Sports Playbook During 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

Story by: HOF Executive Producer George Veras

It is interesting to see how the NFL, with the advantage that its season does not need to become operational until training camps in July, has proceeded with business as usual for the NFL Draft and Thursday’s announcement of its 2020 preseason and regular-season schedule.

It is not the first time that football has led the hope during a pandemic.

In 1918, it was by presidential decree.

Boxing, horse racing, baseball and college football were America’s most popular sports attractions in 1918 when the Spanish Flu hit. Baseball and horse racing continued business as usual, but precautions were taken.


During the pandemic of 1918, the World Series was held after an abbreviated regular season. Though ill-advised from a medical perspective, the Red Sox and Cubs were given dispensation until Sept. 15 to play the World Series, and the Red Sox defeated the Cubs four games to two, bolstered by the pitching performance of a young lefthander named Babe Ruth.

On May 11, 1918, the great gelding Exterminator won the Kentucky Derby but no masks.


Throughout Kentucky Derby Day in 1918, school children started a “swat the fly” campaign, evidently in an effort to curtail contagion from the dreaded flu.  The Triple Crown went off as planned in 191,8 as did the remainder of the racing schedule.

In the second (and last) year of the pandemic, 1919, the racing calendar again went ahead as planned despite the influenza that was killing so many victims.

President Woodrow Wilson felt that football added to the overall morale of the country fighting Spanish Flu and on the World War I battlefront.  As a result, football teams were created at various military posts around the country and actually played against established college teams.

“It would be difficult to overestimate the value of football experience as a part of the soldier’s training,” President Wilson wrote in a letter that eventually was published in 1919.

Many schools were not able to play until late October or early November. The annual Army-Navy game was not played. Many schools played only three or four games.

Georgia Tech, which had won the national championship the year before, did not start its season until Oct. 5. When it started playing, there was no slowing down the Golden Tornadoes. They beat Furman, 118-0; the Oglethorpe 11th Calvary, 123-0 (in a game that was stopped after the third quarter); and N.C. State, 128-0, and went on to win the national championship again. 


Despite the threat of the flu, fans turned out at Georgia Tech. It’s clear the vast majority of the spectators in the photo were wearing masks in what published reports said was the peak of the flu in October and November.

So here we are, about 90 days away the start of the NFL season in Canton with the scheduled NFL preseason kickoff on NBC: the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Hall’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. The game is sold out.

Two unknown issues remain: What will be the state of Ohio’s plan for an outdoor stadium event with 23,000 spectators? And will the NFL get all its players into the 32 training camps in time to play this game and the full season?

Given the past adaptions made in the American sporting world, you can be assured there are many contingency plans being made to give pro football a “sporting” chance to play in 2020.