During the 1918 pandemic in Connecticut, Babe Ruth drew big crowds at the worst possible time
By DOM AMORE | The Hartford Courant | Published: April 10, 2020
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HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — The third week of September 1918 was indeed an exciting time for Hartford and its sports fans.
The Red Sox had wrapped up a championship season, shortened by The Great War, on Sept. 11 when Babe Ruth defeated the Cubs, 2-1, in Game 6 of the World Series at Fenway Park. And as the pandemic that would kill more Americans than the Civil War was storming through Connecticut, so was Ruth, age 23 and already baseball’s biggest attraction, a man who could not possibly have grasped the concept of social distancing.
The Babe lived to draw crowds, and his postseason tour drew 5,000 fans to the Hartford Baseball Grounds off Wethersfield Avenue on Sept. 15, and 3,000 more when he returned on Sept. 23.
Though there is no indication that anyone thought to cancel these games, staged to benefit Hartford’s soldiers fighting in Europe, and Ruth didn’t disappoint — but this was obviously not the time.
“It was right in that week of the 15th to the 22nd that the numbers exploded around Boston,” said Skip Desjardin of West Hartford, author of the book, “September 1918: War, Plague and the World Series,” “so the timing of 500 cases in Hartford by the end of the week matches what was happening next door, making it as the worst possible time to be pressed up against other fans at a ballgame. But who could resist going out to see Ruth?”
The first strain of the deadly influenza, which in those days was also called “the grip,” came though in the spring, and Ruth, that once-in-a-century combo of pitching and hitting prowess, got seriously ill, his fever hitting 104 in May. When a doctor treated his sore throat with too much silver nitrate, his larynx swelled and he nearly died. But he recovered to go 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA and tie for the American League lead with 11 home runs as he transitioned from hurler to slugger and led the Red Sox to the Series, winning two games on the mound.
By autumn, another strain was back in the United States, spreading from the ports — Boston, where Camp Devens was the site of a horrific outbreak, and New London among them — and the soldiers who were gathering to go overseas.
“As the World Series was played in Boston Sept. 9, 10, 11, by that time, we know what’s going on — it’s spreading,” said Randy Roberts, professor of history at Purdue and co-author with Johnny Smith of “War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America In The Shadow Of The Great War.” “And clearly, what is shown by this barnstorming tour is that people weren’t paying attention. We shouldn’t have been in large crowds.”
Barnstorming was a way of life for star players of the era. The only way for many fans to see them was in exhibition games played in places where there were no major league teams. During this trip, Ruth told reporters that Hartford was his favorite city to visit on such tours, and while he may have said that everywhere he went, he did make numerous appearances here between 1918 and 1945.
James H. Clarkin, owner of the Hartford Senators, journeyed to Boston on Sept. 9 as the Red Sox and Cubs were arriving from Chicago to finish the World Series, with designs on getting both teams to come to Hartford and play a series of games, offering a guarantee of $1,000 to each team and a cut of the gate. Because attendance was low, only 15,000 on hand at Fenway to watch Ruth win the deciding game, the players’ shares were to be reduced and they nearly went on strike to cancel the Series. Ultimately, they played, but the winners’ share was $1,100 and the idea of making a few more bucks on the side was appealing. Most players were heading into the army. Ruth, his catcher, Sam Agnew, Ray Fisher of the Yankees and a handful of other major leaguers signed on. Money was raised to buy athletic equipment for Hartford’s soldiers overseas, and a ball Ruth hit for a triple during the World Series was auctioned off for $195. Ruth, The Courant reported, received $350 for the game on Sept. 15, and probably the same for his second appearance.
On Sept. 14, three days after the end of the World Series, Ruth agreed to play first base at New Haven’s Lighthouse Grounds for the “Colonials,” and he hit a home run in a loss to a team of all-stars from the Negro Leagues. That night, he arrived in Hartford in a car draped with the American Flag and was ushered into the Hotel Bond, where a large crowd gathered for a reception. Out of character, he went to bed early.
The next day, the game was moved to 4 p.m. to give out-of-town fans time to arrive, and extra trolleys were added to the line. Ruth donned the uniform of Poli’s, and pitched a shutout against a semipro team from Chicopee, Mass., called the Fisk Red Tops, who had Red Sox pitcher Dutch Leonard on the mound. Ruth pitched a complete game to win 1-0 and narrowly missed the home run everyone came out to see when his long drive hit the top of a Bull Durham sign in centerfield for a double.
Three days later, Dr. John T. Black of the state’s board of health warned that the Spanish Flu was on its way to Connecticut, and declared, “it’s the patriotic duty of anyone taken with the disease to isolate himself or herself. Public gatherings held indoors should be avoided.”
On Sept. 20, Hartford reported 13 cases of the Spanish Flu. “None are considered serious,” The Courant reported, “and all were probably due to contagion from the soldiers from Camp Devens (in Boston) who were in the city a week ago. … Local doctors fear it will spread as it has done in other cities.” The state was also being overspread by the outbreak that began in New London.
“We weren’t sure how you caught the thing,” Roberts said. “It was addressed differently in different cities. There was no national standard.”
By Sept. 21, there were 500 cases in Hartford. “Theaters and public meeting places are particularly places of danger at the present time,” The Courant reported that morning. “Wherever people are crowded together, as in the trolley cars and similar places, all are likely to be exposed and a large percentage of cases will result. It may even be necessary to close the theaters and other amusement places if the epidemic grows as it has in the past few days.”
Ruth and the major leaguers in his traveling troupe played in Springfield, then returned to Hartford on Sept. 22. Roughly 3,000 came, many presumably having jammed the trolley cars to get out to the ballpark in the South End, to see the doubleheader. A fence was opened allowing children to surge into the park and crowd the outfield.
Another Red Sox star, “Bullet Joe” Bush pitched for Pratt and Whitney, Ruth for Poli’s, and Bush won, 1-0, the run scored on a daring baserunning play by New Haven’s “Jumping Joe” Dugan, who was then with the Philadelphia A’s. Shortstop Larry Kopf of New Britain, who was playing for Cincinnati in the majors, played in the first game, but sat out the second game. “He had taken ill with what he thought was the Spanish influenza,” according to The Courant.
“Certainly there were people at the game who’d already been infected,” Desjardin said, “either by having been themselves or in contact with someone who’d been in the thick of things in Massachusetts. Or New London. … People in Hartford likely didn’t yet know enough to avoid crowds.”
Ruth satisfied the nation’s “work or fight” order by accepting a position at Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania, though his primary role was to play for the company team. He played one game Sept. 25, two days after his appearance at Hartford, then left. The Baltimore Sun reported he had again contracted the Spanish Flu, but recovered.
The worst for Connecticut came in the coming weeks. According to Connecticuthistory.org, local officials finally began canceling public events, such as fairs and football games, churches, schools and war bond drives, urged the wearing of cotton muslin masks in October, but more than 5,000 flu-related deaths were recorded in the state that month. Eventually, the pandemic would claim 9,000 lives, or 1% of the state’s population. There were 675,000 deaths in the United States.
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