This article was written by Richard Derby
This article was published in 1984 Baseball Research Journal
Ray Chapman, the only player killed in a major league game, was one of the most popular performers ever to wear a Cleveland uniform. From the time he joined the Indians late in the 1912 season at age 21 until his death, he was the club’s regular shortstop. He broke in by hitting .312 in 31 games in 1912 and during 4he eight seasons that followed he hit .300 or better three more times. In 1917 Ray batted .302, stole 52 bases, and scored 98 runs. Two seasons later he hit an even .300, and he was a few points over that level at the time of the 1920 tragedy.
Although he was only 29, Chapman was thinking of quitting the game after the 1920 season in favor of a business career. He had earlier married Kathleen Daly, the daughter of the president of the East Ohio Gas Co. “I’ll play next year (1920) because I want to help give Tris (manager Tris Speaker), Mr. Dunn (owner James Dunn) and Cleveland the first pennant the city has ever had,” he was quoted as saying. “Then I will talk about quitting, but I want to help bring that championship here first.”
On Monday, August 16, 1920 the Indians were engaged in a game against the Yankees on a gloomy, rainy day in the Polo Grounds. Carl Mays was pitching for New York. Mays was not a popular player with either his opponents or his teammates and had somewhat of a reputation as a headhunter.
Chapman led off the fifth inning. He had a habit of crowding the plate, and Mays may have decided to pitch inside to avoid Ray’s drag bunt specialty. As the first pitch was delivered Chapman stood motionless with his head nearly over the plate. The pitch struck him on the head. He made no attempt to back away from the pitch and presumably was fooled by the delivery.
There is considerable confusion as to what happened next. Roger Peckinpaugh, who was playing shortstop for the Yankees, claimed the ball was fielded by third baseman Aaron Ward.
Other versions have Muddy Ruel, New York’s catcher, fielding the ball. Still others, including Jack Graney, Chappie’s roommate who was watching from the Cleveland bench, claim the ball was fielded by Mays. This latter version is supported by accounts in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
A few moments after being struck, Chapman regained consciousness and was helped to his feet. He tried to walk but could not and slumped to the ground in deep unconsciousness, bleeding from both ears. A doctor hurried from the grandstand and gave first aid. Chapman was carried to the clubhouse and then taken to St. Lawrence Hospital.
Cleveland held a 3-0 lead at the time and, with Stan Covelski owning a four-hit shutout going into the ninth inning, eventually won, 4-3. Ironically, the run setup by the mishap turned out to be the decisive margin. Harry Lunte went in to run for Chapman and was forced at second base by Speaker. Larry Gardner singled Speaker to third, and Steve O’Neill then knocked in what proved to be the winning run. Mays continued to pitch for New York until being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning.
Later that evening, some eight hours after the accident, New York surgeons operated on Chapman. His skull was crushed in on one side and X-rays showed a fracture on the opposite side. By 5 o’clock the following morning Ray was dead.
His body was returned from New York on a train and removed at the East 105th Street station. Accompanying the body back to Cleveland were Mrs. Chapman, Speaker and Joe Wood. Mrs. Chapman had been summoned to New York but had not arrived until a few hours after Ray’s death. To lessen her grief, friends convinced her not to view the remains until returning to Cleveland.
Ray was buried on August 20. Many baseball notables attended the funeral, which was held at St. John’s Cathedral. Thirty-four priests participated in the service. On Chapman’s grave was placed a blanket made of more than 20,000 blossoms purchased by his fans at a dime apiece. Speaker and Graney were so overcome by grief that they could not attend the funeral.
The tributes to Chapman were many. “I can’t say the things Ray Chapman deserves,” declared his closest friend Speaker. “He was an inspiration to the whole team both with his playing and his personality . . . I would not mind losing the pennant if it meant Ray was coming back next year.”
“There wasn’t a better man anywhere,” commented Nap Lajoie, the retired former Cleveland star. “He loved the game and even now hadn’t reached his best. He was the kind who was continually improving and learning.”
Yankee manager Miller Huggins offered this tribute: “The game has lost one of the finest men who ever wore a uniform. He was a credit to baseball as a man and as a player. Second only to Speaker himself, Ray Chapman was the man we had to fear at bat and in the field. He was one of the fastest in the game and off the field one of the best. Baseball has lost a man it will be hard to replace.”
The death of Chapman completely demoralized the club for a spell. At the time the Indians were engaged in a tight three-team race. The victory on the day of the tragedy left them in first place with a 71-40 record, followed by the White Sox at 72-42 and the Yankees at 72-44. Because of Ray’s death, the August 17 game was called off. The Indians then lost to the Yankees the following day, 4-3, when Wally Pipp tagged Jim Bagby for a two-run homer in the ninth inning. According to Chapman’s roommate Graney, “We feel as if we did not care if we ever played baseball again . . . We cannot imagine ourselves playing with Chapman dead. We did not sleep last night and we cannot eat today.” The Indians’ staunchest supporters gave them up as pennant contenders.
But the club struggled on. Speaker finally returned to action on August 22 although he was almost too weak to swing the bat. With the addition a short time later of pitcher Duster Mails and
Joe Sewell, who took over Chapman’s shortstop spot, the Indians gained a new lease on life and fought their way to the first pennant in Cleveland’s history.
Did Mays intend to hit Chapman? Speaker said the Cleveland players did not feel that Mays was to blame. According to Graney, “While we feel it was solely an accident that took Chappie from
us, we are unanimous in not wanting ever to bat against Carl Mays again. We don’t think Mays tried to dust Chappie off. Neither did he try to dust any of the other boys off yesterday, but we think he has in the past. A batter has a chance to dodge the fastball thrown by an ordinary pitcher, but Mays has a freak delivery and his fastball has a sudden dip to it that never gives a batter a chance to dodge.”
Ty Cobb, although not present, expressed much the same opinion. “I will say that Carl Mays and I never got along,” the Detroit star said. “I dodged a lot of them from him which gave me dark suspicions. Yet keep in mind that he was a submariner with a delivery that started around his knees, resulting in curious breaks of the ball and a tendency for it to sail toward a batter’s skull. I believe it is for no one to say that there was purposeful intent behind that pitch.”
Perhaps the most eloquent of all were the words attributed to Mays himself as quoted in the November 1920 issue of Baseball Magazine. “It is an episode which I shall always regret more than anything that has ever happened to me,” Mays declared, “and yet I can look into my own conscience and feel absolved of all personal guilt . . . Walter Johnson with all his terrific speed has hit batters on the head and yet they have not died . . . Fairly often a batter gets hit on the head and seldom is he seriously injured.”
Mays felt that Chapman either did not see the ball or was hypnotized by it as his teammate Chick Fewster had been in an earlier spring training incident. “During the same season,” Mays’ statement continued, “there were several pitchers in this league who have hit more batters than I have . . . Because a terrible accident has happened does not relieve me from the responsibility I owe to continue pitching . . . I have long since ceased to care what most people think about me. I have a few good friends I can depend on and that is all I need and all I want. In the meantime, I have a wife and a family to support.”
Mays went on to finish the 1920 season with a 26-11 record and was 27-9 in 1921. He registered 100 of his career total 207 wins after 1920, but the Ray Chapman incident left a shadow that he could never escape.