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Feature
 
 
Death of a Shortstop

Coppernoll
on 07/23/2007

 

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 by train.

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

 




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