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The war (not the flu) that saved the World Series

The cover of "WAR FEVER: Boston, Baseball, and

The cover of "WAR FEVER: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War."

For most baseball fans old enough to remember life before 2004, the 1918 Red Sox are seared in the sport’s collective memory, an outfit that for nearly a century was a reminder of decades of Boston baseball futility.

Kind of like the 1940 Rangers . . . only more so.

But if not for a strange confluence of world war and pandemic, we all would have spent the many years between Red Sox championships talking about the 1916 team instead.

In short, “the war saved the World Series,” said Randy Roberts, a Purdue history professor and co-author of a new book called “WAR FEVER: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War.”

Roberts described it as “the accidental World Series. I probably should have called it that [in the book]. It’s a good name for a chapter. But that’s what it was.”

Many people who are aware the 1918 season was cut short and the Series between the Red Sox and Cubs was played in early September assume it was because of the flu epidemic that ravaged the globe in 1918 and 1919.

In fact, it was World War I that prompted the schedule change, and indirectly allowed the Series to occur.

The drama began as pressure mounted on major league players that spring and summer to join the war effort by working in defense-related industries or serving in the armed forces themselves. (Many players did, in fact, leave for the sport to serve in 1917 and early 1918.)

The “work or fight” directive, pushed by Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder, encountered desperate negotiations by owners for extensions until an order came in late August to close shop by Sept. 1.

The owners sought one last extension, to Sept. 15, to allow the pennant-winners to meet. They got it, and the Series started on Sept. 5 and ended on the 11th, the only “Fall Classic” played entirely in the summer.

The first three games were at Comiskey Park in Chicago and the last three at Fenway Park. The Red Sox won it in six, with a young pitcher named Babe Ruth winning two games. (All six games were played in less than two hours.)

But even as the Series was unfolding, a viral storm was gathering. An epidemic that started in late August at the busy Commonwealth Pier soon would threaten the city.

On the day of Game 1 in Chicago, John Hancock, head of the communicable disease department at the Massachusetts Department of Health, warned that the disease soon would spread from sailors to Boston’s civilian population.

Boston was about to host the first American outbreak of the second and more deadly wave of the 1918-19 flu, and that grim fact started to become widely known as the Series unfolded.

The first civilian illnesses were reported on or about the day of Game 6. “Certainly, by the end of the Series, it’s out of the bag,” Roberts said.

The players were no strangers to the flu. Several Red Sox got sick during spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during the first wave of the pandemic. But this was worse.

The spread of the illness in Boston was worsened by large gatherings such as a draft registration drive and a parade promoting the sale of war bonds.

Roberts said the medical authorities were “quickly overwhelmed.”

After initially planning to let the flu burn itself out naturally, officials acted in the last week of September with restrictions similar to those being used to fight COVID-19 in 2020.

Schools, churches, theaters and other places where large groups gather were shut down. A baseball game at Fenway Park would have been unthinkable.

“They started closing down in late September, but by that point the toothpaste was out of the tube,” Roberts said. “It was rampant.”

By then, the Red Sox and Cubs had gotten on with their lives, and even as the flu raged across the country, Americans at least could celebrate the end of the war on Nov. 11.

The Red Sox would wait another 86 years to win it all again. The Cubs were 10 years into a drought that lasted another 98 years. But at least they got to play.

“The World Series being moved up had nothing to do with influenza; it had everything to do with the politics of war,” said Roberts, who co-authored the book with Johnny Smith, a sports history professor at Georgia Tech.

But without that schedule change, Roberts said, “There would have been no World Series – none . . . The war saved the World Series.”

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