A Previous Pandemic Also Put the Slug on Sports

Audience has to wear facemasks to watch a boxing match in San Francisco in 1918.

When the COVID-19 crisis begins to recede, and people can again attend events outside their homes, one question is what a large scale attendance might look like.

A scene from the past may give a glimpse of a possibility.

San Fernando resident Garry Ballin, 72, has spent years compiling an impressive collection of boxing memorabilia. One of those artifacts is an original black-and-white photo of a match taking place at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on Nov. 16, 1918.

The boxers and their handlers are facing the camera in the pre-fight shot. So is the crowd. What stands out: most of the audience is wearing or has a mask.

“It’s a pretty clear shot,” Ballin said. “Everybody inside the ring is without a mask, but everyone in the audience has one. And … in those days in boxing, you dressed up. There are no women that I can see; I take it that it still wasn’t popular for them to go to a fight. But everyone’s well-dressed.”

Prizefighting was getting a stronger hold on the American public’s sporting conscience at the start of the 20th Century. There were no professional boxing associations in the early 1900s; “champions” then were typically recognized by popular consensus in the newspapers. And prizefights weren’t always legal in every state, although San Francisco’s California Athletic Club was known for putting on bouts.

Some of the famous fighters of the time — Joe Gans, Jack Johnson, Jess Willard, Tommy Ryan, Harry Greb, Jim Jeffries, Sam Langford and Benny Leonard — became stars and champions from 1900 - 1920, although beyond Johnson and Gans, fighters of color rarely, if ever, got a chance at a title.

The boxers in the photo Ballin owns are both white — Fred Fulton, a 6-feet 5-inch southpaw from Rochester, Minn., taking on Willie Meehan, a San Francisco native who stood 5-9 and had a stocky build.

“Fulton had a close resemblance to the [champion] tennis player Bill Tilden; he had those features,” Ballin said. “Meehan didn’t look athletic at all; ‘Fat Willie’ is what a lot of people called him. But Meehan would fight Jack Dempsey five times (beating Dempsey twice and losing once, with two draws). He was a successful contender, and fought a lot of tough guys.

“It was a four-round fight. (Professional boxing) was still illegal in California, so you had to call it an ‘exhibition,’ and exhibitions were restricted to four rounds only. But they were top guys in the heavyweight field.”

The reason for the masks; a worldwide pandemic outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918, which was first discovered in Europe in the spring that year, and later appeared in parts of Asia before raging throughout California and the USA. (Despite the name, the flu’s geographical origin was never identified.) At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines available for treatment.

The influenza began showing up in the Los Angeles area around mid-September of 1918, first in sailors on a naval vessel that had arrived in the Los Angeles Harbor. By Oct. 11, then Mayor Frederic Thomas Woodman declared a state of emergency in the city. Schools were closed, and health officials would ban all public gatherings — including public funerals, movie houses, theaters, pool rooms, and other public entertainments. Similar actions were initiated in other US cities and states.

The month of October that year is still considered one of the deadliest in American history, with nearly 200,000 people dying from the flu. From 1918 to 1920, according to historical accounts, the Spanish Flu killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. Globally, from 1918 to 1920, the pandemic would infect a third of the world’s population, and death estimates range from 17 million to 50 million people.

“The parallel of the time is very much like now,” Ballin said. “That’s why I get serious when I hear people play down [the coronavirus] — ‘I’m not gonna get it, I take care of myself.’ The virus doesn’t care who you are. Some medical experts are expecting [another wave of virus]. I don’t doubt that. You have to be careful.”

Ballin — who’s married to San Fernando City Councilmember Sylvia Ballin, and who owned two barbershops here for 35 years before closing the last one in 2014 — said he’s owned the photo “for 50 years” and got it for a great price. “Maybe $15-20. It’s been so long I can’t remember. I’m sure it’s worth more now.”

He added that the photo has its own colorful history.

“It came from the Knotts Berry Farm boxing museum,” Ballin said. “I knew the curator very well; he passed away in 1973, and everything in the museum went up for grabs. He left in his will that [the collection] could stay in his name at Knotts Berry Farm. But the Knotts family didn’t want to [keep] the boxing museum; it’s about the time they wanted to compete more with Disneyland and have extravagant rides — more that type of place.” 

The actual museum was a barn the Knotts family had purchased from the Jim Jeffries’ estate in Burbank, Ballin said. Jeffries, a former heavyweight titleholder, was known as “The Great White Hope” when he came out of retirement to fight (and lose to) then champion Johnson in 1910. Jeffries eventually re-settled to his farm in Burbank, living there until his death in 1953.

“Knotts Berry Farm liked the barn; Jeffries had held fights and wrestling matches there. So it was very popular in the Valley, for boxing and wrestling,” Ballin said. “Anyway, they numbered all the planks of wood, disassembled it, and then reassembled it by the numbers at Knotts Berry Farm so everything would be accurate. And it’s still there and in nice shape although, unfortunately, they didn’t retain the memorabilia.”

The museum was set up in 1959, Ballin said. His friend and curator “got wind of Jeffries’ barn and thought, ‘why not put [his boxing collection] there.’ He made a pitch to the Knotts family and they jumped at it.

“The only regret I’ve got is someone had put a 3” x 1” label on the corner of the photo; It was typewritten, and there are typing errors. It really annoys me. I broke down the frame; I wanted to see if I could remove that thing. I thought it was taped on. But it is taped and glued. Plus my wife told me to leave it, and that settled that; I left it alone.”

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