 — was more a simple misunderstanding, as the authors point out, than the defiant act of an enemy in our midst. Ruth, meanwhile, practically epitomized the concept of being “larger than life.”
“[T]he most colossal news fake ever perpetrated upon the American people,” the New York Times thundered after a United Press correspondent mistook a temporary ceasefire in early November for the end of the war. A few days later, however, the Great War was in fact over, upon Germany’s surrender and the Armistice of Nov. 11.
By then, Bostonians were flooding the streets, exulting in the end of the citywide prohibition on public gatherings. Many had been in mourning; almost 5,000 of their friends and relatives had not survived the “grippe,” as the flu was commonly known.
“In the turbulent year of 1918,” the authors write, “Boston stood as a microcosm of America: a locus of urban strife, ethnic conflict, and fundamental, lasting change.”
Muck would soon be deported to Germany, where he would live out the rest of his days. Whittlesey would become one of the war’s belated casualties.
But Ruth’s illustrious career was just getting started.
WAR FEVER: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War
By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Basic Books, 352 pp, $30
James Sullivan is the author, most recently, of “Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs.” E-mail him at email@example.com.