Note: Some of the facts used in this story came from the archives of the Southwest American newspaper, a predecessor to the Times Record. Quotations in this story come from accounts in the Southwest American unless otherwise noted.
More than 100 years ago, much like what is happening in modern times, America and the world was dealing with a global pandemic.
In the year 1918, an outbreak of influenza — dubbed the "Spanish flu" — began in January and lasted for nearly three years. It infected nearly 500 million people, about a quarter of the world's population. Two years ago, on the 100th anniversary of the initial outbreak, a reassessment of the pandemic estimated that nearly 17 million people died from the virus, considerably lower than a 2005 estimate, which marked the death toll at around 50 million.
There was another global event America and the rest of the globe was dealing with in 1918. World War I was still going on, with the United States getting involved in the conflict the year before. It would effectively end by the conclusion of 1918, especially when an armistice with Germany was signed on Nov. 11.
But the war, not to mention the flu pandemic, would have an effect on the American sports world in 1918. Those events altered the sporting landscape during that time.
Even popular sports, like baseball and boxing, were affected by both the pandemic and the war.
"When you talk about professional sports, you really were talking about baseball and boxing," author Randy Roberts, also a distinguished professor of history at Purdue University in Indiana, said. "The greatest team achievement you could get was the World Series, and the greatest individual achievement you could get was probably the heavyweight (boxing) champion of the world."
Roberts and Johnny Smith, an associate professor of history as well as a professor of sports history at Georgia Tech, released a new book which came out earlier this month, called "WAR FEVER: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War."
For the record, Roberts stated it was a mere coincidence that the book was released while the current coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing, as the material was already published by the time the pandemic started spreading globally.
Roberts went on to mention that the flu had a far greater impact on American sports and society than the war, noting that more American soldiers passed away from the flu than from wounds on the battlefield.
In fact, the first wave of the flu eventually found its way to a military base.
"There were three waves of the flu, and the first wave really got started up in Haskell County, Kansas (in January of 1918), and then it spread to Camp Funston, which was one of the hastily built Army camps for World War I, and then from there it spread all over the place, including Army Camp Pike outside of Little Rock," Roberts said.
Nearby, in Hot Springs, in March of that year, the Boston Red Sox were conducting spring training there, led by a charismatic left-handed pitcher named Babe Ruth. Of course, Ruth would go on to greater fame as one of the premier sluggers in baseball history, but 1918 would turn out to be the beginning of his transition from a pitcher to a slugger in the eyes of the baseball public.
With the widespread Spanish flu outbreak, it gradually began descending upon Arkansas, and eventually Hot Springs, where the Red Sox were still training for the 1918 season.
"A number of players got really very sick with the flu while they were down there," Roberts said. "They talked about in local newspapers, in the Boston newspapers, they talked about a perfect epidemic in the reign of the 'grip,' which was what they called the flu back then. Once they went back to Boston, Babe Ruth gets it in May."
Ruth was able to make a full recovery, but was limited to 95 games that season. Yet, he still made his presence felt.
That season, after hitting nine home runs in his first four big-league seasons combined, he hit a career-high 11 home runs, which actually led the major leagues. While Ruth still had a solid season on the mound, winning 13 games with an earned-run average of 2.22, it was his home runs that were becoming the talk of baseball.
The Red Sox went on to clinch the American League pennant, and play the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. But due to the war and the pandemic, that was played in early September.
"(The flu) hits Boston right at the end of August, and the World Series was played in early September because baseball wasn't allowed to complete the season because of the war going on and the players being drafted, so the season ended September 1st," Roberts said.
"Then the Series was between the 5th and the 11th (of September); all six games were played in seven days. ... The flu was breaking out then, but it didn't impede the season; what impeded the baseball season in 1918 was the war because so many players were being drafted or going into defense plant work so they wouldn't get drafted, and that was a big issue."
The Red Sox won the World Series that year and Ruth became an even bigger star. But as it turns out, after the following season, Ruth gets dealt to the New York Yankees where he becomes even more legendary, while the Red Sox won't win another World Series title until 2004.
"The flu really didn't interrupt baseball that year, because when it hit, a lot of people got the flu in the spring when it spread that first wave, and then it disappeared; it went overseas," Roberts said. "And then it would come back with a vengeance, and that's the one that's going to kill most of the people; (approximately) 675,000 Americans died of the flu that year, and that's out of a population of about 105 million."
Prior to Ruth's breakout year, arguably the most prominent hitter in baseball was the veteran Ty Cobb, who was starting his 14th season in the big leagues, all with the Detroit Tigers.
Cobb had already led the majors in hitting seven times prior to 1918, including a career-high of .419 in 1911. He would go on to lead all of baseball in batting again in 1918 with a .382 average.
On April 9, Cobb and the Tigers paid a visit to Fort Smith as they played against the Cincinnati Reds in an exhibition game prior to the start of the regular season. Proceeds from the game went to benefit the Navy in the war efforts.
Detroit won the contest, 15-9, as Cobb had two hits and scored three runs. A total of four home runs were hit in the game.
"All the men and women — and the High and grammar school boys and girls — who could find seats or standing room in the grandstand and bleachers at the Stadium, and a good number of others who stood on the foul lines on both sides of the field, grew enthusiastic yesterday afternoon, while Ty Cobb, Donie Bush, Harry Heilmann, Heinie Groh, Eddie (Roush) and other big league baseball stars themselves enjoyed a baseball contest that was interesting throughout, although only occasionally was there a flash of real big league baseball to distinguish the affair from the lower grade games," read an account of that game in the local Southwest American.
Following the game, there were calls from the crowd to hear speeches from both Cobb and Christy Mathewson, the legendary Hall of Fame pitcher who was then managing the Reds, to no avail.
"But those fellows crawled under the grandstand, and would not be brought up to face the crowd and make a speech," the game account stated.
Then later that evening, Cobb and Mathewson, along with Tigers players Hughie Jennings and "Wild" Bill Donovan, participated in a function put together by the Central Trades and Labor council, part meet-and-greet and part supporting American troops in the war.
"Ty Cobb made an earnest appeal to the men at home," an account of the event read. "In closing he asked what the man at home above service age can say when his children after the war ask what he did in the great war, unless he can show them his sacrifices back home."
In other local baseball news, then Fort Smith High School (the forerunner to Northside) fielded a team for the first time in nearly a decade. The team had moderate success, flirting with a record of near .500.
But it wasn't enough for many of the players to receive monograms.
"Although the Fort Smith High school team has a playing percentage of .500 for the season, the members of the team will probably not get monograms for this season's work," read an early May account of the team.
"The rules of the school baseball teams must win 18 innings from a high school team in order to win a monogram, and though the local team has won four games and lost an equal number, only one of the successful games was with a high school squad."
However, the team's manager, Charlie Anderson, and the team's captain, Raymond Reynolds, still got to receive a monogram, as the rules stated they would regardless of the team's record.
A sport that was rapidly gaining popularity in 1918 was college football, which was established nearly 50 years ago. It was still a sport largely dominated by teams in the Northeast, particularly the Ivy League schools, but other schools nationwide began to field formidable squads.
"College football was big," Roberts said. "But college football really got started in the Northeast.
"Overwhelmingly, the best team in the country was Yale, and so Yale, Harvard, Princeton, the Ivy League schools were really the big schools that year, and then it spreads, so by 1918, it's spreading throughout the United States and will be eventually dominated not by the Ivy League teams but by the Big Ten and then eventually the Southern teams."
A pair of northern teams, Michigan and Pittsburgh, were considered as co-national champions that season.
But it was a season which was greatly affected by the flu pandemic, as several teams' games were canceled.
"Football seasons were also curtailed," Roberts said. "Harvard only played three football games; most football teams really didn't play many games that year because of the flu."
Michigan and Pittsburgh, the aforementioned co-national champions, each played five games that season.
Local teams such as Arkansas and Oklahoma — which were both members of the Southwest Conference — also played limited schedules that season. The Razorbacks played just five games that season, going 3-2, while the Sooners had just six games to their credit.
But the Sooners won all six ballgames, giving them their sixth undefeated season in school history. Due to the limited schedules, the SWC didn't formally recognize a conference champion, though another one of its members, Texas, actually finished 9-0 overall.
The war also played a role in the 1918 college football season. To help boost morale among the troops, many military organizations fielded teams in order to play against collegiate programs.
Someone also made the observation that "football is one of the best training schools for the Army," another reason why football was still encouraged to be played during wartime.
In the fall of 1918, all able-bodied men between the ages 18 to 20 were scheduled to be drafted. But they had the option of enlisting in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), giving them an opportunity to pursue an education at the same time while also participating in a 12-week session training for the war.
One school which established the SATC was Arkansas, where its commanding officer mentioned training wouldn't disrupt the football season.
"Intercollegiate football games on the schedule of the University of Arkansas which will not interfere with military work have been formally authorized by Major George W. Martin, U.S.A. commanding officer of the Students Army Training Corps at the university," stated a late September article.
Norman C. Paine, who was entering his second season as the Razorbacks' coach, thought the military regimen would help his players.
"The hardening work called for by the rigorous military drill added to the two hours a day allotted for athletics will be more than sufficient to get the team into shape for a successful season, according to Dr. Norman C. Paine, football coach," the same late September article stated. "The fineness of football team work will probably not be equal to that of former seasons, but the physical stamina of his men should be superior because of the healthful diet and regular hours, Dr. Paine believes."
Although the Razorbacks would still have a season to play, they weren't allowed to have games against fellow SWC schools Texas and Rice.
Arkansas opened its season on Sept. 28 against one of those military organized teams, Camp Pike. But Camp Pike handed the Razorbacks a 6-0 defeat.
The Razorbacks then won their next two games, beating Missouri Mines (now Missouri University of Science and Technology), 6-0, and Fourth District Normal (now Missouri State), 12-6. Their next game fell on Nov. 16, a game at SWC foe Oklahoma.
As for the Sooners, it took them a while to get their season started, due to both the war and the flu pandemic. They got one game in before a delay before resuming in late October with a game against Central State (now University of Central Oklahoma).
"Permission of the military authorities has been obtained for this game, which will see Coach (Bennie) Owen's team in action after a long interval of practice," stated an article in the Oct. 18 edition of the Norman Transcript. "Daily work-outs on the field have been interfered with considerably by illness of players and the quarantine, which was lifted only a short time ago. Arrangements for practice now permit the football men to go directly to the gridiron from drill."
The Sooners went on to shut out Central State, 44-0, to go with shutout wins against Kansas and Post Field, based out of Fort Sill in southern Oklahoma, prior to their game in Norman against Arkansas.
Just 11 years to the day that Oklahoma officially became a state, it was all Sooners as they overwhelmed the Razorbacks, 103-0. To this day, it still stands as the most lopsided defeat in Arkansas football history.
"Perfect forward passing by the Oklahoma team and successful end runs held the Arkansas aggression helpless throughout," stated a game account.
The Sooners then had their toughest test of the season on Nov. 23 against now-defunct Phillips University, winning 13-7. Five days later, on Thanksgiving Day, Oklahoma finished off its undefeated season with a 27-0 win against arch-rival Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State).
Oklahoma left the SWC following the 1919 season. In 1920, playing in the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the Sooners went undefeated with a 6-0-1 record. It was the last undefeated season under Owen, who coached Oklahoma from 1905-26 and won 122 games.
On that same day Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma A&M, Arkansas was able to rebound from the lopsided loss to OU with a 23-6 win at home in its season finale against Henry Kendall College. The Razorbacks finished 3-2 in what turned out to be the final game under Paine, finishing his two-year reign with an 8-3-1 record.
High School Football
At the start of the school year in early September of 1918, Frank B. Bridges, the coach at Fort Smith High School, returned from a vacation in California raring to go.
"Physical culture work among the school children is recognized by the federal authorities as a most valuable aid in their development and future good health, and Coach Bridges expects to devote much of his attention to this feature of the work during the school session which is soon to begin," an article stated. "He is shaping up football plans also, and already has been assured of a number of good games here this fall."
Bridges also welcomed more than 30 players at the start of practice, as the team prepared for its season opener, scheduled for Oct. 5 against Heavener.
But it would be another month before Fort Smith was able to play its opener.
The flu pandemic really hit the city in September and into October, postponing that Fort Smith-Heavener game. Van Buren High School stepped in to face Heavener, but Van Buren didn't get that chance either.
Not because of the pandemic, but because of something else.
It seemed when Van Buren went to Fort Smith to take the train going to Heavener, the team missed the train due to confusion over the departure time. So that game didn't take place either, and it would be a long while before Van Buren was able to take the field.
In fact, it wasn't until the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 29, before Van Buren got to play a game. Van Buren ended up in a 6-6 tie against Fayetteville.
On Oct. 9, it was reported that there were 75 new cases of the Spanish flu in the Fort Smith area.
Then on Oct. 30, five people died from the pneumonia and more than 40 cases of flu were reported. Fort Smith High was still attempting to play its first game, but was advised not to by the state health department.
"It is hoped however by the health authorities that the conditions may so continue to improve that Sunday morning church services may be held and the quarantine removed next Monday," stated an Oct. 31 newspaper account. "That however, is subject to later developments."
Other places of public gathering, including schools, shows and lodges, were ordered closed. Movie theaters also shut its doors.
Finally, nearly a week later, on Nov. 2 as the pandemic considerably slowed down, Fort Smith was finally able to play its opener, though it had to go to Heavener to play it. So the team boarded a train bound for Heavener.
The layoff didn't affect Fort Smith any, as it rolled to a 52-0 win, holding Heavener to just five first downs. Then the following week, Nov. 9, Fort Smith returned home to face Muskogee, Okla., a rival team in what was called the "Big Cup game."
Most thought that Fort Smith didn't stand a chance against Muskogee, which had more players, including six substitutes to just three for Fort Smith. There was also the belief that the layoff due to the pandemic would play a major role.
An article published before the game mentioned not to pay attention to the "dope," or essentially the hype.
"But neither horses nor football teams always run true to 'dope,' and the local team this week will rub off every hint of the rawness of first games and enthusiastically bend every energy and talent to preparation for 'busting the dope,' and keeping that cup in Fort Smith this time," the article said.
Fort Smith was able to do just that, holding off Muskogee, 21-20, in an entertaining game which was filled with a bunch of trick plays.
"The game was well supported and the old time pep is back with the F.S.H.S.," read the game account from Nov. 10. "The Pep club was on the job."
Then the following Saturday, Nov. 16, Fort Smith rolled to a decisive win against Rogers, which featured five touchdowns. But in that same game, Fort Smith was being coached by one of its players, as the team captain, left tackle Charles Anderson, assumed coaching duties.
Where was Bridges? He was actually referring a football game in Oklahoma that same day.
On Nov. 23, with Bridges back in tow, Fort Smith traveled to Little Rock to take on the powerful Tigers of Little Rock High (now Little Rock Central). But two first-quarter touchdowns eventually was the difference as Little Rock came out victorious, 12-0.
The loss ended any hope Fort Smith had of winning a state championship.
Fort Smith did bounce back five days later, on Thanksgiving Day, posting a 25-6 win against the Dwight Indian School, based out of Marble City, Okla. But it still took a while for Fort Smith to wash the taste of the Little Rock loss out of its collective mouths.
At a pep rally in December to celebrate the football team's accomplishments, Anderson, the team captain, talked about that game.
"The statement of Captain Anderson that WE were beaten by the Spanish flu and not by our old enemy, Little Rock, met with loud applause," an account read.
"The Pep club, not in the least down-hearted, vowed vengeance next year with their old familiar cry."
And that cry went like this....
Oh me, Oh my, Won't we black that Tiger's eye.
Won't he weep, won't he wail, When we twist that Tiger's tail.
Along with baseball, boxing was considered one of the premier sports among Americans in 1918.
But that sport, too, was affected by the flu outbreak.
"Now the flu did impact boxing," Roberts said. "When you look at some of the great fighters back then like Jack Dempsey and Harry Greb and Benny Leonard, they would fight a couple of times a month. Most of them didn't fight in October, November and December because that was a really bad (time) for the flu, particularly October and then into November.“
Dempsey, who would take the heavyweight championship the following year, 1919, and hold it until 1926, actually fought in 17 matches in 1918, going 15-1 with one no-decision.
The heavyweight champion at the time was Jess Willard, who won the belt on 1915 before losing it to Dempsey in 1919. While he fought several times during his championship reign, Willard had only one official title defense, defeating Frank Moran in a 1916 bout.
Meanwhile, the National Football League was still one year away from officially being formed. No major golf events took place in 1918, while in tennis, the only major event which went on as scheduled was the United States Open. The World Figure Skating Championships were also not contested due to World War I.
While basketball was still in its stages of infancy, local high schools did field both boys and girls teams. In fact, the Heavener girls basketball team won the state championship, beating Ardmore 34-4 behind a strong performance from Jessie Crawford.
There was one major team sport which was greatly affected by the flu pandemic, but not in 1918.
In 1919, the Montreal Canadiens hockey team was facing the Seattle Metropolitans in the 1919 Stanley Cup Finals. But right before the sixth and deciding game of the series, several players contracted the Spanish flu, and one of them, Joseph "Bad Joe" Hall of the Canadiens, later died from pneumonia which was related to complications from the flu.
The Stanley Cup Finals were eventually cancelled due to the outbreak.
Although the armistice was signed to generally end World War I, there was still several periods of fighting along many areas of the Western Front across Europe.
Several days following the armistice, in one area, a group of German prisoners held by American soldiers received a surprise gift, a soccer ball.
"Amazed that their captors should give them such a privilege — in sharp contrast to treatment the Huns give their prisoners — the Germans at one prison stockade stared incredulously at the football thrown them," stated a wire article which ran Nov. 28. "It seemed too good to be true.
"Then shouting with delight, like children let out of school, the prisoners picked sides and played a game of soccer."
For the record, one side, which called themselves the Bavarians, prevailed five goals to one.