Babe Ruth Had the Spanish Flu Twice in 1918

The magazine everyone in the US once read identifies Hemingway and Ruth as two of the most-important Americans of the preceding century.

My (Evander’s) old friend and longtime supporter of the Right off the Bat project, Mike Katzmarek, reported a story he’d heard on a French-radio broadcast that started me on the slightly scattered subjects of this blog. Thanks also go to the late Professor Peter L. Hays for his singular knowledge of Ernest Hemingway. Any errors of fact or logic or proportion, or lapses in taste in the following conspectus are, emphatically, solely my own.

Nineteen-eighteen is one of those big-news years. Getting into the action early, Ernest Hemingway, as yet too unworldly for fame, sailed from New York to Europe on May 11. By July, he was injured by mortar-fire in Italy. A bogus letter (see the link four paragraphs below) from F. Scott Fitzgerald claims Hemingway was too macho to quarantine during the early stages of the Spanish (originating in Kansas and likely spread to Europe by US troops) Flu, not even to wash his hands they say.

On May 19 and a world away, Babe Ruth—who would hit 11 home runs that year, a staggering total, more than entire teams (Ed Barrow of all people was among the many who felt the home run was something of a fad to fade away), though Tillie Walker matched the great one’s power-number—came down with a high fever.

Ruth would be reported near death.

The Behemoth of Blast was transitioning to a legend. So was Papa Hemingway. The pair, in age separated by four years, would soon come to define the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties.

In a smidgen of that era, Hemingway would have to quarantine at the Fitzgeralds’. It was at Cap d’Antibes, in 1926, part of a deft à trois arrangement the Babe would’ve admired…while Papa gravitated toward rich (“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me….”)* women. (Ruth is never known to have quarantined, and he’d have plenty of his own gold, sans digging, by the 1920s.)

Ruth’s heroics would be reported, in Boston particularly, as akin to an avenging Uncle Sam on the battlefields of France. The Red Sox luckily had sent few players to that bleak theater.

The 1918 World Series, which would haunt Red Sox Nation (the agony of Cubs fans would be a footnote to it) for nearly a century, was over by early September as the MLB season ended on the eleventh (after a 140-game schedule). Due to the pandemic the government had ordered citizens to find “meaningful work.” Ruth signed on with Charles Schwab’s steel factory in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, largely to play ball.

By early October, however, and always on the move (another trait shared with Papa), the Babe was back in his native Baltimore—two or three years (or so) before tripping the light fantastic in New York. He was likely recovering from a second-round knockout by the pandemic. Antibodies? Antigens? Herd immunity? Curse of the Bambino?

With vim and verve he walloped the curve
From Texas to Duluth,
Which is no small task, and I rise to ask;
Was there ever a guy like Ruth? [or Papa?]

—John Kieran

Though Papa Hemingway had several brushes with death before self-ending a crowded life, only Babe Ruth could succumb to a pandemic twice (!) and win a World Series in the same year.

Coda: The 1918 (e.g., Hal Chase’s suspension) and 1919 seasons were front-and-back-loaded with scandal not unlike what MLB had in store for the public a hundred years later, in 2017 and 2019. It was “1918 and All That.”

*The quote is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy,” not said by Hemingway or Ruth: just likely thought by them, too, along with many of us.


About rightoffthebatbook

Co-author of the book, "Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life"
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