Killed By the Game

In the history of the game, there have been thousands of injuries ranging from ridiculous, like Wade Boggs straining his back while pulling on cowboy boots, to heartbreaking, like Tony C getting hit in the face with a pitch that would derail and ultimately shorten both his career and life.

But to this day, only one player in MLB history has ever died from injuries sustained during a game.

It happened on August 16, 1920, when the first-place Cleveland Indians arrived at the foggy, rainy Polo Grounds for a 3-game series against the New York Yankees. The Indians were thirty-one games over .500, while the Yankees were still a few years away from winning their first World Series.

This was a different era of baseball: the first Yankee Stadium wouldn’t exist for another three years, the dead-ball era meant pitchers reigned supreme, spitballing was still legal, and Babe Ruth was still attempting to hit, field, and pitch.

Carl Mays was a right-handed spitballer known for head-hunting, often leading the league in hit batsmen. He’d even once thrown a fastball at a fan who was heckling him.

carl-mays-e1524139579246 (1)
Carl Mays throwing his famous submariner

Unpopular in the league and with his own team, Mays was also embroiled in a permanent feud with Tigers star Ty Cobb, who he would throw at every chance he got. Cobb would typically retaliate by throwing his bat at Mays or even trying to spike him. Often, the umpires would have to physically separate the two.

Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, on the other hand, was a likable player, popular in the league and with baseball fans. He was known for his “infectious cheerfulness and enthusiasm.” Even the famously-cantankerous Cobb liked him. At just 29 years old, Chapman was newly married and had a baby on the way. In nine seasons, he’d already led his team in runs scored three times and stolen bases five times in his career. His 52 stolen bases during the 1917 season would be a franchise record until 1980. People say he would’ve been a Hall of Fame guarantee.

When Chapman stepped up to the plate in the 5th inning, the Indians were ahead 3-0. Mays threw high and tight towards Chapman, who was known for crowding the plate. When the pitcher heard a loud crack and saw the ball coming back towards the mound, he must have thought Chapman had hit a dribbler back, so he quickly fielded it to first to make an out. But Chapman was still at the plate, on his knees, and then he collapsed into Yankee catcher Muddy Ruel’s arms.

After a few minutes, Chapman regained consciousness and even tried to walk toward the clubhouse before collapsing again. Mays, meanwhile, never even left the mound.

While the Indians beat the Yankees, Chapman was at the hospital, receiving primitive X-rays that would reveal a depressed fracture to his skull. They operated immediately, removing a piece of his skull that had lacerated his brain. Mays’ pitch had hit him so hard that it had actually impacted both sides of his brain, the force of the blow practically going through his head.

Post-op, Chapman seemed to have improved, so player-manager Tris Speaker and their teammates left the hospital to get some sleep at their hotel.

The next morning, the team awoke to the news that Chapman had died before sunrise, twelve hours after being struck.

The New York Times reported,

“Chapman’s death has cast a tragic spell over the baseball fans… Chapman was a true sportsman, a skillful player, and one of the most popular men in the major leagues.”

His death was ruled accidental, and Carl Mays was not charged with any crime. But the famously-tough pitcher was distraught. He attempted to give himself up to the district attorney, and said, “It was the most regrettable incident of my career and I would do anything to undo what has happened.”

The Cleveland Indians would go on to win their first pennant and the 1920 World Series. I like to think they won in Chapman’s honor.

Carl Mays continued to pitch until 1929, despite many players around the league petitioning for him to be banned for life and even refusing to play in games he pitched. The St. Louis Browns threatened to boycott his starts. Mays’ 1921 season was his best, with 27 wins, and he ended his career with 202, but he later wrote, “Nobody ever remembers anything about me except one thing.”

After that season, baseball became much stricter. The following season, spitballs were banned, and umpires were required to ensure that the balls being used were bright white, easily visible no matter the weather conditions. Players were no longer allowed to dirty the balls in any way that would make them more obscure to the batter. A seemingly small change shifted the game from the pitcher’s advantage to the hitter’s; Ray Chapman’s death forced baseball to enter the modern era.

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