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In 1918, as a pandemic ripped through Connecticut, Babe Ruth drew big crowds at the worst possible time

Dom Amore, The Hartford Courant on

Published in Baseball

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The third week of September 1918 was indeed an exciting time for Hartford and its sports fans. The Red Sox had wrapped up a championship season, shortened by The Great War, on Sept. 11 when Babe Ruth defeated the Cubs, 2-1, in Game 6 of the World Series at Fenway Park. And as the pandemic that would kill more Americans than the Civil War was storming through Connecticut, so was Ruth, age 23 and already baseball's biggest attraction, a man who could not possibly have grasped the concept of social distancing.

The Babe lived to draw crowds, and his postseason tour drew 5,000 fans to the Hartford Baseball Grounds off Wethersfield Avenue on Sept. 15, and 3,000 more when he returned on Sept. 23.

Though there is no indication that anyone thought to cancel these games, staged to benefit Hartford's soldiers fighting in Europe, and Ruth didn't disappoint -- but this was obviously not the time.

"It was right in that week of the 15th to the 22nd that the numbers exploded around Boston," said Skip Desjardin of West Hartford, author of the book, "September 1918: War, Plague and the World Series," "so the timing of 500 cases in Hartford by the end of the week matches what was happening next door, making it as the worst possible time to be pressed up against other fans at a ballgame. But who could resist going out to see Ruth?"

The first strain of the deadly influenza, which in those days was also called "the grip," came though in the spring, and Ruth, that once-in-a-century combo of pitching and hitting prowess, got seriously ill, his fever hitting 104 in May. When a doctor treated his sore throat with too much silver nitrate, his larynx swelled and he nearly died. But he recovered to go 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA and tie for the American League lead with 11 home runs as he transitioned from hurler to slugger and led the Red Sox to the Series, winning two games on the mound.

By autumn, another strain was back in the United States, spreading from the ports -- Boston, where Camp Devens was the site of a horrific outbreak, and New London among them -- and the soldiers who were gathering to go overseas.

 

"As the World Series was played in Boston Sept. 9, 10, 11, by that time, we know what's going on -- it's spreading," said Randy Roberts, professor of history at Purdue and co-author with Johnny Smith of "War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America In The Shadow Of The Great War." "And clearly, what is shown by this barnstorming tour is that people weren't paying attention. We shouldn't have been in large crowds."

Barnstorming was a way of life for star players of the era. The only way for many fans to see them was in exhibition games played in places where there were no major league teams. During this trip, Ruth told reporters that Hartford was his favorite city to visit on such tours, and while he may have said that everywhere he went, he did make numerous appearances here between 1918 and 1945.

James H. Clarkin, owner of the Hartford Senators, journeyed to Boston on Sept. 9 as the Red Sox and Cubs were arriving from Chicago to finish the World Series, with designs on getting both teams to come to Hartford and play a series of games, offering a guarantee of $1,000 to each team and a cut of the gate. Because attendance was low, only 15,000 on hand at Fenway to watch Ruth win the deciding game, the players' shares were to be reduced and they nearly went on strike to cancel the Series. Ultimately, they played, but the winners' share was $1,100 and the idea of making a few more bucks on the side was appealing. Most players were heading into the army. Ruth, his catcher, Sam Agnew, Ray Fisher of the Yankees and a handful of other major leaguers signed on. Money was raised to buy athletic equipment for Hartford's soldiers overseas, and a ball Ruth hit for a triple during the World Series was auctioned off for $195. Ruth, The Courant reported, received $350 for the game on Sept. 15, and probably the same for his second appearance.

On Sept. 14, three days after the end of the World Series, Ruth agreed to play first base at New Haven's Lighthouse Grounds for the "Colonials," and he hit a home run in a loss to a team of all-stars from the Negro Leagues. That night, he arrived in Hartford in a car draped with the American Flag and was ushered into the Hotel Bond, where a large crowd gathered for a reception. Out of character, he went to bed early.

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