He could celebrate a World Series title and retire from the sport to be with his wife and newborn son. But fate had other plans for MLB star Ray Chapman. A pitch he hit countless times in his career abruptly ended his young life a hundred years ago.
When New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays put the ball in his hand, he didn’t expect anything outside of the traditional routine to follow, let alone a tragic historic moment. He was one of the best pitchers of the second and third decades of the last century, he was a kind of winner, statistically he deserved a place in the hall of fame if his career had not been overshadowed by this dark moment. On August 16, 1920, he had only one thing in mind – he wanted to beat Cleveland and reach the goal of 100 league victories.
Ray Chapman matched him with the bat. He was almost the opposite – Mays was a strict, unpopular guy, “Chappie” was a traditional Southern gentleman whose charm had friends on almost every team in the league. The legendary Babe Ruth was particularly fond of him, calling him “the little crackhead”. The 29-year-old Indians player is slowly losing baseball. He announced early on that the 1920 season would be his last, hoping to get home to his pregnant wife Kathleen, who wanted to run the family business and raise a family after his career.
Mays’ first two pitches ended in a ball and a strike, Chapman never struck out. The third throw was fatal. The ball flew up quickly from Mays’ right hand, the batsman didn’t react and even dodged. According to those who witnessed the event, it sounded like the pitcher had hit Chapman’s bat, after all, that’s exactly what Mays thought, as he quickly grabbed the ball and threw it toward first base. “I thought the ball bounced off the end of his bat, so I continued to play,” he later confessed. But the truth was sadder – the pitch hit Ray in the head, just above the left ear.
Shaking, Chapman stood up, took two steps, and returned to the ground. Umpire Connoly noticed that there was blood coming from the batsman’s ear and immediately sought a doctor. The entire Cleveland team, including many Yankees players, rallied around Ray. Mays remained standing where he was. “Chappie” blushed briefly, though he was trying to leave the field on his own, but he fell briefly in the second finish and had to be carried away. “I’m fine. Tell Mays not to worry,” he told his colleagues before being wheeled into an ambulance.
While being taken to St. Lawrence Hospital in Manhattan, Mays asked for a new ball and play resumed. Another in the lineup, Harry Lunte, came up to bat and helped Cleveland to victory.
Indian manager Tris Speaker informed Ray’s wife of the entire incident over the phone, who immediately boarded a train to be with her loved one as soon as possible. Meanwhile, his situation worsened, and around ten o’clock in the evening the decision was finally made – an operation was necessary. The procedure started at half past one in the morning and lasted just over an hour. Doctors removed a chopped piece of Chapman’s skull, showing severe brain damage on the left side, where the ball hit, but also on the right side, as the brain hit the skull after a strong that blow. Blood clots also appeared, and the sinuses were damaged. Both the Indians and Yankees players waited for Ray for a while, but then sent them back to the hotel with the news that his breathing and heart rate were improving and slowly stabilizing.
However, around three o’clock in the morning, the batsman’s condition worsened again, and he could not be helped. Raymond Johnson Chapman breathed his last on August 17, 1920 at 4:40 am. His dear Katie did not arrive in New York until ten o’clock. When he heard the bad news from the Speaker in the lobby of the Ansonia Hotel, he fainted.
Pitcher Carl Mays suddenly became a killer. He voluntarily appeared before the public prosecutor, who acquitted him. Even manager Speaker, despite the anger and sadness at his team, acknowledged in a call to Yankees co-owner TL Houston that there was no ill intent. “It is our duty, for the good of the sport, but also out of respect for the poor man who was killed, to quell any bitterness we have,” the New York Times quoted the Speaker as saying. “This is the most regrettable event of my career. I will give everything to bring it back. Chapman was a great guy,” lamented Mays.
Despite many different incidents over the years, Ray Chapman remains the only professional baseball player to lose his life from an injury on the field. Cleveland fought as hard as it could in his memory – in October 1920, the Indians won the World Series for the first time in history with a 5-2 victory over the Brooklyn Robins.
“Chappie’s” death changed baseball forever, though not immediately. Referees began to replace dirty balls more often, and the so-called spitball, a technique in which a portion of the ball is smeared with saliva with chewing tobacco, clay or petroleum jelly, was banned. The pitch flies at the batsman in an atypical way and it is more difficult to react.
But the ban didn’t take effect immediately, 17 pitchers who used the spitball throughout their careers were granted honorable exemptions. The last of them, Burleigh Grimes, ended his career only in 1934. In 1955, MLB commissioner Ford Frick even tried to promote the return of this unfair practice. “If it were up to me, I would make it legal. This is a great way to pitch, and one of the easiest for a pitcher to throw. There is nothing dangerous about it,” he said at the time. But his call was ignored and spitball is still banned today.
Chapman’s tragic death also triggered a vociferous call for mandatory helmets for batsmen. It was topped in 1937 when another Yankees player, Bump Hadley, was nearly hit by a pitch against Mickey Cochrane of the Detroit Tigers. But he just ended his career. It took until 1958 when the American League, part of MLB, mandated helmets, with MLB itself introducing them across the board for everyone only in December 1970. Although, for everyone… The Veterans accustomed to other arrangements are again exempt. Bob Montgomery of the Boston Red Sox was the last man with an uncovered head in MLB until 1979. Nearly six decades after the saddest event in baseball history.
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