August 16 is the 89th anniversary of Cleveland’s Ray Chapman getting hit in the head from a pitch by the Yankees’ Carl Mays in a game at the Polo Grounds. Chapman died early the next day.
The definitive book on the subject is “The Pitch That Killed” by Mike Sowell. It might be out of print now, but it’s worth tracking down or finding in a library if you’re interested in an excellently written account of one of baseball’s fascinating, darker historic moments.
Chapman and Mays were both from Kentucky. Chapman was 29 when he died. He had been an excellent shortstop who, in various seasons, had led the Cleveland Indians in runs, walks, sacrifices, assists and stolen bases. He batted .300 or better three times. He was said to have been easy-going and enormously popular, not only among teammates but among opponents, also, even Ty Cobb. He was hitting .303 with 97 runs scored at the time of the beaning.
Mays was one of the top pitchers in baseball at the time. He would finish that 1920 season with a record of 26-11. He was said to have been one of the most unpopular players in baseball, even among teammates, for an abrasive personality. He threw sidearm or submarine style and he threw a spitball, which was legal at the time.
Eyewitnesses said Chapman never made an attempt to avoid the pitch. The game was played in late afternoon on an overcast day, during an era when big-league ballparks did not have lights.
After the Chapman tragedy, it would take Major League Baseball another 36 years to make the wearing of batting helmets mandatory.