March without Madness?
Given the widespread sports postponements and cancellations of the past week, perhaps we should remember what happened when our nation faced the most threatening global crisis of the 20th century. That would be World War II.
Just five weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking advice on how professional baseball should proceed.
Wrote Landis: "If you believe we ought to close down for the duration of the war, we are ready to do so immediately. If you feel we ought to continue, we would be delighted to do so. We await your order."
Landis did not have to wait long. A day later, on Jan. 15, 1942, FDR responded, strongly advising that baseball should continue with its games.
In part, FDR wrote: "I honestly feel that it would be best to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before."
Americans, FDR believed, would need diversions to take their minds off work and war more than ever. Baseball, he declared, would be "thoroughly worthwhile."
And you know what happened. Many of the game's greatest stars including Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio enlisted and helped the U.S. win the war. The quality of baseball during World War II declined. Baseball, as a diversion, did not. Americans still had games to attend. They still had box scores to read in the next day's paper. At least there was something normal about their lives.
And, yes, you are right that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is a much different threat. Because of the highly communicative nature of the disease, large gatherings of people could easily increase spread of the virus.
That's why the postponements of the past few days in professional and college sports are prudent and make perfectly good sense. Still, the hope here is that we will, in the long run, remember that sports are a worthwhile diversion and an integral part of our society.
It is difficult to imagine going through the month of March without basketball's Madness. That became a reality Thursday afternoon. It is difficult to imagine the calendar rolling into April without Major League Baseball. That's certain now. Mississippi's minor league teams surely will follow suit.
In Mississippi, so many compelling sports stories are put on hold, if not ended abruptly. Pearl River Community College's men's basketball team has won 28 games without a defeat and was set to begin play as the only undefeated team in the national tournament at Hutchinson, Kansas. That tournament has been postponed until at least April 20. Vic Schaefer's Mississippi State women's team surely would have been hosting an NCAA Tournament sub-regional next weekend. That entire tournament has been canceled. So has the men's tournament. Mississippi State fans have been holding on to hope Ben Howland's men's team would win a couple games in the SEC Tournament and make the NCAA field. There is no field to make.
And one of the most promising Mississippi college baseball seasons in recent memory is, at best, on hold. Fifthranked Ole Miss is off to a 161 start and has won 16 consecutive games. No. 13 Mississippi State, 12-4, has won five straight including two straight over No. 2 Texas Tech. Southern Miss is 12-4 as well. All three teams, always among national leaders in attendance, had huge home baseball weekends scheduled beginning Friday. None of that is happening.
Let's get back to the way we began this column. The biggest change in the nature of sports since World War II has been television. Far more people watch sports on TV now than attend in person, as was the case nearly 80 years ago.
Competitive sports without spectators and cheering would not be nearly as entertaining. But televised sports competition, even without people in the stands, would be better than none at all. It would provide a badly needed diversion to the increasingly grim news of the day. As soon as it is safe to play the games, we should play even if in mostly empty stadiums. Given what we know presently and what we don't know about how many people already unknowingly carry the virus sports officials are correct to take the most prudent course.
Rick Cleveland is a sports columnist for Mississippi Today.