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Baseball’s Masked Flu Game

Obviously, we are in a very weird time for sports in our country. There is still a good chance that none of the major sports actually get to play a game this year. But if they do, will the players wear masks? It is not a far fetched idea and baseball does have one instance of this happening. Back in 1919, two teams in the California Winter League wore masks during the global flu pandemic.

Some Historical Context

There was a lot happening around the world in 1918-1919. World War I had just ended and baseball was put on pause for the war efforts. The government issued a “work or fight” order for the MLB which required players to either join the military or get a job at a factory that supported the war effort. After the war ended, players were able to come home and get back to playing ball. Then came the global flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Similar to today, the world was plunged into a public health crisis that affected around 500 million people. That is around 1/3 of the worlds population at the time.

After the Red Sox and the Cubs played in the World Series, many of the leagues top talents went west to play in the California Winter League. Similar to present day winter leagues, this provided the players a chance to play some ball in the offseason to stay fresh for the following season. Some of the notable players included Chick Gandil of the White Sox (key member of the 1919 Black Sox scandal),  Art Griggs of the Tigers, and Johnny Rawlings of the Boston Braves.

The Masked Game itself

A second wave of the flu hit southern California hard during the fall of 1918. Just like today, schools, theaters, and public gatherings of any kind were shut down. On January 18, 1919, the city of Pasadena required that flu masks be worn at all times in public; even dogs had to follow this order.

On January 26, two teams prepared to play a game at Carmelita Park (just north of the Rose Bowl), while still following the law and wearing masks. The game was played between the Pasadena Merchants and the Pasadena Standard Oil. It was a very high scoring game, as winter league games usually are. Chick Gandil ended up scoring the winning run for the Standard Oil team.

The mask ordinance was then lifted four days later, which was celebrated by Pasadena’s citizens. The general public did not know much about this game when it first happened, but when the pictures started to circulate weeks later, the story gained a lot of publicity. By the time the 1919 season began, the pandemic was mostly over, but baseball was not out of trouble yet. Little did they know, baseball would have a new problems in October of that year when the heavily favored White Sox threw the World Series against the Reds.

Final Thoughts

We have seen pictures from summer camp circulating of players wearing masks while practicing. If Mike Trout can wear a mask while trying to hit a high 90s fastball, you can wear a mask at Trader Joes. The masks aren’t there to protect you, we wear them to protect the people we care about, and every person we encounter throughout the day. It is possible to play baseball while wearing masks. If they can do it in 1919, people can do it in 2020.

I also need to give credit to my source for all of this information. Check out this link from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), for more information. It is a fascinating read, I highly recommend it.

-Pete Chatterton (@Pchat12)

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