art for the story

The “boos” rained down from the stands each time a player came to the plate.

The nation was letting their voices be heard.

Cheating, as they saw the scandal, is not acceptable for America’s favorite pastime.

Amid a presidential race with calls for a change, not wanting any Russian influence, Americans started wearing masks to cover their faces — trying to stave off a pandemic that brought the world to a standstill.

And terrorism continues to be a threat.

This was a month ago in our nation’s history ... and this was a century ago, as well.

People have been talking about the Spanish flu in 1920 and comparing that to today’s COVID-19 pandemic. History might not repeat itself, but there certainly are echoes from that era — from baseball to politics — that resonate today.

But what did we learn?

Our current sign-stealing baseball scandal broke late last year for the Houston Astros and was the talk of all the sports stations for months. But the last time that happened in our history was when the Chicago White Sox were coming off their infamous World Series.

Unlike then, there was no interruption in the sports world due to the pandemic. In 1920, the country already had been dealing with the Spanish flu for two years and moved forward.

“That story of that influenza outbreak then is the least understood story of the 20th century. And one of the most impactful,” said Anthony G. Gulig, associate history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “One of the few times in history where our population declined.”

There has been much talk in the last month about the Spanish flu and how similarities of then and now can be made. And while there was no air travel for Americans a century ago, illness did spread quickly across the globe.

According to scholars who have studied that period, Gulig said, the Spanish flu actually started in Kansas and New York. And as America entered World War I, the disease shot around the globe, claiming more than 50 million lives.

One can imagine how the rest of the world 100 years ago could have labeled the Spanish Flu as the “American virus,” he said.

So how did the Spanish flu get that name if its source was nowhere near Spain?

Well, Spain had no restrictions on the press, so newspapers reported on the outbreak.

“Leading people to believe it was the center of the outbreak,” Gulig said. “It had nothing to do with it.”

The outbreak started in 1917 when the U.S. entered the war. Then waves hit during the next spring and summer. Over the next few years, the flu had struck all parts of the world, including some of the hardest-affected places like India.

One of the problems was that global health was much different then, with many younger people malnourished. And for soldiers who were in the war, they were exposed to chemical weapons.

“Older people were less impacted,” Gulig said. “They likely had been part of a strain earlier.”

And had built up immunity.

There also was social distancing then. Block after block, houses were labeled with quarantine signs.

“Social isolation really helped slow down (the outbreak),” Gulig said.

The year also saw big changes, including, for the first time, more people living in cities than rural settings.

States also were in charge of how they dealt with the outbreak, with some not acting soon enough. Philadelphia was the epicenter in America.

“Some cities did a better job. Philadelphia did not do a good job,” said Richard P. Haven, a professor of communication at UW-Whitewater whose focus is on political communication and American public address.

“They had a parade and didn’t cancel,” he said. “And hundreds of thousand came to watch the parade.”

If you want to compare that to today, he said, think about the outbreak of COVID-19 after Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

While pictures of people wearing masks is a common sight today, it was back then, too.

“What’s interesting about that, is if you look at photos from the flu, you will look at police in the streets who will have masks,” Haven said of the second wave.

He said that even though countries knew about the flu, they kept quiet.

“They did not want for this to affect the war effort,” he said.

The flu strain in 1920 was an H1N1 virus. And for those who remember back a few years, a similar strain hit the world again in 2009 as the Swine Flu.

“There are parallels to what we are seeing today. They weren’t well prepared and didn’t catch that early enough,” Haven said.

And no one was immune to getting it.

As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently was released from the hospital after a bout with COVID-19, many historians believe President Woodrow Wilson had contracted Spanish flu while in Paris for a peace conference in April 1919. A short time later, he also suffered a stroke.

“While he was in Paris, he collapsed,” Haven said. “Some believed he got the flu. For the last two years of presidency, he was incapacitated. His second wife actually was running the country.”

As changes started to take place in the beginning of the 1920, women got the right to vote, baseball still was trying to deal with what happened the previous season, with a trial still a year away, and a terrorist attack rocked Wall Street when a bomb exploded, killing 38.

The election, however, went on as planned, with the Democrats trying to figure out who would be their nominee.

And the Republicans were offering change from one of the most difficult years of the 20th century.

There are some parallels to the political race of today in 1920, said Eric Loepp, a political science professor at UW-Whitewater.

“If you could compare the challenger to the incumbent they both have this return to normalcy (campaign), but not related to a pandemic,” he said.

Even before COVID-19, Joe Biden’s campaign talked about going back the Obama years.

But what stood out about the election in 1920 was that of the four people on the tickets — Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge for the Republicans, and James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democrats — three of them eventually would become president of the United States.

Comparing the two races a century apart, there isn’t a repeat of history, Loepp said, but, rather, echoes.

“Harding had a front-porch campaign and groups of people would come up to hear him speak. Kind of the digital version of hearing Joe Biden speaking from his basement,” Loepp said.

The Spanish flu back then was only one of four or five major issues the country was facing, he said.

“That was only one card in the stack,” Loepp said of the war, labor strikes and race riots impacting society.

There also were movements to oust Russian influence and communists from America’s government.

While the Russian involvement in the last election has not been discussed of late, it is a topic that might come back if things go back to “normal” before November’s election.

So, what happened in the election of 1920?

At the Republican convention, Harding was chosen after 10 rounds of balloting.

“Reading about the convention that year, when we compare that to now, was that Harding was calm and steady, but not a terribly flashy candidate,” Loepp said. “But nobody wanted that at the time. He would be kind of boring, but that is what people were looking for.”

And the voters picked a new direction.

“The Democrats were sent to an amazing defeat,” Gulig said.

When Wilson went to Paris, he went there with grand ideas of fairness for all countries involved in the “Great War.” But he was battling health issues, and things changed.

By the end of World War I, Germany was hit hard. The grand plans that Wilson had didn’t come to fruition. And two decades later, Germany invades Poland and World War II begins.

But you can’t look back and play the game of “what ifs,” Gulig said.

“America went back into isolationism after that,” Haven said. “And didn’t want to be involved with Europe again until World War II.”

But the parallels between now and a century ago start even earlier, Haven said.

In the 1990s, America was coming off a quick conflict in the Gulf War, and two years before the start of the 20th Century, America also had a quick war ... the Spanish-American war.

Then, over the next 20 years, America was faced with another war, social changes and a tough economy.

“It was a turbulent time trying to deal with social changes,” Haven said. “Immigration was a big issue like today.

“I think it’s a reminder to us that we are better off when we learn from the past,” said the professor, who also is a political analyst for WMTV in Madison. “Had we been better prepared for this pandemic by studying that one then, maybe we would have been a done a better job.”

While dealing with all of this, the country in 1920 also had another problem on its hands — no alcohol.

Bars and stores could not sell alcohol because of Prohibition that began at the start of that year.

But by the middle part of the ‘20s, the country was “Roaring.”

And, oh yes, people found how to get alcohol.

There also was another big shift.

After the war, gender roles changed in the U.S. A lot of women weren’t interested in going back to being a homemaker. And people were ready to have fun again.

“A tremendous social change,” Gulig said.

“I think a lot of people saw the ‘20s in a sense of eat, drink and be merry.”

Sports fans began their love affair begin with the gridiron as the National Football League held its first season as the American Professional Football Association. That year, the Akron Pros were named the champions based on their undefeated record, edging out the Decatur Staleys, which would become the Chicago Bears.

Two years later, the Green Bay Packers would join that league and win three consecutive championships before the Bears would win one.

Maybe some things never change.

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