The Fatal Pitch That Changed Baseball History

Death by fastball. This 1920 tragedy would help shape the future of the sport.

As rumors continued to swirl that the reigning American League champions, the Chicago White Sox, had thrown the World Series the previous season, two other contenders for the 1920 American League crown squared off on a drizzly August afternoon at the Polo Grounds in New York. On the mound for the New York Yankees, who trailed the opposing Cleveland Indians by just a half-game in the standings, was their ace Carl Mays, a disagreeable, right-handed submarine pitcher whose contorted, underhand motion was so extreme that his knuckles sometimes scraped the ground.

Mays’ first pitch in the fifth inning, a fastball high and tight to Cleveland’s scrappy shortstop Ray Chapman, a 29-year-old newlywed with a daughter on the way, was met with a crack that sounded throughout the ballpark. The ball dribbled back toward Mays, who threw it to first baseman Wally Pipp — the same Wally Pipp who in five years would get benched for a ballplayer named Lou Gehrig. Mays watched as Pipp caught the ball and then froze, looking toward home plate. It was then that Mays and others in the ballpark realized the crack they’d heard was not Chapman’s bat.

As baseball fans tune in to watch the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals compete in the 111th edition of the World Series, there have been on the order of 50 million pitches thrown in a big league game since the origin of major league baseball in 1871. Only one has been lethal. That pitch would end Ray Chapman’s life, permanently scar Carl Mays’ career and help change the course of baseball history.

Chapman barely moved an inch when Mays’ pitch smashed into the side of his head.

As players and men, Mays and Chapman could not have been more different, something that made their fateful encounter even more powerful in the public’s imagination. As Mike Sowell details in The Pitch That Killed, Mays was likely the most unpopular player in the game, a moody loner off the field whom teammates likened to someone with a nagging toothache, and a fierce competitor on the mound, whose reputation for being a “headhunter” put him among the league leaders in hit batsmen. In one game against the equally despised Ty Cobb, Mays threw at the Detroit Tigers legend every time he came to the plate, and Cobb reciprocated by throwing his bat at Mays. The unpopular pitcher yelled at his own fielders when they made an error, and once even threw at — and hit — a heckling fan in the stands.

Chapman, on the other hand, was well-liked by both players and fans. Before the season, the infielder had married the daughter of a wealthy Cleveland businessman who was eager for his son-in-law to retire from his low-paying itinerant job and join the family business. Chapman was widely considered the best shortstop in the league and someone who was unusually good with the bat when his position was primarily regarded as a defensive one at the time.

Unfortunately, Chapman also stood unusually close to the plate and hunched over it — in an era when batting helmets were still 50 years away from becoming mandatory. “His head was in the strike zone,” Muddy Ruel, the Yankees catcher on that fateful day, told a reporter years later. And whether it was the fog hanging over the field, the dirty baseball covered with tobacco juice, or something else, by all accounts Chapman barely moved an inch when Mays’ pitch smashed into the side of his head.

Ruel caught Chapman as he collapsed, the home-plate umpire called for a doctor, and the fallen batter was carried from the field. At St. Lawrence Hospital, doctors found a fracture on the left side of Chapman’s skull that was more than 3 inches long, and his brain had lacerations on both sides from hitting bone. Doctors operated into the night, but shortly before sunrise, Chapman died. When his pregnant widow was greeted with the news as she stepped from the train in New York, she fainted.

Mays was also distraught on hearing the news, and pledged to surrender himself to the district attorney. Despite Mays’ reputation as a headhunter, most observers felt that he had not been aiming at Chapman, given the fact that the Yankees were trailing in a game with pennant implications, and the death was ruled accidental. But the accident would haunt Mays until his death in 1971 at age 79, casting a dark shadow over a career in which he racked up a 207-126 and 2.92 ERA in 15 seasons, among the best numbers for a pitcher not in the Hall of Fame.

The Cleveland Indians would manage to recover and win the first World Series to make franchise history that fall in honor of their fallen shortstop. And, beginning the following season, Major League Baseball would institute rules requiring new balls be introduced into games more regularly to ensure that they didn’t become too dirty to see. Of course, easier-to-spot balls were also easier to hit. So Chapman’s death, along with the elimination of the spitball and the continued rise of a certain home-run-hitting slugger named Babe Ruth, would help usher in the so-called live-ball era of the modern game, in which higher-scoring contests with more home runs would electrify a new generation of fans, helping to reclaim the sport from the taint of the Black Sox scandal and the devastation of what remains its only on-field fatality.

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