“In Sportless Town the Spanish flu
Has put a crimp in outdoor sports;
There isn’t anything to do
On football fields or tennis courts.
They’ve closed our favorite resorts –
Away from crowds we have to stay;
The world is sadly out of sorts –
Oh, where are the sports of yesterday?”
• From “Sport Salad” by L.C. Davis, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 31, 1918
The last time the St. Louis sports world came to a long-term halt like it has now was in 1918, when the Spanish flu swept across America and the world.
The shutdown of sports wasn’t nationwide – baseball had the only “national” leagues at that point, and they were out of season – and it didn’t last as long as the present silence. But for five weeks, from Oct. 7 to Nov. 13 of 1918 as the flu intensified here, St. Louis sports stopped.
The sports world was very different in 1918, and not just because the Post-Dispatch had a sports columnist who wrote in verse. There was no NFL, no NBA, and the two-year-old NHL had three teams, all in Canada. The Major League Baseball season ended early that year – the final regular-season games were on Sept. 1 – not because of the flu, but because of World War I and a government “work-or-fight” order that brought an abrupt end to the season.
What there was was college football, but that season was in doubt because a planned Allied assault in 1919 meant all able-bodied men were to be drafted in the fall of 1918. Only a late decision by the War Department that football would be good training saved the season.
The flu met St. Louis sports on Oct. 8, when mayor Henry Kiel, under the guidance of city health commissioner Dr. Max Starkloff, ordered the city shut down. Schools and theaters were closed, and no public gatherings were allowed. It didn’t sink in until a day later that Starkloff’s shutdown also applied to sports, which he hadn’t mentioned specifically. (“They would be classified the same as open-air meetings,” he said the next day, “hence I deemed it unnecessary to mention them. … I think it is well understood football games should be abandoned.”) And with that, sports in St. Louis stopped.
No one expected the shutdown to go very long. Starkloff gave his order on a Monday, and school officials were wondering if it would be lifted in time for that weekend’s games. That continued for the duration of the shutdown, with schools wondering if their next game would be played.
Other cities, but not all, were also entering quarantines. The college football scorelist in the Sunday, Oct. 27 Post-Dispatch had just 18 games, nine of which involved a military team of some sort.
In St. Louis, the shutdown meant the football teams of St. Louis University and Washington University couldn’t play. At least, they couldn’t play in St. Louis. SLU bused to Lebanon, Ill., on Oct. 19 to play McKendree since there was no quarantine there (SLU won 79-0), but the following week, SLU couldn’t play despite its athletics director making deals with six teams. Just about every day, SLU was planning on a new opponent for that weekend, but none of the games actually happened. At one point during the quarantine, SLU lost three players because they were medical students nearing graduation and were summoned to Jefferson Barracks to help deal with a flu outbreak there. Both SLU and Wash U. played several games in front of empty stands.
Also stopped were soccer matches – a big deal back then — and high school football games. And since the schools were shut down, there weren’t practices, either. Finally, Starkloff gave the schools permission to practice, but only if they all did it at the same field. So the city’s high schools took turns practicing at High School Field.
Starkloff’s order worked. Deaths remained low in St. Louis, relatively speaking. At one point, Starkloff pointed out that Chicago had had 344 deaths the day before, more than St. Louis had in the previous two and a half weeks. Among the 10 largest cities, St. Louis had the lowest death rate from the flu. Still, 60 St. Louisans died on one day in December 1918, and in the last three months of that year the flu or complications from it claimed almost 3,000 St. Louis lives.
Around the world, 500 million people contracted the virus, or about one-third of the population. About 50 million died, including 675,000 in the United States.
At the high school level in St. Louis, schools tried to sneak around the rules. McKinley High tried to play a game with Webster Groves High, which because it was in the county wasn’t controlled by Starkloff’s order. But when city officials got word, they shut it down because city schools like McKinley had been allowed to practice only under the provision that they wouldn’t play until the order was lifted.
On Nov. 13, two days after World War I ended, Starkloff lifted the closure order and the games were on. Crowds, though, were smaller. When McKinley and Central met for the game that decided the city football title on Dec. 8, the game drew a crowd of about 500, instead of the 8,000 it would normally get. SLU drew 5,000 for a game at Sportsman’s Park against the Great Lakes naval training center. Attendance was consistently down as fans feared the flu.
For good reason. Right before that game to decide the prep championship was played, flu cases spiked again in St. Louis, particularly among children. Another shutdown order was issued, with schools closed until January. But this time, games were allowed to go on, even though this flu hit children very hard.
SLU and Wash U. ended up with a combined five games that season in front of crowds (including the game between them). Mizzou punted and called off its whole season. The Missouri Valley Conference, which included Missouri and Wash U., did not declare a champion that season. East St. Louis High pulled the plug on its season after many cancellations to focus on basketball. After Central beat McKinley and clinched the city title, the final week of the high school season was called off.
By Dec. 20, the flu numbers had dropped considerably in St. Louis, and almost all restrictions were lifted. Still, around the nation, the flu was taking its toll on the sports world. On Dec. 20, noted baseball umpire Francis “Silk” O’Loughlin died of the flu. The day before, the daughter of the president of the St. Louis Browns died.
The NHL season would end on a tragic note. The NHL champion Montreal Canadiens faced the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup. The finals began on March 19, and the first five games ended with two wins apiece and a tie before players on both teams caught the flu and were hospitalized. The Canadiens were down to three healthy players. On April 1, just a few hours before Game 6 was to begin, the game was canceled. George Kennedy, owner of the Canadiens, wanted to forfeit the Cup to the Metropolitans, but Seattle refused to accept it. On April 5, Montreal forward Joe Hall died of the flu. Kennedy was also among those stricken. He survived, but never fully recovered and died of complications of the flu two years later. That year was, so far, the only time the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded after the season had begun.
But in St. Louis, the flu had been beaten. By the start of baseball season, there was barely a mention of it in the paper. The Browns played the season’s home opener on April 23 at Sportsman’s Park and drew a crowd of 10,000. The Cardinals followed with their home opener a week later.
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