On This Date in Sports August 16, 1920: The Tragedy of Ray Chapman

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Tragedy strikes the sport of baseball and the Cleveland Indians, as Ray Chapman is struck in the head by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. Chapman had thought the ball hit the bat and threw it to first as Chapman collapsed. Muttering incoherently, the Indians shortstop was taken to a local hospital, where he died the following morning. Ray Chapman was just 29 years old. Chapman death remains baseball’s only in-game fatality and led to the banning of the spitball.

 Ray Chapman was born on January 15, 1891, in Beaver Dam, Kentucky. Raised in Herrin, Illinois, Chapman played minor league baseball in Davenport, Iowa, before signing to play for the Cleveland Naps. A speedy shortstop, Chapman made his debut with Cleveland in 1912. Ray Chapman was among baseball’s best bunters and solid defensive shortstop. He led his team in stolen bases four times, setting a team record with 52 steals in 1917. A record that would stand until 1980 when it was topped by Miguel Dionne.

 Life was on the upswing for Ray Chapman in 1920, as he had a career-best .303 average and appeared on the way to leading the American League in runs scored for the second time in three years as he had 97 going into the fateful game in New York. Earlier in the year, Ray Chapman married Kathleen Daly, daughter of a prominent Cleveland businessman. The couple was expecting their first child later in the year, leaving some to think that Ray Chapman could step away from baseball at the end of the season to focus on his new family.

Carl Mays was born on November 12, 1891, in Liberty, Kentucky. The son of Methodist Minister, Mays lost his father at the age of 12 and moved to Kingfisher, Oklahoma. Mays was often surly and had few friends, but impressed playing semiprofessional baseball in the Midwest. Playing in Boise and Portland, Mays was signed by the Providence Grays of the International League in 1914. A hard-throwing left-hander, Mays was sold to the Boston Red Sox and made his major league debut in 1915. With the Red Sox, Mays became one of the top pitchers in baseball as Boston won the World Series three times in four years. Carl Mays was traded to the New York Yankees after a slow start in 1919. He finished the season strong and was back to being a top hurler in his first full season in New York.

 At the time, baseballs were used until they fell apart. Pitchers could scuff them, use spitters and rub dirt on them. The ball often was mishappen covered in gunk and hard to see. Carl Mays, a left-handed submariner style pitcher, was one of the masters of the spitball. He would use tobacco juice and licorice to load up a ball.

 The Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees were in a three-team battle along with the Chicago White Sox for the American League Pennant. The Indians managed by Tris Speaker came into New York on top of the American League with a record of 70-40, a half-game up on the Chicago White Sox, and a game and a half ahead of the Yankees managed by Miller Huggins. It was a battle of 18-game winners as both Stan Covelski and Carl Mays had similar records. The Indians scored the game’s first run on a second-inning home run by Steve O’Neill. In the fourth inning, the Tripe added two more runs and led 3-0 heading into the fifth inning.

 Ray Chapman had a sac bunt and hit into a double play. Shadows had crept over the Polo Grounds; Carl Mays' pitch was hard to see. A sickening crack was heard, Mays thought the ball hit the bat and threw the ball to first as Chapman collapsed to his knees with blood coming out of his ear. Tris Speaker, the player-manager and on-deck batter raced to see if Chapman was ok and helped him off the field. Leaving the field, Chapman was mumbling incoherently. Cleveland added a run in the fifth as Harry Lunte took over for the fallen shortstop. The Indians would go on to win the game 4-3, holding off a ninth-inning rally by New York.

 Ray Chapman was taken to a local hospital in New York, where doctors performed emergency surgery to repair a skull fracture. Just before 5 AM the following morning, Chapman passed away. His pregnant wife had been summoned to New York and arrived too late, fainting when she was told that her husband had died.

 The Cleveland Indians would dedicate the rest of the season to Ray Chapman, wearing a black arm ban. They would go on to win the World Series, beating the Brooklyn Robins 5-2 in a best-of-nine series. The Indians would later dedicate a plaque to Chapman that was featured in the stadium for the next 50 years. Recently the plaque was refurbished and now hangs in Heritage Park inside Progressive Field.

   Following the death of Ray Chapman, baseball made several reforms, outlawing the spitball and replacing baseball often, so only pristine balls were put into play, preventing another occasion where the ball would be unseen.