Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.
The pitch that killed Ray Chapman struck his skull with such force that Carl Mays, the man who threw it, ran to field the ball and flipped it to first base. Such an explosive sound, Mays figured, could only come from a baseball bat.
This was August 17, 1920, an overcast day at the Polo Grounds in New York. Chapman was a star shortstop for the Cleveland Indians; Mays, a submarine-style pitcher for the New York Yankees. Along with the Chicago White Sox, the two teams were locked in a three-way battle for the American League pennant. The Indians were ahead 3-0 when Chapman led off the fifth inning for his second at-bat of the game.
After running up a 1-1 count, Mays' third pitch sailed slightly up and in, toward Chapman's head. Chapman froze. The ball struck his left temple. He crumpled. He attempted to walk to the center field clubhouse under his own power, and made it just past second base before collapsing once again. Ray Chapman died 12 hours later in a New York City hospital at the age of 29. His death remains the only fatality caused by an in-game injury in Major League Baseball history, and had widespread ramifications for how the sport was played.
Chapman broke into the big leagues in 1912, when the Indians were known as the Cleveland Naps. He played his entire career there as a slap-hitting shortstop, hitting .300 three times and leading the team in stolen bases four times. His most enduring statistical achievement was the sacrifice hit: Chapman ranks sixth all-time with 334, second behind Stuffy McInnis for most ever by a right-handed hitter. At the time of his death, Chapman was enjoying one of the best years of his career, batting .304 with a .380 on-base percentage and 97 runs scored.
Yet he was best known for his affable personality. According to John Thorn, MLB's Official Baseball Historian, Chapman's semi-pro manager, Dick Smith, once addressed the shortstop's clubhouse presence by telling him, "You know, kid, even if you never played a game, you'd earn your pay just by sitting on the bench and being such a cheerleader." Chapman was almost universally liked within baseball—even Ty Cobb called him a friend—and ran in Hollywood circles that included Al Jolson and Will Rogers. His funeral was among the most attended in Cleveland history. Nearly a century after his death, well-wishers still leave trinkets at his grave.
On the other hand, Thorn says, Mays was "universally disliked." He had forged a well-earned reputation for throwing at opponents, finishing first or second league-wide in hit batters in each of the previous three seasons. He also was one of the league's foremost users of a scuffed ball, a practice that was becoming increasingly taboo but had yet to be formally outlawed.
The two men's disparate reputations colored how the incident was viewed. There has never been any proof that Mays intended to throw at Chapman, or that the ball he used was scuffed. Nevertheless, Chapman's hesitation when the pitch came toward him prompted rampant speculation that he never saw the pitch coming, because Mays supposedly had thrown a scuffed ball that blended in with the dreary afternoon sky.
"The entire American League was in an uproar," Thorn told VICE Sports. AL umpires Billy Evans and Bill Dineen issued a statement that read, in part, "No pitcher in the American League resorted more to trickery than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball to get a break on it." The St. Louis Browns unanimously voted that they wanted Mays banned from baseball; other players from Boston, Washington, and Detroit—Cobb included—called for the same. A boycott was considered but ultimately never realized.
This was not the first time a player had died from a baseball-related accident. In his 1989 essay Tragedies and Shortened Careers, Joe Overfield dated the first baseball-related death back to 1862: James Creighton, a pitcher for the Brooklyn-based amateur team Excelsior Club, ruptured his bladder and bled to death after a particularly violent swing. At least three minor leaguers were killed by beanballs prior to Chapman's death.
However, Chapman was the first fatality in the major leagues, and his death became a major flashpoint. At first, it was a rallying cry for both leagues to adopt the batting helmet, with The Spalding Base Ball Guide—a publication that ran from 1889 until 1939—arguing that "a head helmet for the batter is not to be despised. There is nothing 'sissy' about it." Support for the idea quickly lost traction, however, and it would take another three decades for the Pittsburgh Pirates to introduce protective headwear.
That said, Chapman did precipitate major rule changes, and in so doing left a lasting legacy. Following his death, balls hit over the fence for home runs were required to stay out of play; previously, they were recycled back into games. More significantly, umpires placed a much greater emphasis on phasing out scuffed balls. According to Thorn, the National League went through 54,030 baseballs in 1924, compared to 22,095 in 1919.
Thorn believes that this helped foster the Live Ball Era more than the live ball itself, which had been used in both leagues since 1911, and more than Babe Ruth's emergence as the game's first true slugger. "A clean white ball being put into play whenever a ball was scuffed was more important to the rise of batting averages and power production, slugging, even home runs than Babe Ruth's 54 home runs in 1920 and 59 in 1921," he said, noting that the fresh baseballs were easier for batters to spot, and danced less once they left pitchers' hands.
"That made the biggest difference in how far the ball might travel," Thorn continued. "Ruth inspired stylistic changes but I think the advantage that the pitcher had had during the Dead Ball Era, the gate came down with Chapman's death."
Chapman's death also had a historic impact on his own team. His position was filled by rookie Joe Sewell, who eventually became a Hall of Famer and one of the 20 best shortstops in baseball history. Sewell hit .329 with a .413 on-base percentage down the stretch to help the Indians claim the pennant and then the World Series. The team's late-season run was aided by the Black Sox scandal, which caused seven key Chicago players to be suspended during a season-deciding series against the Browns. Chicago lost the series, in effect handing the American League to Cleveland. After the Indians won the World Series, they voted Chapman's widow a full share of their postseason money.
For his part, Carl Mays was cleared of any wrongdoing in Chapman's death. He was no stranger to beanball controversies. The season before, he had pitched for the Boston Red Sox. His teammates despised him. Tensions came to a head in a July blowout when Wally Schang, Boston's second baseman, accidentally hit Mays in the back of the head while trying to throw out a baserunner. Mays finished the inning, and then walked out of the game. He soon demanded a trade, citing injury and personal problems.
The Yankees swooped in and purchased him for $40,000, seemingly tying a bow on the matter. But AL president Ban Johnson attempted to block the sale, trying to limit players' autonomy in deciding where they should play. He suspended Mays indefinitely, pending a return to play for the Red Sox. Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert took the matter to New York State Supreme Court, and eventually obtained a permanent injunction against Johnson's interference. When the Black Sox scandal broke in 1920, it gave Ruppert and other owners the leverage to force Johnson out. They replaced him with Kenesaw Landis, baseball's first commissioner.
Carl Mays went on to pitch nine more seasons, the most notable of which came the very next year, when he won 27 games and saved seven. He completed what was perhaps the most unintentionally influential career in baseball history as a scout.
Arguably the cruelest part of Chapman's death were rumors—ones Thorn cannot confirm—that the shortstop was considering quitting baseball after the 1920 season. Had one pitch broke two inches closer to the plate, he may have done just that. A historic legacy is hardly a fair trade for someone's life, especially a life as well-regarded as Chapman's. But, if nothing else, Ray Chapman did not die a footnote.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.