On Aug. 16, 1920, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch. He died a day later, becoming the only player in major league history to die from a pitched ball.
Chapman Dies After Suffering Skull Fracture
The first-place Indians were in New York, opening up an important three-game series against the Yankees, who were a half-game behind Cleveland in the standings.
Chapman led off the fifth inning against the Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman had a crouched batting stance and liked to crowd the plate. Mays, a submarine pitcher, was known for his spitball, which would often rise up toward the batter’s head.
“The Indians’ shortstop … was leaning over in a crouching position when Mays let one of his under-handed shoots loose,” wrote The New York Times. “The ball hit Chapman on the left side of the head. The crack of the ball could be heard all over the stand and spectators gasped as they turned their heads away.”
The ball bounced back to Mays, who, believing that it had hit Chapman’s bat, threw it to first base. When he looked back at Chapman, however, he saw that the batter had been knocked unconscious. Chapman awakened and attempted to walk off the field, but his legs gave way and he had to be carried off the field and to a nearby hospital.
Chapman suffered a three-and-a-half-inch depressed fracture in his skull. Arriving at the hospital unconscious, he had a piece of his skull removed during a 75-minute operation. His condition improved briefly and his teammates left the hospital believing that Chapman would recover; however, when they returned to the team hotel, they were informed that Chapman had died.
Key Players: Chapman and Mays
Sources in this Story
- The New York Times: Chapman Suffers Skull Fracture
- The New York Times: Ray Chapman Dies
- USA Today: Hidden diamond: Indians uncover lost Ray Chapman plaque
- SABR: The Baseball Biography Project: Ray Chapman
- Sports Illustrated: Carl Mays' Biography Describes How One Errant Pitch Clouded An Entire Career
- Seth.com: Promise Unfulfilled—Ray Chapman
- The New York Times: Ban Johnson Bars Boycott Of Mays
- MLB.com: One fateful pitch still in Mays' Hall path
- NetShrine: Overshadowed: The 1920 Cleveland Indians
- The New York Times: Likely To Modify Ban On Spitball
- MLB.com: Safe at home plate
- ESPN: Coolbaugh’s death prompts MLB to adopt helmets for base coaches
Ray “Chappie” Chapman was one of the game’s most popular players. The 29-year-old shortstop was one of the fastest players in the league, played great defensively and often led the league in sacrifice hits.
He had told teammates that if the Indians won the World Series in 1920, he would retire to spend more time with his wife. He bought his wife a ring soon before he was hit, and held it in his hand as he was being carried off the field.
After his death, ballpark flags across the country were flown at half-mast. A large crowd paid its respects at his funeral and more than 20,000 fans donated to his memorial fund. The Indians created a plaque in his honor and displayed it at its ballpark.
In 2007, the plaque was rediscovered after having been lost for decades. The plaque, which was refurbished and now hangs prominently at the Indians’ current home park, Progressive Field, reads, “He Lives In The Hearts Of All Who Knew Him.”
Mays was a great pitcher, but an unpopular player. “He was brutally honest, a fierce competitor and made enemies regularly on the field,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Robert Duffy.
After Chapman’s death, there was a large backlash against Mays. Ty Cobb sent Mays a note saying that Chapman was a “victim of arrogance, viciousness and greed.” The Indians organized a boycott of games pitched by Mays, but American League President Ban Johnson forbade it.
Many believe that Mays’s career was worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame, but he has not been elected. He “went to his grave believing one pitch cost him from being enshrined,” writes T.R. Sullivan for MLB.com.
Safety Improvements: Spitball Ban and Batting Helmets
In the early 20th century, balls were often intentionally moistened, scuffed or covered with dirt, causing pitches to move erratically and making them difficult to see. Before the 1920 season, team owners had decided to ban the pitchers’ use of spit and foreign substances on the ball, effective after the season.
Many observers believed that the spit and dirt on Mays’ pitch is the reason Chapman could not duck the pitch. Mays himself called the pitch a “sailer” that took an “unusual turn.”
The death of Chapman illustrated the need for spitballs to be outlawed. Mays was a notorious spitball pitcher; “No pitcher in the American League resorted to a trickery more than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball, in order to get a break on it which would make it difficult to hit,” said umpires Billy Evans and William Dineen.
At the end of the season, the owners decided to ban the spitball for all incoming pitchers. Mays and other major league pitchers were grandfathered in and allowed to continue using the pitch.
Chapman, like all players at the time, was not wearing a batting helmet when he was hit. Several players began wearing extra protection—usually a plastic insert inside their cap—after his death, but the majority of players chose not to for the next three decades.
Historians believe that the modern batting helmet was introduced sometime in the early 1940s. The Pirates mandated helmets for their players in 1952. In 1953, Dodgers minor leaguer Don Zimmer was struck in the head by a pitch and left unconscious for 13 days. Three years later, batting helmets became mandatory for all incoming major league players.
In 2007, minor league first base coach Mike Coolbaugh was struck in the head by a line drive. Coolbaugh, who—like almost all base coaches, was not wearing a helmet—died on impact. In the offseason, Major League Baseball instituted a rule mandating that base coaches wear helmets.
“If you think about the evolution of the batting helmet, unfortunately what ended up happening this year is essentially what happened with Ray Chapman,” said Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane.
The 1920 Indians
The Indians lost seven of the next nine games after Chapman’s death, but recovered to win the American League pennant. Led by player-manager Tris Speaker, they defeated the Brooklyn Robins five games to two to win the first World Series in team history.
“The Indians remain one of the more overlooked teams, hidden in the shadow of a death and the shadow of a scandal,” writes Will Carroll, formerly of Baseball Prospectus. “However, the 1920 Indians remain one of the great teams in history.”