This weekend marked the anniversary of a tragic event thankfully never replicated on a Major League field. This story of the death of Ray Chapman was originally published on December 23, 2014, as part of a series of stories by Did The Tribe Win Last Night’s Vince Guerrieri about the Indians’ 1920 season. You can find this original story and more categorized on the site under 1920: Tragedy and Triumph. – BT
After a four-game sweep by the Yankees at League Park, the Indians had watched their lead in the American League dwindle from four and a half games down to just half a game. A loss to the St. Louis Browns put the Indians half a game back of the Yankees, who were demonstrating that they didn’t need speed when they had power. The Indians were able to put an end to the five-game skid with a shutout by Bob Clark, the pitcher from Newport, Pennsylvania*, who had thrown batting practice and came on in relief in the exhibition in July against the Reds. It was Clark’s first – and only – major league win.
The Indians rolled into New York City for a make-or-break series with the Yankees, but they were still optimistic enough to take requests for World Series tickets. Stan Coveleski would take the mound for the Tribe in the Polo Grounds, facing submariner Carl Mays. It was an unpleasant day in Harlem, with temperatures in the 80s and humidity beyond that, but 23,000 people had shown up for the game.
The Indians got on the board in the top of the second, when Steve O’Neill hit a home run over the left field wall. The Indians tacked on two more runs in the fifth, when Doc Johnston grounded to Roger Peckinpaugh with Larry Gardner on third. Gardner broke for home, and Peckinpaugh’s throw was on target, but Gardner knocked the ball out of catcher Muddy Ruel’s hands to score. Two batters later, Coveleski sacrificed home O’Neill. The Indians had a 3-0 lead, and Charlie Jamieson grounded to Mays to end the inning. Ray Chapman was on deck, and he’d be the first batter in the sixth inning.
Mays delivered his first pitch to Chapman. He pitched with a sidearm delivery bordering on underhand. His knuckles almost scraped the ground as he delivered a high and tight fastball – heading dangerously toward Chapman’s head. Mays said the ball had been wet, making it more difficult to control.
Chappie made no effort to move out of the way of the pitch. John B. Sheridan, who wrote “Baseball for Beginners,” said, “Chapman rarely dropped to a pitch which went near his head. His eye was so good, his confidence in it so supreme, his courage so fine, that he merely turned his head a little when a ball came close to it.”
The pitch hit Chapman in the left temple and rolled back to the pitcher’s mound. Mays, thinking Chapman had actually hit the ball, picked it up and threw it to Wally Pipp at first for what he thought would be a putout.
Pipp pulled the ball out of his glove – and watched Chapman collapse at home plate. Umpire Tom Connolly screamed for a doctor. Speaker, in the on-deck circle, ran to Chapman, who was struggling to sit up. Chapman’s teammates ran out to help him – except for Gardner. “I heard the sound when the ball crushed his skull, and I saw him fall,” Gardner said in “The Pitch That Killed,” the seminal history of the event. “I didn’t want any closer view than that.”
Eventually, Chapman stood up and started to walk to the clubhouse, which at the Polo Grounds was in straightaway center field, with steps leading up to it next to the Eddie Grant Memorial, in honor of the former Indian and Giant who was killed in the waning days of World War I. Chapman had made it almost out of the infield before his knees buckled. He was helped into the clubhouse by his teammates.
The ball that had struck Chapman was removed from the game, and play continued, with Harry Lunte entering the game for Chapman. Lunte was out at second on a fielder’s choice by Speaker, and Gardner rapped a single off the right field wall, sending Speaker to third. The player-manager scored when O’Neill singled to right, making it 4-0.
Mays was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth. Coveleski went the distance for the Indians, but made it interesting in the ninth, as he gave up a two-run double to Ping Bodie, and Ruel singled Bodie home to make it a one-run game. Yankees manager Miller Huggins called in a pinch-hitter, a 23-year-old San Francisco native named Lefty O’Doul. He grounded to Lunte, who threw to Bill Wambsganss to end the game.
In the clubhouse, Chapman was being treated by two doctors, who happened to be in the stands. Chapman, who was conscious but incoherent, managed to get the words “Katy’s ring” out to Percy Smallwood, the team trainer. Smallwood found Chapman’s wedding ring, which he took off before the game, and put it on Chapman’s hand. An ambulance came to take Chapman to St. Lawrence Hospital. Before leaving, Chapman told John Henry, a former ballplayer and friend, “For God’s sake, don’t call Kate. But if you do, tell her I’m all right.”
Beanballs in baseball were nothing new. After the game, Speaker recalled getting hit in the head in 1916, and ended up recovering, leading the Red Sox to the World Series. As the Yankees broke spring training, they played an exhibition against the Brooklyn Robins in Jacksonville, Florida. Robins pitcher Jeff Pfeffer beaned Chick Fewster, fracturing his skull and causing a potentially fatal blood clot. Fewster had to have surgery.
Chapman, too, would have to undergo surgery. Speaker called Katy and told her to come to New York immediately. Chapman’s pulse was dropping, and a piece of his skull was pressing down on his brain, which was already swelling. The right side of his skull – the side that wasn’t hit – was probably also lacerated, doctors said. Speaker gave permission for the surgery in the absence of Chapman’s wife.
During the 75-minute surgery, doctors found multiple blood clots and signs of paralysis. However, they remained optimistic; Fewster spent a week in a wheelchair after his beaning, but was able to walk again. In fact, he returned to baseball.
After surgery, a little before 2 a.m. on August 17, Chapman breathed better and his pulse rose.
Katy Chapman arrived in New York at 10 a.m. on August 17. “I feared that something must happen,” she said. “We had been too happy together, and it couldn’t last.”
Katy arrived at the Ansonia Hotel, where the Indians were staying. When she got to Speaker’s room, she found a room full of players, each probably wishing they could be somewhere else.
“He’s dead, isn’t he,” she asked.
Ray Chapman had died at 4:40 that morning.
*The birthplace of Bob Clark was edited to reflect Newport, Pennsylvania, instead of the originally reported Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Mr. Clark also attended Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Thanks to Mr. Clark’s grandson, Bill Snyder, for alerting us to this error in our historical register. – BT