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From strikes to world wars to pandemics — the history of shutting down America’s sports

FILE: Groundskeeper Rich Wheeler waters down the infield at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Mich., Friday, Aug. 12, 1994, on the first day of the Major League Baseball strike that year. The Tigers were supposed to host the California Angels later that evening, but the game had to be cancelled. The strike lasted 232 days and canceled 948 total games and wiped out the entire 1994 MLB postseason.
Lennox McLendon, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — It takes a lot to come between Americans and their sports. To bring our games to a stop requires apocalyptic events — world war and pestilence (sometimes at the same time). Oh, and also labor issues, the bane of professional sports.

What exactly has stopped sports over the years? Glad you asked.

Strikes/workstoppages

There are too many to explain each event, but it’s enough to say they were largely about somebody trying to make more money. It’s a relatively new phenomena; the first one didn’t occur until 1972, according to Newsday. The sheer number of them might surprise you. Major League Baseball (eight) is the undisputed champ of labor discord.

1972 — MLB strike (6-8 games lost per team)

1973 — MLB lockout (no games lost)

1976 — MLB lockout (no games lost)

1980 — MLB strike (no games lost)

1981 — MLB strike (713 games canceled)

1982 — NFL strike (seven regular-season games lost per team)

1985 — MLB strike (25 games postponed and played later)

1987 — NFL strike (one week of games canceled, replacements used for three weeks)

1990 — MLB lockout (no games lost)

1992 — NHL strike (30 games postponed)

1994 — NHL lockout (season shortened to 48 games per team)

1994-95 — MLB strike (948 games canceled, including all of the 1994 postseason; canceled 18 games for each team to start the 1995 season)

1998 — NBA lockout (32 games canceled per team)

2004 — NHL lockout (season canceled)

2011 — NFL lockout (no games lost)

2011 — NBA lockout (each team lost 16 regular-season games)

2012 — NHL lockout (each team lost 34 games)

World war

In a curious case of bad timing, the Olympic Games were awarded twice to cities that would be at the heart of world war in the years they were scheduled to host the Games — Berlin in 1916, and Tokyo in 1940. The 1916 Berlin Games were canceled because of World War I, and 30 years later the Games were held in Berlin, just as Germany was about to start WWII. The Games of 1940 were moved from Tokyo to Helsinki after Japan made war against China, and then a year later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Anyway, the Games of 1940, as well as the Games of 1944, were canceled because of World War II, and 20 years later the Games were held in Tokyo. (As a side note: The 2020 Summer Games were scheduled once again for Tokyo but were postponed one year because of the pandemic.)

Elsewhere …

The grand slam events for golf and tennis were canceled during both world wars for a varying number of years. The British (golf) Open lost 11 years and Wimbledon 10 between the two wars.

The 1943 NFL season was shortened to 10 games and only eight teams competed because of WWII. Because so many players left the league to serve in the war, the Cleveland Browns canceled their season and the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers merged teams.

Many universities suspended their programs in 1943 and returned a year later. During the 1944 college football season, more than half of the teams ranked in the final AP Top 20 poll were military schools or bases. Army was declared the national champion and Randolph Field — a training base for the Army Air Corps — was No. 3, followed by No. 4 Navy, No. 5 Bainbridge Naval Training Center and No. 6 Iowa Pre-Flight.

After much debate and discussion during these times, most high school competition continued, although gas rationing limited travel for some games.

Most automobile races, including the Indianapolis 500, were suspended during WWII due to a shortage of gas and rubber, which were being used in the war effort.

During the 1940s, baseball was easily the most popular sport in America. In January 1942, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking if he should cancel the season because of the war. Roosevelt replied — in what became known as the Green Light Letter — “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” He requested that the games be played at night so day-shift workers could attend the games. Baseball was played throughout the war, but some 500 Major League players — and more than 2,000 minor leaguers — left baseball to fight the war, including stars Ted Williams and Stan Musial, according to the American Veterans Center.

In 1942, the NHL, according to a story posted on its website, came close to shutting down play during World War II, with much discussion in both Canada and the U.S. The league eventually played on, largely for the morale of both countries, but with one caveat: That no player would be absolved from military duty to play hockey.

“The military status of every player of the NHL is known to the government,” said NHL president Red Dutton, who was a World War I hero and had lost two sons in the second war. “All the players have either been rejected or discharged as medically unfit, or are deferred as farmers on seasonal work.”

If he recognized the irony of that statement, he didn’t mention it.

Pandemic (and war)

Major League Baseball opened the 1917 season on April 11; five days earlier the U.S. officially entered World War I. The game played on, but Major League Baseball considered canceling the 1918 season, when the world was hit with a double whammy — the continuation of the war and the Spanish flu pandemic. Like Roosevelt and Donald Trump decades later, President Woodrow Wilson decided the nation needed the sport, although he requested that the regular season end by Sept. 1.

The 1918 regular season was reduced from 154 games to 130. The players wore masks — even in the batter’s box — as did the umpires, coaches and fans. There was a shortage of players because so many of them were overseas fighting the war. They had to find replacements, which is why the Boston Red Sox went to their pitchers to find a new hitter — a lefty named Babe Ruth.

Meanwhile, the Spanish flu came in three waves in 1918 — spring, fall and winter. Historians blame the 1918 World Series, as well as the return of soldiers from the war, for the more deadly second wave after the first wave had subsided. The soldiers arriving from overseas in Boston, combined with the World Series crowds in that city, spread a more virulent strain of the virus.

In March 1919, the Stanley Cup Finals was canceled, hours before Game 6 was scheduled to start, after several players became ill. No champion was crowned.

The 1918 college football season was a mix of canceled seasons and shortened schedules. Several schools and at least one conference canceled their football seasons. Schools cut their schedules almost in half, playing five games.

College basketball, which began in 1939, was played through World War II (Utah won the 1944 NCAA championship).

It would be 102 years before another pandemic brought sports to a halt again. In 2020, the NCAA canceled its postseason tournament for the first time in history. The grand slam events for golf and tennis were postponed or canceled, along with many other tournaments. Collegiate and high school spring sports were canceled, sidelining thousands of athletes.

The NBA suspended its regular season after teams had played between 64 and 65 games of the scheduled 82-game season. The league is now planning to resume, with scrimmages set to start Wednesday and regular-season games on July 30, without fans in the stands.

Major League Baseball canceled spring training play, but will begin a shortened season later this week.

The NHL suspended play and plans to resume with a 24-team tournament on Aug. 1 in two locations.

So far, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 have announced they will play only conference games in 2020.

The NFL still plans to play its season in some form.

Stay tuned.