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.

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  1. Richard C. Geschke

    You are indeed correct when stating that Sowell’s book is the definitive account of this tragic incident. But this book is just not about that death. It thoroughly traces one of the greatest pennant races in modern times. Also it goes into the mindset of Chapman’s teamates and the introduction of Chapman’s replacement who turned out to be Joe Sewell who is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Outside the book “The Glory of There Times” this book entitled “The Pitch That Killed” would to me rank number 2 on the all-time list.

    August 28th, 2009 12:51 pm

  2. OldSchool

    I agree. It’s a multilayered book with many fine subplots. One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books, not just sports books. Thanks for your informed reply.

    August 29th, 2009 6:54 pm

  3. fred

    The book is still available. Ivan R. Dee republished it in 2004.

    September 29th, 2009 7:34 pm

  4. Richard C. Geschke

    How’s this for an idea?
    In the genre of baseball movies most of what we have are works of fiction in which some are done very well such as “The Natural”, “Field of Dreams” and “For Love Of The Game”. However all that has really been done in showing real life drama of baseball has been done in documentaries such as Ken Burns treatment of “Baseball”. Other rather feeble attempts were made in the 1940’s with “The Lou Gehrig Story” and “The Babe Ruth Story”. The only real true solid dramatic baseball movie was the adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out” which was true to its period and a very well constructed, entertaining and true depiction of the Black Sox scandal.
    My proposal is to utilize Mike Sowell’s book “The Pitch That Killed” to be written into a movie script faithfully detailing a long ago but truly incredible baseball season of 1920. This was the true beginning of modern baseball in which the long ball began to show its way into the game thanks to Babe Ruth’s first season as a Yankee. I’ll quickly outline the basics of the proposed script to give you the essence of the book and how I think it can be adapted to the screen.
    The story line begins by following the careers of Carl Mays and Ray Chapman which will finally converge in major league baseball’s only fatality with the beaning of Chapman by Mays on August 16, 1920 at the Polo Grounds in New York City. As Sowell wrote of the talents of both young men, he also interweaves the culture and the times of both the baseball community and life as being lived at the end of the Ragtime era. Other players such as Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker are introduced. Sowell writes about the close pennant race between the White Sox, Yankees and Indians basically following the ups and downs of what the Indians were doing. All events lead to August 16, 1920 when Carl Mays throws the fatal pitch which kills Ben Chapman.
    This seminal event leaves a deep void with the Indians organization and Sowell deals with the depression of Player Manager Tris Speaker, Chapman’s teammates and the fans of Cleveland. In essence this becomes a true story of raw courage and the comeback of the underdog against all odds. We’re introduced to Joe Sewell who takes Chapman’s place and we watch as the Indians emulate Rocky Balboa and come from behind to capture the pennant in a long ago forgotten September stretch drive.
    In the grand finale, the Tribe goes on to win the World Series 5 games to 2, and by the way plays a most incredible World Series game on Sunday October 10, 1920. In that game which now is long forgotten, three amazing things happened.
    1. The first World Series Grand Slam homerun was hit.
    2. Jim Bagby became the first pitcher to hit a homerun in a World Series game.
    3. The first and only unassisted triple play in a World Series by Bill Wambsganss was executed.
    The ultimate underdog wins over all odds to become the Baseball Champions of the World.
    In conclusion, my take on the way this story should be depicted are the following:
    1. As with the film adaptation of Seabiscuit, historical accuracy down to dress and musical tastes must be adhered to.
    2. The stadium and street scenes in Cleveland should be shot on location on a prepared baseball field where League Park stands today. The background should be digitally computerized images such as what was done in the shooting of John Adams HBO depiction. The scenes for the Polo Grounds should be shot at the current League Park with a digitally enhanced Polo Grounds background.
    3. The storyline which includes action, romance, tragedy and in the end redemption should accurately follow the lines of what Mike Sowell wrote.
    4. The introduction of this story should be in narrative form told by Bill Wambsganss to a young 14 year old kid who lives in Lakewood, Ohio in 1961. This introduction will establish Wambsganss as the narrator of the story and will be the only fictional part of the movie. In essence Wamby serves as the central story teller of this incredible true story. I’m taking a section of Lawrence Ritter’s book titled “The Glory of Their Times” and fictionalizing a part of the story to create a true narrative of a story told on a porch in the Summer of 1961 in Lakewood, Ohio where Mr. Wambsganss actually lived.
    In conclusion, I want to show that this baseball season did exist and that tragedy can be overcome and life can be redeeming. This is a major league season long forgotten that should be remembered. Fame and stardom are indeed fleeting. In the final page of Ritter’s interview with Bill Wambganns the following poem was uttered by Wamby which indeed explains this long forgotten baseball season:
    o Now Summer goes
    o And tomorrow snows
    o Will soon be deep
    o And the sky of blue
    o Which summer knew
    o See shadows creep
    o As the gleam tonight
    o Which is silver bright
    o Spans ghostly forms,
    o The winds rush by
    o With a waning cry
    o Of coming storms
    o So the laurel fades
    o In the snow-swept glades
    o Of flying years
    o And dreams of youth
    o Find the bitter truth
    o Of pain and tears
    o Through the cheering mass
    o Let the victors pass
    o To find fates thirst,
    o As tomorrow’s fame
    o Writes another name
    o On drifting dust
    Likewise at the end of Sowell’s epic story is the following excerpt:
    “Late one night after his team won the world championship in 1920, Indians owner Jim Dunn, fortified by liquor, walked out to the middle of his empty ballpark. He spread out his arms, threw back his head and shouted triumphantly, “I own the best damn baseball team in the world!”
    In fact this is the way the movie should end as follows:
    The above excerpt of barking at the moon by Mr. Dunn should be in the blue red haze of twilight followed by a very slow fade with the august voice of Anthony Hopkins reciting the unknown authored poem as written above.
    Richard C. Geschke

    November 4th, 2009 11:36 pm

  5. Donna West

    Carl Mays homeplace was Mansfield, Mo. On June 26, 2010 he will be honored with a celebration in Mansfield Mo. Many of his relatives will attend the event. I believe a movie should be made of this mans life. He made a huge impact on baseball history and also had an interesting private life.

    June 7th, 2010 3:20 pm

  6. Jess

    Carl Mays grew up in my home town and ive been to his old house many times

    March 13th, 2013 10:12 am

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