Lots of baseball players are said to live for the game, but ninety years ago today, one player actually died for it.
On August 16, 1920, the Cleveland Indians found themselves in the midst of a heated American League pennant race. They were playing the New York Yankees that day at the Polo Grounds. In the top of the fifth inning, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman squared off against Yankee pitcher Carl Mays. Both men were born in the year 1891 in the state of Kentucky, but that was where their similarities ended. Mays, who was known for his surliness, was disliked by both players and fans. Chapman, on the other hand, was one of the most popular players in Cleveland history, and counted celebrities Al Jolson, Will Rogers, and William S. Hart among his friends.
Chapman was in his ninth season in 1920, and had compiled a solid career with over 1000 hits and a .278 career batting average to go with great defensive and base-running skills. He was an exceptional bunter and set the single-season record for sacrifice hits with 67 in 1917. He had spent his entire career in a Cleveland uniform. When he stepped to the plate that late afternoon in 1920, he was batting .304 for the season.
The count was 1-1 when Chapman squared to bunt. Mays, who had an underhanded delivery, threw the next pitch in high and tight. It was a common practice at the time for a single baseball to be used for the entire game and for pitchers to scuff it with dirt and tobacco juice to make it tougher to see. Whatever the case, Chapman never saw the pitch which struck him squarely in the left temple.
The crack of the ball off of Chapman’s skull was so loud that Mays thought it must have connected with his bat. He fielded the ball and threw it to first base. Back at home plate, Chapman had collapsed unconscious and was bleeding from the ear. He was revived briefly and led to the clubhouse where he again collapsed and never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead in a New York hospital in the early hours of August 17.
The remainder of Cleveland’s season was dedicated to Chapman, and the Indians won the American League pennant followed by their first World Series crown that year.
Chapman’s widow was pregnant at the time of the accident and remarried shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. She suffered from depression and ended up committing suicide by drinking poison in 1928. Her daughter died the following year during a measles epidemic.
Mays died an embittered man in 1971, forever believing that the incident with Chapman had kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
The rule changes that resulted from the accident, including the frequent switching of baseballs and a ban on the use of the “spitball,” ended the “Deadball Era” of baseball, and helped bring about the age of the sluggers, led by Babe Ruth, who happened to be in right field at the time of Chapman’s beaning.
Incidentally, batting helmets would not become mandatory in the major leagues until the late 1950s, nearly 40 years after the accident.