95 years ago, Major League Baseball suffered it’s first and only on field fatality in it’s history when Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was struck in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays of the New York Yankees.
Chapman was born on January 15, 1891 in Kentucky, and made his major league debut in 1912 for the Indians. In his short career, he batted a cumulative .278 with 17 home runs and 364 runs batted in. In 1918, he led the American League in runs scored and walks. He also holds the single season record for most sacrifice hits, set in 1917, when he had 67 sacrifices.
Before the 1920 season, Chapman married Kathleen Daly, who was the daughter of a wealthy Cleveland businessman. That led to a popular rumor that he was going to retire at the end of the 1920 season to devote himself to the family business, and to start a family.
The Yankees and Indians played each other on Monday, August 16th, 1920 while in the midst of a pennant race. Chapman led off the fifth inning against Mays, who had developed a reputation of being a head hunter from a incident with Ty Cobb. On a 1-1 pitch, Mays threw a fastball that was up and in. Chapman, instead of ducking out of the way, never moved, almost like he never saw the pitch.
After the pitch hit him, the ball bounced back so hard that Mays thought that it had hit his bat, and threw the ball to first base to get the out. What happened next is unknown, as some reports say that Chapman took a few steps before collapsing, while some reports say that he fell down immediately.
The home plate umpire immediately noticed that something was wrong, and called for a doctor from the stands. Chapman attempted to walk off the field on his own, but had to be carried to the clubhouse, which was located in center field. In the clubhouse, his condition started deteriorating quickly, and an ambulance was summoned to take him to the hospital. Right before he slipped into a coma, the story goes that he asked for his wedding ring, which the trainer got and put on his finger, this seemed to bring Chapman some solace as he slipped into a coma.
While this was happening, the game continued, and Cleveland won the game. Chapman, meanwhile, was taken to St Lawrence hospital in Manhattan, where his condition continued to worsen. After the game, many players from both teams went to the hospital and waited for news. Mays, however, did not go. Around 10:00 PM, the decision was made to operate to try and save his life. The surgery lasted one hour, and was initially deemed successful, as his breathing and pulse improved. Upon hearing this, the players returned to their hotels.
The hope was only temporary, however, as Chapman passed away at 4:40 AM on August 17th. His wife arrived in New York at 10:00 AM, and was met at the train station by a priest, who took her to the Cleveland hotel, where captain Tris Speaker informed her of the death of her husband. Chapman was only 31 years old.
His funeral was held the next week in Cleveland, and was attended by thousands of mourners, including the entire Indians team, who wore black armbands for the rest of the season. Chapman was buried in Cleveland not far from where his house was being built.
Cleveland went on to win the American League pennant, and eventually won the first world series title in franchise history. The team voted for Chapman to get a full playoff share, which was given to his wife. Shortly after his death, a bronze plaque was created in his honor, which hangs in Heritage Park in Progressive Field.
The incident was one of the reasons that the spitball and other pitches that colored the baseball were outlawed after the season. 30 years later, it was also the reason that batting helmets were made mandatory.
Mays always denied that the pitch was intentional, although alot of players questioned that. Ty Cobb even sent Mays a note after the incident that said that Chapman was “the victim of arrogance, viciousness and greed.”
Mays never was elected to the Hall Of Fame, which he always believed was directly related to the pitch he threw Chapman. In his career, Mays was 207-126, with a career 2.92 ERA. He retired after the 1929 season, and died in 1971 in California.