A dark day for the MLB: player died after a ball to the head

Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

On August 16, 1920, a gloomy day at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians shortstop, Ray “Chappie” Chapmanentered the batter’s box to lead off the top of the fifth inning.

The first release of Carl Mays of the Yankees hit Chapman without a helmet in the temple and he collapsed to the ground. Although he leaves the field a short time later, Chapman collapses again and is rushed to the hospital.

There, early the next morning, it will become the first and only Major League Baseball player to die as a direct result of being hit by a pitch.

Baseball, and hitting in particular, was much more dangerous in 1920 than it is today; even after Chapman’s death, it would be two decades before any team would start requiring players to wear helmets; the MLB only required the use of helmets in 1971.

Additionally, pitchers used a wide range of techniques, many of which are banned today, to make the ball more difficult to reach: by rubbing saliva, dirt, or even shaving cream on the ball; lacerating it; and going to other extremes to affect the path of a pitch was so common that new balls were often unrecognizable in late innings of games.

Carl Maysin particular, had a reputation for throwing a nasty ball of spit and from frequently hitting batters. Despite the difficulty of hitting in this era, Chapman excelled at the plate and on base, leading the American League in runs and walks in 1918.

When his pitch hit Chapman’s skull, the noise was so loud that Mays assumed the ball had hit the bat.

The pitcher fielded the ball and threw it to first, but Chapman’s knees buckled as he tried to take his base, and he fell to the ground, bleeding from the ear

The referee called a doctor, and although Chapman briefly regained stability, he collapsed again a short time later. “Tell Mays not to worry,” he said before blacking out.

The New York Times the next day hailed Chapman as “a true sportsman, a skilled player, and one of the most popular men in the major leagues.” Flowers and condolences poured in from across the league and the country.

The fans and some players they called for Mays to be banned from baseball or even prosecuted, but no charges were filed.

Mays called Chapman’s death “the most regrettable incident of my baseball career,” adding, “I would give anything if I could undo what happened. Chapman was a game, a splendid guy.”

The pitcher retired from baseball for 10 days after the incident and did not accompany his team on their next road trip to Cleveland.

Thousands of mourners attended Chapman’s funeral in Cleveland, his family and pregnant wife among them, and more than 20,000 people donated money for a plaque in his honor at the Cleveland ballpark.

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