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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | October 23, 2017

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“Hit By Pitch,” A New Look at a Sad Day

By Vince Guerrieri

Most Cleveland fans know the story of the fateful encounter between Carl Mays and Ray Chapman.

Chapman, the Indians shortstop, stood in the batter’s box against Mays in a game at the Polo Grounds on August 16, 1920. The official box score reads that Chapman got hit by a pitch, but that only tells part of the story.

Molly Lawless tells the rest. Lawless, a Boston native (she’s a Red Sox fan, but she was before it was cool, so it’s OK), has written and illustrated a graphic novel about the encounter and its aftermath called “Hit By Pitch,” available through McFarland Publications (www.mcfarlandpub.com, 1-800-253-2187).

It’s Lawless’ first graphic novel. She read the story of Mays’ fatal beaning of Chapman when she was about 8 years old, and found herself drawn to it.

“I couldn’t imagine it happening now,” she said. “The idea of one of them getting hurt and dying almost before your eyes is unthinkable. It kind of haunted me.”

The book doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground, which wasn’t Lawless’ intention. She relied on Mike Sowell’s book “The Pitch That Killed” as a reference.

Rather, the English graduate from Boston University presents the encounter – which resulted in Chapman’s death from a fractured skull a day after Mays beaned him – as a Shakespearean tragedy. Chapman dies; everyone else associated with it is destroyed.

There’s Mays, an aloof, cold player whose reputation – never sterling – was ruined by the fatality. There’s manager Tris Speaker, the best man at Chapman’s wedding who suffered a nervous breakdown after Chappie’s death – but whose anti-Catholic biases prevented him from attending the funeral at St. John’s Cathedral on East Ninth Street. And there’s Chapman’s wife and the daughter he never met, who were both dead within 10 years.

The only person who emerges intact is Joe Sewell, the minor leaguer who was called up to replace Chapman. The Indians went on to win their first World Series that year, and Sewell started a hall of fame career.

“The cast of characters was so good, if you have any interest in baseball history, you can go on forever,” Lawless said.

And it’s all true, too. Lawless, who’s never been to Cleveland, grew up in Boston and now lives in the Washington DC area. While the story might be familiar to Cleveland fans, it can be obscure, even unknown to people she’s encountered.

“Lots of people who are real baseball fans had no idea that a fatal baseball injury occurred during a baseball game,” she said.

Lawless said the book took about three years from inception to completion. She did research, and then outlined the chapters and storyboarded what she wanted to say.

And now, she’s pondering her next project. She’s done some cartoons on “Great Moments in Baseball,” and could do a compilation of those, but family life with her husband Carlton King (to whom “Hit By Pitch” is dedicated, along with her father James Lawless) and her new son Freddy are keeping her busy.

For more information on Lawless and her work, visit her website, www.mollylawless.com.

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