Ray Chapman: An Indians Legend


By Matthew Van Wormer

January 15 marks the birthday of a great Indian; Raymond Johnson Chapman.  Born in 1891, Ray played for the Indians until August 16, 1920, when a ball pitched by Carl Mays struck him in the left side of the head.  He died just 12 hours later and inspired the team to win the World Series, the first of two championships for the Cleveland Indians.  This two part series will cover Ray Chapman from a fan’s perspective and also look at the career of two men, Chapman and Mays, who couldn’t have been more different.

Everyone has certain rituals at baseball games.  People park in the same garage, enter through the same gate, purchase food and beer from the same vendors.  Call it superstitious, call it obsessive compulsive.  I call it being a fan.  My game day ritual varies slightly from game to game, except for one thing.  As soon as I enter the ballpark (through Gate C by the Bob Feller statue), I head down to the lower level of Heritage Park where a plaque hangs in honor of the only batter to ever die due to injuries sustained from a pitched ball, Ray Chapman.

I spend a minute or two just standing there, thinking about this ballplayer, who was not just a good ballplayer but a good man, and the tragedy that struck him, his family and his soon to be bride.  Ironically, I then rub his head for good luck.  Does he really give the team luck just because I rub his head?  Who knows?  But in my mind, I am participating in my own personal ritual that helps Chappie give the boys on the field a little boost.

I don’t think my superstition is unjustified, if I must say so.  Last year, during the hot start that the Indians had, I went to quite a few games and rubbed Chappie’s head every time I took a trip to “The Jake.”  On one trip, however, I did not get to Chappie before the game started.  My wife and I were heading to a game with another couple and though they were definitely fans like Amanda and I, I just wasn’t sure how they’d react to the crazy guy rubbing a plaque’s head so as we arrived at the ballpark, we went straight to our seats.

It was April 30 and the Indians were playing the Tigers and it was one hell of a battle.  The Tribe had just taken Detroit down, 9-5, the night before and things weren’t looking good for Cleveland early on.  The Tigers took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the 4th before Carlos Santana hit a solo home run, followed by a solo home run by Michael Brantley in the 6th which tied the game until the 13th inning.  Alex White started that game and probably could have used my “Chappie Rub” to get past the likes of Miguel Cabrera and former Indian Victor Martinez.  I should have stuck with my tradition.

The night before, I was at the game, and went through my pre-game ritual.  That game ended with a game winning grand slam by Carlos Santana.  You don’t mess with superstition.  So as this Saturday night game went on, into the 10th, 11th and 12th, I knew I had to do something.  Amanda leaned over to me and said “You didn’t rub Chappie’s head and he’s not happy with you.”  I knew she was right so as the top of the 13th inning started, I headed down to Heritage Park and made my way to Chappie.

There wasn’t another soul in the area as everyone was glued to their seats waiting to see how this magical night played out.  I went down to the lower level, apologized profusely to Mr. Chapman for not coming to see him before the game and rubbed his head and begged him to let this game end on a high note for the Indians.  He made me sweat a little bit but he came through.  As I walked back to my seat, Jhonny Peralta was at the plate with Miguel Cabrera on second, and he hit a high, deep fly ball to center field.  The ball was hit a ton and I thought for sure that it was going to go out.  I stood there, waiting to go back to my seat, holding my breath and praying that Michael Brantley could catch the ball before it left the yard.  He did.  Bottom of the 13th.

After Brantley singled to lead off the 13th, and then advanced to second on a throwing error by the Tigers’ pitcher, I knew Chappie was taking care of things.  Brantley was sacrificed to third by Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo and Santana were intentionally walked to load the bases and Orlando Cabrera now stood at the plate.  I knew what was going to happen before it unfolded.  Cabrera took a swing at the first pitch and with the outfield playing shallow, a single dropped behind Austin Jackson and Brantley strolled across the plate and he and Cabrera were mobbed by their teammates who had won another game in dramatic fashion.

Now, to say that I was solely responsible for this victory, and the many others I attended last April would be ridiculous.  But I do feel like my gamely trip to see Chappie is a part of the reason that the Indians win.  I have shared this tradition with my wife and my family and right after Cabrera scored that run in the 13th, I texted my father.  All it said was “CHAPPIE!!!”  Before it was even sent, I had already received a text from my dad that said the same exact thing.

I have received many funny looks when I go up to the plaque and rub the head of this dead man.  I’ve even informed some people about the plaque when they are taking a picture and can see me waiting for them to finish so I can perform my ritual rub.  I love telling people who don’t know the story of Ray Chapman however much they will listen to.  Tomorrow, I will tell all of you some things you may not know about the man who is immortalized in Heritage Park, and visited every time I attend a game, as well as the man that ended his life, Carl Mays.

Photo: Cleveland Indians

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