The coronavirus pandemic has taken a huge toll on pro sports. At the moment, it remains unclear when, where, and how the NBA, NFL, and MLB will get started again. Even once leagues begin to start up again, chances are games will be played without fans for months to come.
For all but the oldest sports fans, the effects of COVID-19 on sports are unprecedented. Yet as the oldest major pro sport in the U.S., Major League Baseball has weathered several global crises in the course of its existence. Let’s look back at two traumatic world events of the 20th century and how baseball was involved.
The origin story of baseball
According to one story, the game was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. Historians have largely debunked that explanation, although the actual origins of the game remain a subject of some debate. References to baseball-like games go back all the way to the 18th century, and likely evolved from English sports like rounders and cricket.
Baseball as well know it stems from 1845 and the formation of the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. The first official baseball game was played the following year. Although the game continued to evolve and change over the course of the following decades, the basic rules of baseball remain remarkably true to that first iteration of the sport.
The World War I crisis
In 1917, the U.S. officially joined in the global struggle now known as World War I. By that time, baseball was well-established as the national pastime. A young Babe Ruth was already making his mark one of the league’s best players. The 1917 season played out mostly unaffected by the war. Although many teams held charity events to raise money for the war effort.
By 1918, however, the situation overseas had grown far more serious. In order to turn the tides of the war, the United States had to ramp up its efforts. In May, the government instituted what was known as a “work or fight” rule. It required all draft-eligible men to sign up for military service if they were not engaged in useful work otherwise.
As you can probably guess, baseball didn’t make the cut as far as “useful” work went. Instead, almost 40% of the league’s active players entered military service. The season ended up getting significantly cut down. The beginning of the 1919 season was also delayed. Until 2020 and the coronavirus, that was the only time that baseball seasons were cut short due to global events.
Baseball as a cultural bridge in the 1950s
World War II also had a significant effect on the sport of baseball. President Franklin Roosevelt officially allowed baseball to continue during the war. But as many as 500 MLB players left to join the military. Prior to the WWII, baseball had made efforts to expand its overseas reach. The war stalled those efforts, which didn’t pick back up again until 1953.
At that point, the United States was just wrapping up its participation in another war—the Korean War. In June 1953, the New York Giants accepted an invitation to play a series of exhibition games in Japan. The sport was already popular in Japan, and the country has its own budding baseball league. The trip was seen as a valuable effort in the healing of WWII-related wounds between the two countries.
The exhibition series was considered a huge success, and paved the way for more visits in the following years. The New York Yankees toured Japan following their 1955 World Series loss. Japanese fans met them with appreciation. Subsequent MLB tours continued until well into the 1980s.