Ninety years ago this month, the Yankees faced the Indians in a game at the Polo Grounds in New York. The 1920 Indians were charging for their first pennant, and the Yanks were not far behind. Pitching for the New Yorkers was their dangerous submariner Carl Mays. The right-hander would scrap his knuckles on the mound as he delivered his offering, a pitch that seemed to rise up into the batter and drive him off the plate. That day, the pitch drove into Ray Chapman, the Indians' scrappy shortstop and team leader. Both Mays and Chapman were from rural Kentucky, but the pitcher was despised by his teammates, while Chapman was a team and fan favorite.
Mays' pitch hit Chapman squarely in the temple. In the days before helmets, this was certain to cause grievous injury. Chapman fell backward, then walked out towards second base in a daze, where he collapsed. He never regained consciousness and died the next morning, the only fatality ever at the Major League level.
The loss of their friend and teammate Chapman spurred the Indians on to win the pennant, and they bested Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. Carl Mays, however, seemed unphased by what he had done. He continued to throw inside to batters for nine more seasons. It was just an element of the game of intimidation that was, and is, an accepted part of the national pastime. Mays would pay the price of history, however. Despite Hall of Fame statistics over a 15-year career, he was never elected to join the immortals in Cooperstown.
The beanball has flourished in baseball ever since pitchers were allowed to throw overhand in the late 1880s. In an effort to keep batters "unsettled," pitchers would throw inside. If the batter was hit, the benefits outweighed the costs. Other batters would be less likely to crowd the plate. Hugh Casey, a pitcher for the Dodgers in the 1940s, even took the issue one step further. In a game in the 1946 season, Casey yelled at the Cardinals' Marty Marion to stop timing his pitches from the on-deck circle. When Marion declined to follow Casey's instruction, Casey buzzed the next pitch directly at Marion's head, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Although Mays was the only fatality, many other Major Leaguers were never the same after being hit by a pitch. Mickey Cochrane was hit above his right eye by the Yankees' Bump Hadley during a game in 1937, breaking his skull in three places. (Cochrane had homered off Hadley earlier in the game, and this was purposeful retaliation.) Ducky Medwick, the National League's Triple Crown winner in 1937, never regained his form after being beaned by the Cardinals Bob Bowman in 1940. Many remember Red Sox hero Tony Conigliaro, the youngest home run champion in Major League history, whose cheekbone was crushed in 1967 by a pitch from Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. Finally, the Twins stolid outfielder Kirby Puckett's jaw was broken by Orioles pitcher Dennis Martinez in 1995, the last game Puckett would play in his stellar career.
Hitting a batter on purpose is a well understood custom in the baseball trade, and the use of the pitch as a weapon has not abated. As a reporter for the Chicago Daily News wrote in 1958: "It is virtually impossible to legislate against death, taxes and the beanball." Since the advent of helmets in the mid-1950s, the scope of the risk has decreased, but not ceased. Maybe if the pitch that killed Ray Chapman was repeated all day on Sports Center and YouTube, the public outcry would end the practice of intimidation. On the other hand, perhaps the possibility of watching a death live and in color might spur ratings.
Ray Chapman was a great ballplayer and a true role model. As the Cleveland News reported the day after his demise: "He was his 100 percent self all the time, no frills, or furbelows, and it was this trait that won him fast friends among the heads of manufacturing, industrial and mercantile concerns as well as among the newsies on the street corners." Likely headed for the Hall of Fame before that game 90 years ago, Chapman's death did have an immediate impact on the game. Some thought that Chapman could not pick up Mays' pitch because the ball was dirty and scuffed. Umpires were urged by league officials to replace soiled balls. Batters could now see the white horsehide sphere. In particular, one batter for the Yankees, the incomparable Babe Ruth, could better see the pitches sent his way, which he often deposited over the right field wall.