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Opening Day amid a pandemic - 103 years ago | COMMENTARY

Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee (foreground) and manager Ed Barrow (left) sign Babe Ruth and first baseman John "Stuffy" McInnis to their 1918 contracts. Frazee would sell Ruth to the New York Yankees two years later. (Sporting News/Hartford Courant)
Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee (foreground) and manager Ed Barrow (left) sign Babe Ruth and first baseman John "Stuffy" McInnis to their 1918 contracts. Frazee would sell Ruth to the New York Yankees two years later. (Sporting News/Hartford Courant) (Sporting News)

It was during a baseball discussion that I first learned of the global flu pandemic that killed millions worldwide and threw daily life into turmoil. I am referring to the deadly contagion that began in early 1918. This information came to me many years ago from my grandfather as a byproduct of one of his frequent homilies about long ago baseball that often accompanied our listening to a radio broadcast of a game.

I had the good fortune to live at a time when many households consisted of at least three generations, and exposed the youngest members to a wide variety of perspectives that often included the views of those born in the 19th century. This older generation related stories and delivered them with an enthusiasm and detail that made them seem fresh and vivid.

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It became my custom to assume a favored learning position sprawled across my grandfather’s bed, while he presided in an adjacent overstuffed chair. The room typically benefited from only two sources of light — the radio dial tuned to that evening’s Orioles game, and the burning tip of my grandfather’s Camel cigarette, the non-filter kind. Directly in front of me was an open window that let in the neighborhood sounds of warm weather and supplied the background acoustics for the game description being transmitted through the night air; sometimes originating from ballparks in cities far away.

This particular conversation concerned Babe Ruth, a Baltimore teenager who made a spectacular professional debut as a member of the then minor league Orioles. A 19-year-old Ruth joined the Orioles as a pitcher, and, before that season ended, his performance catapulted him to the majors, where he established himself as a star pitcher for a Boston Red Sox team that would win three World Series during the next four years. In six seasons on the Red Sox pitching staff, Ruth won 89 games, with a .660 winning percentage and an ERA of 2.19.

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Of course, he went on to become a legendary baseball slugger who defined and dominated the game, and it was his transition from pitcher to hitter during the 1918 Red Sox season that was the subject of my grandfather’s dissertation. That year, two cataclysmic events were taking place — the World War that the United States had joined in the spring of 1917, and the lethal influenza pandemic that began its first wave in early 1918. As they affected all walks of life, these two events had a significant effect on baseball. The season shrank from 154 to 120 games and resulted in the only World Series played during September.

Many players were affected by the virus. Ruth himself was hospitalized during midseason after his flu symptoms were reportedly mistreated with silver nitrate. Additionally, players became subject to the newly enacted Selective Service Act, which required either military service or employment in wartime factory service, and team rosters were severely impacted. Ruth’s number was never called, although he later enlisted in the National Guard, and the absence of players allowed him to become more of an everyday player on days when he was not pitching.

The result was nothing short of radical. As a hitter, Ruth eschewed the “small ball” techniques of bunting and chopping singles, and gave birth to the power swing. That year, he led the league in home runs with 11 in 95 games. To put that in perspective, that exceeded the home run totals of most of the other major league teams. Ruth also batted .300, with a .411 on base percentage and slugged at a .555 pace. The image of the celebrity home run king was born, and the game forever revolutionized.

Learning experiences like these have led me to maintain the notion that a fundamental part of my education is owing to the information gained during the shared recollections that seamlessly flow through the unique pace and pauses of a baseball game. As education, baseball demands a rare combination of proficiency in both science and social studies. The science component revolves around arcane mathematics and detailed statistical analysis, and the social studies aspect demands an appreciation for the historical relevance of, well, just about everything.

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We now have a new season to explore the pedagogical opportunities afforded by our national pastime, and a rebuilding Orioles team for which to root. Let us hope that the season will see today’s pandemic recede, so as to allow us to enjoy newly shared memories and make connections through time.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a shareholder in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke27@gmail.com.

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