Labor strife, war, assassinations, riots, an earthquake and a virus: A 100 year log of cancelled sports

Nothing in the past has ever stopped sporting events in their tracks the way COVID-19 has this year. With few exceptions, sports have been at a standstill since March.

March Madness, the Tokyo Olympics, Wimbledon and so many other events, big and small, pro and amateur, can fill a long page. The NBA and NHL have taken big hits and like other sports they’re trying to cobble and squeeze something together to make up for lost time. MLB has lost so many games already and announced a 60 game schedule yesterday.

And who really knows where we’re headed. Projections of a second wave and new cases continue to appear in the news on a daily basis.

The NFL and college football will be put to the test in the weeks and months ahead. If games are played, it’s a foregone conclusion that fans won’t elbow their way into stadiums.

We’ve heard the word unprecedented over and over because no scourge like this has ever beset American sports.

We looked back 100 plus years to see how events or developments, caused by both internal or external forces,  affected schedules. Presidential deaths, wars, labor strife, health scares and unrest on the streets have taken tolls on sports. They’ve never been good but never as bad as now. Let’s look back:

Sports Affected by WWI and the 1918 Flu Pandemic 

September, 1918  Due to World War I (called the Great War then), the MLB season was shortened. The World Series started early, September 5th. The Red Sox beat the Cubs in six games. Boston wouldn’t win another championship until 2004.

The war broke out in Europe in 1914, America entered the conflict in April, 1917 and the battles ended in November, 1918. The USA lost more personnel to disease, 63,114, than to combat, 53,402.

The pandemic of 1918 killed some 675,000 Americans overall and approximately 50 million worldwide. Back then, updates were essentially delivered by newspapers. Commercial radio wasn’t born in America until 1921.  

  • In 1916, the Summer Olympic Games were canceled because of WWI. They were scheduled to be hosted by the German Empire in Berlin. Germany would infamously host the Games in 1936.
  • In 1918, MLB owners reduced the regular season schedule from 154 games to 140, due to war and the influenza.
  • The flu and the war limited attendance at the 1918 World Series games in Chicago and Boston.
  • Players were declared “Nonessential workers” by Secretary of the War, Newton Baker. A handful of baseball players died from the flu as did umpire Francis O’Loughlin, considered among the best at the time. He was 42.
  • Major cities cancelled high school and college sports.
  • U.S. teams didn’t enter the NHL until the 1920s. The NFL didn’t launch until 1920 and the NBA didn’t start until 1946.

1920s and 30s  Interest in baseball swelled in the Inter-War years and the NFL struggled along until the late 1950s. Boxing, college football and Major League Baseball took the spotlight. There are no noted cancellations, none due to the stock market crash or the economic depression. Radio broadcasts helped build interest in sports.

Impact of Sports During WWII

December 7, 1941  Pearl Harbor is attacked and America enters the war. In January 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested to MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that baseball continue in the hope of serving as a diversion at home. The letter became known as the Green Light Letter. More women, whose husbands were serving in the military, took an interest in the game. MLB though was played with many minor leaguers because so many big names were in the military.

January 1, 1942  Less than a month after the attack at Pearl Harbor, there was concern that the Japanese might bomb America’s west coast. As such, the Rose Bowl was moved to Durham, North Carolina. (Bill Stern did the game on the NBC Radio Network live from Carolina. Ken Carpenter checked in, reporting from an eerily empty Rose Bowl in Pasadena). 

June 6, 1944  On D-Day, when the Allies invaded Europe. houses of worship were left open all day to encourage prayers for our troops landing in France. Baseball games were cancelled. (Dodgers’ voice Red Barber was likely the most popular broadcaster of the day. The Phillies-Dodgers game in Brooklyn that June 6th was cancelled. During the war, Red Barber led a blood drive on his broadcasts. To that point, the word blood was used sparingly on broadcasts of any sort. He also taught women baseball and gave them the basics on how to score games at home.)

WWII lasted from 1939 to 1945 and involved more than thirty countries around the world. Some other effects of the war on sports:

  • Some colleges cancelled the football season entirely during the time of war, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford.
  • 1943, ’44 and ’45 Three Masters were cancelled
  • During WWII, the 1940 and 1944 Summer Olympics were canceled.
  • More than 500 MLBers served in the military during the war including stars Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson. Eventual broadcasters like Jack Buck, Jack Whitaker, Jerry Coleman and others came back to our shores as war heroes.
  • The 1945 All-Star Game in Boston was cancelled by request of the Office of Defense Transportation.
  • In 1943, with players in the military, two NFL teams merged temporarily for lack of players, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles became the Steagles. The NFL was forced to re-sign players who had already retired.
  • The Cleveland Rams (later the Los Angeles Rams) suspended their season because a significant number of players and owner Dan Reeves were drafted into the military.

April 14, 1945  Baseball games were canceled two days following the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, our only four-term president.

October, 1962  The Cuban Missile Crisis was about as close as the Soviet Union and the United States came to a nuclear conflict during the Cold War. The world was frightened. Any one move could have wiped out sections of the globe. The young United States President, John Kennedy, 45, stood up to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, 68, during a hair-raising stretch of time. No sports were cancelled and thankfully the world moved on.

November 22, 1963  President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday. The American Football League cancelled its games scheduled for the following Sunday. The NFL played its schedule but the league’s television network (CBS) didn’t run the games.   

  • At the time, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered the games played just two days after the assassination. He later publicly regretted it, calling it the one decision he wished he had back. This said, after the 9/11 attacks, sports brought the country together and the Rozelle Kennedy decision was viewed in a different light. By then, Rozelle had passed.
  • The NBA rescheduled three games on the day of the assassination.
  • Most colleges canceled their football games on Saturday, November 23. The big rivalry game between Oklahoma and Nebraska proceeded in Lincoln. Attendance was hardly at full capacity. At the end of its meeting at which the decision to play was made, the Nebraska Board of Regents issued a statement, “The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, deeply sorrowful of the death of President Kennedy, believes the people of Nebraska would have the NebraskaOklahoma game played as scheduled.”  

March 8, 1965  Beginning of American engagement in the Vietnam War when our Marines landed in South Vietnam.

Few NFLers served in Vietnam. According to the gifted writer/reporter, Sally Jenkins, the NFL pulled strings to help avoid its players from being drafted in the deadly conflict.

NFL teams intervened directly so players could avoid facing calls from their local draft boards and possible lengthy commitments to the armed forces.”

Muhammad Ali appealed his conviction in 1967 for refusing to report for induction into the United States military forces. His local draft board had rejected Ali’s application to be exempted on the grounds of being a conscientious objector. In a unanimous 8–0 ruling, the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction that had been upheld by the Fifth Circuit. Ali was exonerated.

Nine Minor League baseball players died in combat. No Major Leaguers are noted as victims in Vietnam.

November 9, 1965  The Great Northeast Blackout. It was a Tuesday and the region went dark. The Northeast had a power outage for 13 hours. It affected more than 30 million people.The Knicks-St. Louis Hawks game at Madison Square Garden was cancelled. New York’s first call-in sports talk show with Bill Mazer on WNBC was knocked off the air when the lights went out in afternoon drive.

April 8, 1967  (Interesting footnote) The Boston Celtics played the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference playoffs. There was an AFTRA strike so Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman wouldn’t work. Chuck Howard and Chet Forte, usually a producer and director team respectively, called the game. It’s available on YouTube. (ABC). Publication contributor Michael Green points out that due the same AFTRA strike, CBS used off-air staff to broadcast the Masters. They included CBS Sports chief, Bil MacPhail and legendary golf producer/director Frank Chirkinian. 

April 4, 1968  Assassination of Civil Rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King. President Lyndon Johnson declared April 7th a day of national mourning. The NBA and NHL rescheduled playoff games. MLB dillydallied. It was opening day and the commissioner’s office left decisions up to the teams. It led to mutiny by many Black players who said they would refuse to suit up. Eventually, baseball cancelled the games.

Game one of the Celtics-Sixers Eastern Conference Finals was played. Black team members of the Celtics didn’t want to partake but Coach Red Auerbach urged the team to suit up, suggesting that it will keep violence off the streets. Wayne Embry, a member of the club, and later a league GM, reminisced recently:

June 2, 1968  Immediately after the assassination of New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, only baseball was active. The NBA and Stanley Cup had been completed. As was the case months earlier after the death of Reverend King, William Eckert, MLB’s commissioner, refused to act on behalf of the game as a whole. Teams were independently permitted to determine what they wanted to do. Many dithered and only a handful cancelled. The Mets-Giants game was not played. (Mets announcers were Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner. The Giants had the popular duo of Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons). Eckert eventually decided to postpone the start times of June 8 games, not to overlap with the day of RFK’s funeral.

November 17, 1968  (Footnote) The made-for-kids movie Heidi was scheduled for 7pm ET while NBC was still running the Jets-Raiders AFL game. But the network broke away to the movie, doing so to a vocal outcry on the NBC switchboard. The episode turned into a blessing in disguise for the NFL. It proved that fans want their Sunday football. (NBC, Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis)

September 5, 1972  This was the first return of the Olympics to a German city since 1936. The Munich Massacre, cost the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches who were killed by Palestinian terrorists. (Jim McKay anchored the coverage on ABC Television. He famously said of the kidnapped athletes, “They’re all gone.”) The games and the competition continued after a suspension of a day and a half. At the memorial service for the murdered athletes, International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage insisted that the Olympic Games continue.

1972 Baseball Strike  For the first time, baseball players went on strike. The primary point of contention was the pension fund. The stoppage cancelled the first week of games (86 games) and lasted for 13 days. The games were not replayed. 

July 13, 1977 New York suffered another widespread electrical blackout. The lights dimmed during the sixth inning of a Cubs-Mets game at Shea Stadium. Mets third baseman Lenny Randle found it frightening, “I thought it was my last day on earth.” (Mets announcers were still Murphy, Nelson and Kiner. The Cubs radio voices were Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau). The blackout occurred during a scary summer for New Yorkers. The mass murderer, Son of Sam, was on the loose. He terrorized the city for over a year, killing six and injuring seven. He was captured on August 10, 1977. 

July, 1980  Summer Olympic Games in Moscow – America did not participate because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. NBC had won the rights but after the American boycott was announced, the network scaled back its coverage considerably. Furthermore, a significant number of NBC affiliates refused to clear the limited programming that was fed down the line. (NBC’s Bryant Gumbel anchored and provided highlights of some of the Olympic coverage.) In all, 65 countries refused to partake. The boycott was initiated by the United States’ President Jimmy Carter. Olympians like swimmers Rowdy Gaines and John Naber were denied the opportunity to compete.

March 30, 1981  President Ronald Reagan was shot just hours before the NCAA Basketball national title game in Philadelphia. There was debate whether the game would be played. It was, once doctors felt that the president would survive. (NBC had the rights and the announcers were the popular trio of Dick Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire. Bryant Gumbel was the host).The NCAA considered a couple options, postponing the game up to 48 hours and giving both the Tar Heels and the Hoosiers a co-champions title. Once it was decided to play the game, the Indiana Hoosiers won the title after.

June-August 1981  An MLB Strike from June 11th to August 10th. It was the only time in MLB history that playoff teams were determined by first-half and second-half divisional champions. Like in 1972, teams didn’t play an even number of games. There were 713 games lost. The issue was free agency. Owners wanted teams that signed free agents to relinquish a roster player and a draft pick.

October, 1982  NFL Labor Stoppage. The strike lasted for eight weeks (57 days) and forced the 1982 season to be shortened to nine games per team (as opposed to 16 in a usual season); the Super Bowl was held as scheduled. It was the first time that NFL games were missed due to labor disputes. It lasted 57 days and the stoppage was over revenue sharing. 

March 10, 1989 – (Footnote) The North Atlantic Conference didn’t allow fans to attend the post-season conference tournament in the cavernous Hartford Civic Center due to a widespread measles outbreak. Measles caused 41 deaths in 1989. The finals were on ESPN. Bill Raftery did color in a silent arena. Our columnist Dan Mason was a Northeastern University student then and did the game on the student radio station. He said that if he talked loudly, a coach or player would glare at him. Players didn’t wear masks.

October 17, 1989  Game #3 of the World Series between the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants was set to begin at Candlestick Park. Minutes before the opening pitch and just as Al Michaels and Tim McCarver were in their stand-up open, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the Bay Area. The quake caused death and devastation. The World Series resumed ten days later. Michaels’ reportorial skills on ABC, outside the stadium that night were highly praised. The shocking earthquake killed approximately 67 people and lasted 17 seconds. Giants pitcher Mike Krukow famously said that the earthquake felt like a 600-pound gopher going under my feet at 40 miles per hour. The San Francisco 49ers were forced to play their home game on October 22 against the New England Patriots at Stanford University’s stadium. 

January, 1991 Gulf War I, America bombards Iraq. The North Carolina-North Carolina State game was cancelled. The pros including the NFL playoffs continued as scheduled.

April, 1992  The NHL strike was the first by the National Hockey League Players’ Association against the league’s owners. It was called on April 1, 1992, and lasted ten days. It postponed 30 games. An 80 game schedule was completed. 

April-May, 1992 The Los Angeles riots in the aftermath of the police’s beating of Rodney King caused the Lakers to move a playoff game to Las Vegas and the Dodgers to postpone an entire three game series against the Montreal Expos. The riots lasted from April 29th though May 4th. It’s interesting to note that 27 years earlier, Los Angeles suffered through a summer riot. On September 9, 1965, the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game. It was just weeks after the August riots ended. The stench from smoldering buildings could still be felt at Dodger Stadium just as Koufax completed the feat. (Dodgers, Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett; Lakers, Chick Hearn)

August, 1994 – April, 1995  MLB Strike. For the first time in professional sports history, a post-season championship was cancelled. Yes, the World Series. It was the longest labor stoppage in MLB history, 50 cancelled games per team. The dispute was over a salary cap and its effect on smaller market teams. It lasted some eight months, from one season to the next. Neither the 1994 nor the ’95 season was fully played. Baseball hasn’t had another labor stoppage since.

June 17, 1994  (Footnote) It seemed like the whole world watched a disgraced O.J. Simpson steal the country one last time. NBC was running the NBA Finals between the Knicks and the Rockets while the Los Angeles police were chasing O.J. on the Southern California freeways. The Simpson coverage and game ran concurrently on an uneven split screen. (NBC, Marv Albert and Bob Costas).

October, 1994 -January, 1995  NHL Lockout. The lockout caused the 1994–95 season to be delayed and shortened to 48 games instead of 84, the shortest season in 53 years. The issue was over the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Owners too wanted to protect weaker franchises. The luxury tax proposed was too steep for the players’ wishes.

1996 Olympics There’s a bombing of Centennial Park at the Atlanta Olympics, but the Games go on as scheduled.

April, 20, 1999  The shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Colorado Rockies postpone games.

July, 1998– February, 1999 The NBA lockout was the first that forced games to be missed. The owners opened the CBA issue. The stoppage lasted from July 1, 1998, to January 20, 1999, and forced the 1998–99 regular season to be shortened to 50 games per team and the All-Star Game to be canceled. A total of 464 regular season games were canceled and a revised 50 game season commenced on February 5, 1999. The owners sought salary ceilings and changes to team salary caps.

September 11, 2001  The deadly attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon caused the most extensive list of cancellations until the current coronavirus. All sports were effected. Baseball was out until September 16th. The Mets moved a home series to Pittsburgh. The World Series didn’t start until October 27th. The NFL pushed back its schedule a week including the Super Bowl.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig made the decision to halt all games for a day, then three days and ultimately for six days. The season continued on into the playoffs and World Series and games served as emotional outlets for Americans to attempt to return to normal lives. In game #3 of the Classic at Yankee Stadium between the Yanks and Arizona, President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch to an arousing and emotional ovation. There was no unified decision from the NCAA on how to handle sports events post 9/11. it was decided individually by conferences.

2004 – Gulf War II  Pat Tillman, a linebacker who played for Arizona State and the Arizona Cardinals. gave up his career to join the military after the 9/11 attacks. He was killed in 2004 while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, apparently by friendly fire.

September, 2004- July, 2005  The entire NHL season was cancelled due to the inability of both sides, owners and players, to come to an agreement on a Collective Bargaining Agreement. It wouldn’t be until July, 2005 that the sides came to terms.  The lockout ended when the parties finalized a six-year CBA.  The lockout lasted 310 days. There was no Stanley Cup championship in 2005.

August 29, 2005 Katrina begins routing New Orleans. By the time that the hurricane passed, the city was 80% underwater. Three people died in the Superdome which was used as a shelter. The football and adjacent basketball facilities were terribly damaged. The Saints had to play their entire 2005 schedule on the road and returned to the Superdome in 2006. The then New Orleans Hornets moved to Oklahoma City for a couple seasons before returning. They’re now the New Orleans  Pelicans. (Jim Henderson, ex-Saints longtime voice lived out of a suitcase.)

December 13, 2010 – Collapse of the Metrodome roof in Minneapolis forced the Giants-Vikings game to Detroit (Broadcast by Fox). The Vikings’ December 20 game against the Chicago Bears was moved to TCF Bank Stadium (University of Minnesota campus).

July, 2011 – December, 2011 – The NBA again found itself in a dispute when when owners and players disagreed on the split of revenue and the salary cap structure. The owners and players finally came to terms in November and the agreement was ratified in December, The games began on December 25th. Each team played a 66 game schedule, reduced from the normal 82.

September 2012, – January, 2013 – NHL lockout. It cancelled many games including the All-Star Game and it shortened the regular season to 48 games per team. There were no inter-conference games

April 29, 2015 – With concern about unrest on the streets of downtown Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the Orioles hosted the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards with no one in the stands. It’s the only known MLB game played in an empty stadium. (Orioles TV: Gary Thorne, Jim Palmer, Radio: Joe Angel, Fred Manfra, White Sox TV: Ken Harrelson, Steve Stone, Radio: Ed Farmer, Darrin Jackson). The Orioles moved an upcoming series with the Tampa Bay Rays from Baltimore to Tampa Bay.

March 11-13, 2020 -?

The coronavirus/Covid 19 disrupts sports more than any other unconnected event ever has . It’s forced the cancellation of virtually every sport imaginable, starting with the NCAA Tournament. The celebration of March Madness was expunged from calendars. MLB, the NHL, the NBA, MLS, the Masters and much more have lost so much already. The story is still fluid with developments every day. As the fall sports seasons approach, who knows what will happen. One thing for sure, fans won’t be sitting shoulder-for- shoulder.

Elise Goldstein

Elise Goldstein is a student in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She hails from Cherry Hill, New Jersey and is eager to learn more about sports journalism as a former student-athlete coxswain on the rowing team.

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