Before I begin, I'd like
to mention that I was inspired to write this piece after having read
the book "The Pitch that Killed", by Mike Sowell. If this
article moves you, I suggest you read it, as Sowell gives a full and
detailed account of the two players, the incident, and the aftermath.
I thought it was an excellent baseball read.
Thank you Mr Sowell, and now,
on to our story...
Ray Chapman, shortstop for
the Cleveland Indians, was perhaps the most liked player on his team,
and in his city. Carl Mays, starting pitcher for the New York
Yankees, was a loner, with few friends in the game, still trying to
win over New York after a highly controversial exit from Boston.
August 16, 1920 was a hot,
humid day in New York City - Mays would be pitching that day - opening
a crucial series with the Indians, as the Yanks trailed both Cleveland
and Chicago by 1/2 game in the standings. Mays went through his
normal morning routine, eating breakfast before driving to the Polo
Grounds for his day's work. What he had come to know as "normal"
would soon be gone forever.
As the Indians reached New
York by train, they were slumping - clinging tightly now to what had
been a comfortable lead in the American League. It had been a
great season, but neither the Yankees nor the White Sox would go away,
it was time for someone to break the tension in the clubhouse.
That someone, as always, was Chapman, telling jokes and singing songs
prior to the game, Chapman had his mates relaxed and ready to play.
With a new home under construction, and his first child on the way,
Chapman had everything to live for - but only hours to live.
The game of August 16 started
as any game might, with a single to left by Cleveland's Charlie Jamieson.
Chapman, the best bunter in the league, sacrificed the runner to second,
as he had so many times before. The next time around Chapman again
tried to advance Jamieson with a bunt, but this time he popped it up,
resulting in a double play. As the batters came and went, Cleveland
built a 3-0 lead, through four innings of play.
Chapman stepped in to lead
off the fifth for Cleveland, and as he did so, Mays thought he saw a
slight change in Chapman's stance. Suspecting a bunt attempt, Mays
decided to come inside with the next pitch. With his unique underhand
style, Mays wound up and fired a fastball toward the inside of the plate.
The pitch came in high.. too high.. Chapman seemed to see the ball coming
toward his head, but he never moved. As if fate had pre-determined
what must happen, Chapman stood motionless as the pitch crashed off
the left side of his skull.
Hearing a solid crack as the
ball made contact, Mays mistakenly thought the ball had hit Chapman's
bat. He fielded the bouncing ball and fired it to first, thinking
he had recorded an out. First baseman Wally Pipp took the throw,
and prepared to fire the ball around the infield, but just as he was
about to let it go, he looked toward the plate, where Chapman was just
now collapsing to the ground. As blood began to pour from Chapman's
left ear, the home plate umpire realized the seriousness of the injury
and began calling for a doctor. Forget what you know about medicine,
this was 1920, in medical terms, a completely different world.
Chapman was allowed to sit
up in the confusion, had he been able to stand, it appeared as though
he would have been allowed to do so. As he sat upright, Chapman
attempted to speak, his lips moved, but he could not make a sound.
After several minutes, Chapman was helped to his feet as the Yankees'
team physician applied ice. Miraculously, Chapman waved his teammates
aside and began walking off the field, toward the clubhouse beyond the
outfield fence. As he neared second base, Chapman's strength
gave out, as he fell toward the ground two teammates grabbed him, and
assisted him through the outfield and out of sight.
Back on the infield, Mays had
retrieved the ball, and was telling the umpires how it had a rough spot
on it, which had affected his control of the pitch. The ball was
thrown out of play and lost forever, whether it was badly scuffed or
not was never made clear.
In the clubhouse, Chapman continued
to try to speak as he laid waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Once given a pencil and paper, Chapman tried to write out a message,
but he was unable to do so. Finally, he was able to verbally request
his wedding ring, which he had given to a teammate for safekeeping.
His ring was retrieved and slipped onto his finger, which seemed to
bring him a sense of relief.
Chapman remained conscious
on the ride to the hospital, as his friend and former teammate John
Henry held an ice pack against his head. Along the way, Chapman
pleaded with his friend not to tell his wife what had happened, and
to tell her that he was all right. Shortly after this plea, Chapman
lost consciousness, inside the hospital.
Back at the Polo Grounds, the
game played on, with the Mays pitching eight innings, as Cleveland went
on to a 4-3 victory. After the game, Mays explained he'd been
wild all day, saying the ball had been wet from an early rain, and he
had been caught up in the big game atmosphere.
At 9:30 PM, doctors consulted
with Tris Speaker, Cleveland's manager, telling him Chapman had a
three and one half inch fracture on the left side of his skull.
A piece of bone was pressing on Chapman's brain, and his pulse had
fallen to forty beats per minute. Surgery began at 12:30 AM, with
surgeons finding a ruptured sinus, and clotted blood. The ball
had struck Chapman with such force, that it had caused injury to both
sides of his brain, including signs of paralysis.
Surgery was completed in one
hour, fifteen minutes, with Chapman breathing well, and his pulse back
up to ninety. The doctors had hope, but cautioned that nothing
would be certain for forty-eight hours.
Ray Chapman died at 4:40 AM,
August 17, 1920.
Ray's wife, Mrs Kathleen
Chapman, took the overnight train from Cleveland to New York, arriving
at 10 AM. Upon arrival at the team's hotel, Mrs Chapman sensed
the uneasiness of Speaker, so she asked immediately, "He's dead,
isn't he?" As Speaker nodded, Mrs Chapman immediately fainted.
Ray Chapman had become the
first player in MLB history to die as the result of an injury suffered
in the course of play. At age twenty-nine, Chapman was gone forever,
leaving Mays trapped in the moment for the remainder of his life.
As the city of Cleveland reacted
in shock and disbelief, Mays was ordered to the office of New York's
Assistant District Attorney for a brief interview. Upon hearing
Mays' account of the beaning, Chapman's death was ruled accidental.
Mays returned to his apartment, Chapman's body was returned to Cleveland
The news of Chapman's death
spread quickly through the world of baseball. Chapman had been
a very popular player, while Mays had long carried the reputation of
a beanballer. Talk of a boycott of any game Mays appeared in spread
immediately. Mays' former teammates in Boston prepared a petition
calling for Mays' banishment from the game, while several teams indicated
their willingness to participate in a boycott. Ban Johnson, American
League President, became personally involved. Through his intervention,
and also through direct orders from some of the AL team owners, no boycott
actually took place.
Though the loss of Chapman
did send the Indians into an initial skid, (and Tris Speaker into a
deep depression), the Tribe miraculously rebounded and won the AL pennant,
and ultimately the World Series