Looking back at the history of pandemics and sports, it was striking to discover that when the Stanley Cup final was called off on the eve of what would have been the deciding game between the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Seattle Metropolitans, the news got all of one paragraph in The New York Times.
On April 2, 1919, a tiny headline on page 12 read, “Title Hockey Series Called Off.” The news item—which ran below stories on amateur golf, a possible postponement of the Olympics, a boat race in Poughkeepsie, a squash match in Brooklyn, and a controversial boxing decision in England—read:
“SEATTLE, Washington — The world’s championship hockey series between Seattle and Montreal has been called off, it was announced here today.”
The reason for the cancellation of the Stanley Cup was the influenza pandemic, one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, reportedly infecting more than a quarter of the world’s population, with an estimated death toll anywhere between 17 to 50 million. It struck so many players in the series that there was no way to play on. Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall, age 37, died on April 5 after his flu turned into pneumonia.
Hall’s death did not make the Times, though that news was fit to print for The Arizona Republican, with the small headline “DEATH OF HOCKEY PLAYER.” It ran on Page 2, in between “JEW AND CHRISTIAN TO GET TOGETHER” and “NEW HUNGARIAN CABINET,” and next to “TY COBB AGAIN A TIGER” and “ALLEGED BIGAMIST COMMITS SUICIDE.”
As the sports world reels from the devastating effects of COVID-19, we looked back at newspaper coverage of 1919 to get a sense of the flu pandemic and its connection to sports, it seems like a different universe. Even though a player in a championship series died from the disease ravaging the world, aside from the Stanley Cup Challenge, the sports world mostly went on—that was just how it was. There was much more focus on World War I, which itself was the reason that the Rose Bowl that year was the Great Lakes Naval Station against the Mare Island Marines.
It’s that Rose Bowl, for as strange to 2020 as that matchup hits, that gives us one thing from 1919 that rings quite familiar: a former college football star trying to make his way as a New York outfielder.
“Young Halas appears to have displayed oodles of real baseball knowledge during his prep school days,” was what the New York Tribune wrote about George Halas on Feb. 15, 1919, six weeks after he was MVP of the Rose Bowl for a performance that included a 32-yard touchdown reception and a 77-yard interception return. The Tribune quoted George Huff of the University of Illinois calling Halas “one of the most capable, versatile athletes I have ever seen.”
If that sounds oddly familiar, it’s because you remember quotes, like this about a young Tim Tebow: “Everybody should know this: he wasn’t just a great football player, he was a great baseball player, too. I believe he could have played in the big leagues. … He was a six-tool player. He had arm strength, he could run, he could hit for power, he could field, but his character made him that six-tool guy.”
Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, has hit .233 with 18 home runs in 1,048 trips to the plate over the course of three minor-league seasons, including 98 strikeouts in 239 at-bats with Triple-A Syracuse last season. He was 2-for-13 in spring training with the Mets this year.
Halas, on the other hand, appeared on track for baseball stardom, and was on his way to being the Yankees’ starting right fielder when calamity struck during an exhibition game against the “Brooklyn Lallapaloos” on April 1.
“Young Halas was plastering himself with smears of glory, but right after connecting for a triple he pulled up at third rubbing his right thigh and showing other symptoms of the dread charley horse,” wrote W.O. McGeehan in the Herald-Tribune.
As Daniel (yes, he went with just Daniel for his byline) wrote in The Sun on April 12, 1919, “As a member of the Great Lakes Naval Station nine last summer he played so fine an all-around game that major league scouts predicted a great career for him in the big show.” Yankees manager Miller Huggins tapped Halas as the starting right fielder, but, “Then Halas sprung a charley horse and he has been out of the games with Brooklyn ever since.”
Halas made it back in May, and was the leadoff man for the Yankees when he made his major league debut against the Philadelphia A’s on May 6. He went 1-for-4 with a single, then singled again two days later.
And, that was it for major league hits for George Halas.
He went 0-for-5 on May 11 in a 0-0 tie against Washington, 0-for-4 the next day, and lost the right field job to Sammy Vick. The next year, the Yankees found someone else to play the position: one George Herman “Babe” Ruth, purchased from the Boston Red Sox.
Halas’ major league career ended much like the 1919 Stanley Cup final: with one paragraph at the bottom of page 12 of a New York paper. It was The Sun, on July 12, with this item:
“CLEVELAND, Ohio, July 11 — The release to the American Association teams of two players by the New York American League Baseball Club was announced to-day by Manager Miller Huggins. Outfielder George Halas goes to St. Paul and Infielder John Jones to Toledo.”
Things worked out okay for the 24-year-old, as Halas turned his attention back to football, and that’s where the Tebow similarities diverge. In the fall of 1919, Halas suited up with the Hammond All-Stars and then went on to the Decatur Staleys in the new American Professional Football Association in 1920. Owner A.E. “Gene” Staley gave Halas control of the team and moved it to Chicago in 1921, paying him $5,000 to keep the name for that season. Halas renamed his team the Bears in 1922, and it went pretty well for him from there. Tebow? He could have been a contender on “Dancing With the Stars.”