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Death on the Baseball Diamond - The Ray Chapman Tragedy

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 1

Major league baseball has seen some rough players and dirty tactics, but only once in the long history of the game has play on the field resulted in the death of a ballplayer. 90 years after it happened, Cleveland Indian fans still remember Ray Chapman and that gray, rainy day in New York when he was felled by a pitch from Carl Mays of the Yankees.

Chapman and Mays were both born in Kentucky in 1891, but this is about the only similarity between these two very different men. Carl Mays was the fiery competitor, a hard throwing pitcher with such a pronounced submarine delivery that it is said his knuckles often scraped the ground. A successful pitcher who became a 20 game winner in only his third season, Mays was not well liked by opposing teams and even his own teammates. Brash, arrogant and critical were common descriptions of Mays. He was even an enemy of Ty Cobb who was probably the roughest player of his generation. Mays' lack of team spirit and perceived mean-spiritedness quickly made organizations sour on him even though he was clearly a capable pitcher. A slow start in 1919 gave Boston just the right excuse to trade Mays to the Yankees. He would rebound for the new squad and in 1920 would win 20 games for the third time in his short career for the Yanks.

Ray Chapman was everything that Carl Mays was not. Outgoing and friendly, the young shortstop was still developing into a slick fielder with some decent pop in his bat. His good eye allowed him to lead the league in walks in 1918 and his speed once on base saw him finish in the top 10 in stolen bases in three seasons and top 10 in runs on four occasions. The greatest ability Chapman possessed seemed to fit in with his generous nature. He was a natural at sacrificing. In six of his nine seasons, Chapman finished in the top 10 in sacrifice hits – three times finishing in the top spot. Cleveland was happy to have Chapman roaming the infield and Chapman loved playing in Cleveland under player/manager Tris Speaker.

The approaches each man took to the game and how they played it only set the stage for the tragedy that happened in 1920. Chapman was fond of crowding the plate hoping to force the pitcher to the outside. Mays was tagged a headhunter and felt it was not only his right but also a duty to pitch inside and establish himself and his territory. It worked. He was occasionally among the league leaders in hit batters, but was more often among the leaders in lowest earned run average. Factor in a dirty baseball, a cloudy day and true determination and you get a recipe for potential disaster.

August 1920 brought Chapman and the Indians to the Polo Grounds, the temporary home of the New York Yankees. Leading off the fifth inning, Mays threw inside and Chapman never even moved according to eyewitness accounts. The loud crack and the ball rolling down the first base line led Mays to believe the ball hit the bat and he fielded and threw to first. Meanwhile, Chapman collapsed at the plate with blood streaming from his left ear. Chapman falling in and out of consciousness was rushed first to the dugout and then to a local hospital. Emergency surgery was performed, but the next morning Chapman succumbed to injuries caused by a fractured skull. Mays tried to defend himself with claims of the baseball being scuffed and slipperiness due to the wetness of the day, but found few sympathetic ears. The baseball world and the nation both mourned and created an uproar simultaneously. There were calls for a ban on beanballs and for Mays to be banned for life. Of course, death threats followed.

Mays carried on and continued to pitch and pitch effectively. He won 27 games the following season. Further controversy hit Mays when it was rumored that he intentionally pitched poorly in the 1922 World Series. In 1923, he was barely used as a pitcher and traded to Cincinnati the following year. He quickly regained his form with the change of scenery and posted a 20 – 9 record. His lifetime record of 208 Wins and only 126 Losses have some fans calling for the Hall of Fame to consider Mays. The World Series rumors have proven more damaging than the Chapman incident in keeping Mays off of the ballots.

Young Ray Chapman was seeking his second consecutive season with a .300 batting average when he was hit. He would have had several more years as a solid shortstop in baseball. The loss of the plucky and exuberant Chapman hit Cleveland hard. His funeral was attended by thousands of fans and baseball personnel. Tragedy continued to befall the Chapman family. His wife who was pregnant at the time he was killed, died after swallowing poison just seven years later. The family claimed it was accidental. Others claim she had a nervous breakdown due to the loss of Ray years before. His daughter, born the February after his death, was cut down by a measles epidemic just a year after her mother died. Even the loss of family to uphold his legacy did not matter - his legacy lives on in baseball. Chapman still holds the single season record for sacrifice hits with 67 and is 6th on the career list even with his career cut drastically short.

Carl Mays seldom talked about the events in 1920, but deeply regretted hitting Chapman. His family and many fans feel that he was unfairly singled out and blamed for a freak accident. His talent as a pitcher was undeniable and he worked as a scout for 20 years for the Milwaukee (and later Atlanta) Braves and, ironically, the Cleveland Indians. Mays died in 1971 at the age of 79. He is buried in Portland, Oregon.

Baseball has seen many suicides and strange deaths off the field, but the tragedy of Ray Chapman will hopefully be the only time that a baseball player is ever struck down as a direct consequence of playing the game. The careers of the two boys from Kentucky will be forever linked in baseball lore, but both of these men deserve to be remembered for more than this one tragic event.

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Oct 28, 2010 11:21am
I prefer the players that are outgoing and friendly. I hate it when sports stars are stuck-up.
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