Sunday, September 25th, 2022

Ray Chapman, Killed by Pitched Ball August 17, 1920

August 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Baseball History, Baseball Writing

On August 16, 1920, in the late afternoon at the Polo Grounds, Ray Chapman stepped into the batter’s box for what would be the very last time.  The 29 year old Cleveland Indians’ shortstop, known as “Chappie”,  squared around to bunt off the Yankee’s Carl Mays.  The submariner’s pitch was inside, Chapman was unable to duck and the pitch hit him on the temple.  The ball struck so loud and with such a sound that Mays thought it had hit Chapman’s bat and threw the rolling ball to first for an out.

Chapman never regained consciousness and died at 4:30am the next day, August 17, 1920.  Thankfully, Chapman remains the only MLB player to suffer fatal injuries during a game.  (Minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh was struck on the head and killed while coaching a Tulsa Drillers game in July 2007).

New York Times article on Chapman’s death….

The Indians won the tragic game 4-3, handing Mays the loss.  As a dedication to Chapman, The Cleveland squad went on to win both the American League pennant as well as the 1920 World Series over the Brooklyn Robins 4 games to 3.  This was the series where Indians’s Bill Wambsganss’ pulled off the only unassisted triple play in World Series history.

Chapman’s Biography

Chapman was born in Beaver Dam, Kentucky. He grew up in Herrin, Illinois.  He broke into the Major Leagues in 1912 with the Cleveland team, then known as the Naps (for Napolean Lajoie)

Chapman led the American League in runs scored and walks in 1918. A top-notch bunter, Chapman is 6th on the all-time list for sacrifice hits and holds the single season record with 67 in 1917. Only Stuffy McInnis has more career sacrifices as a right-handed batter. Chapman was also an excellent shortstop who led the league in putouts three times and assists once. He batted .300 three times, and led the Indians in stolen bases four times. In 1917, he set a team record of 52 stolen bases, which stood until 1980. He was hitting .303 with 97 runs scored when he died.

The Tragic Aftermath

Chapman’s wife, Kathleen, was not at the hospital in New York when Ray died.  She learned of the accident in Cleveland and was en route to New York when Ray succombed to his injuries.  She was 3-months pregnant at the time and had a daughter–Rae–on February 27, 1921.  After the injury, Ray’s wife never attended another game.  In 1928 she committed suicide.  In 1929 8-year old Rae died from measles.

Carl Mays was a very accomplished major league pitcher.  Over a 15-year career, that included stints with Boston and New York of the American League and Cincinnati and New York of the National League, Mays was 208-126 with a 2.92 ERA. Despite these accomplishments, Mays was never able to shake the fatal pitch.  By trying to blame the ball or the conditions, he didn’t endear himself to fans.  His life had other tragedies as well. Mays lost his life savings in the 1929 stock market crash and his wife died at the age of 36 from an eye infection leaving him with two young children.  Mays used to say that “Nobody ever remembered me for anything except that one pitch.”  The New York Times obituary headline when he died in 1971 tells it all: Carl Mays, Yankee Whose Pitch Killed Batter in 1920, Is Dead

Among several books on Chapman, there are two notable ones, one for everyone, one geared toward kids.

The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell — A gripping account of one of Baseball’s watershed seasons, this book unaccountably sat on my shelf for aboutthree years; I only dusted it off after reading HEART OF THE GAME, a book about another Baseball fatality. Like the later book, this book traces the paths taken by the main protagonists, Carl Mays, the man who threw the fatal pitch, and Ray Chapman, the man whose career was cut so drastically short: further, it puts the event into the context of what has to be one of Baseball’s most eventful seasons. Before the season, the owners had determined that, in order to promote hitting, which in turn would increase attendance, “trick pitches” would be outlawed from all but 32 pitchers, and that new balls would be frequently put into play as old ones became scuffed and discolored. Also before the season, the biggest name in the Game, Babe Ruth, was sold to the Yankees, where he joined his ex-Bosox teammate, Carl Mays, who had forced a trade from Boston the previous year. Despite the Babe’s early season slump (he didn’t hit the first of his record-shattering 54 homers until May 1), offense rocketed throughout the Game, leading to allegations of a “rabbit ball”. The American League pennant race evolved into a tight, three team struggle amongst the defending champion White Sox, the Ruth-led Yankees, and Tris Speaker’s Indians. The first speed bump was Chapman’s beaning and subsequent death; the next was the breaking of the Black Sox scandal, with the suspensions of the seven current Sox who had conspired to throw the 1919 Series. Even the Yankees faced adversity down the stretch: Ruth sat out several games with a “chigger bite” on his arm, and Mays, their most effective hurler, skipped several turns in the rotation following Chapman’s death.

Sowell does an excellent job recounting this hectic season, and makes clever use of the lexicon of the time to give one the flavor of the events as they are taking place, including this description of Mays on the fatal day: “Before leaving, he had taken a chicken neck out of the icebox and stuck it in his pocket. As was his custom, he would chew it during the game to keep his mouth moist. [Source: Goodreads reader review]

Ray and Me by Dan Gutman – Part of the wonderfully successful Baseball Card stories for young readers. The Baseball Card Adventures is anovel series is written by Dan Gutman.  So far there are 10 books in the series. The 10th book, Roberto & Me, came out in March 2010. The books feature a boy, Joe Stoshack, who can travel through time when he touches old baseball cards. When he holds a baseball card, he is transported to the year that card was made and somewhere near the ballplayer on the card. Later he discovers that this power also works on very old photographs. He tries to use this power wisely, and he changes history several times, but it is always something different than his original goal.

Ray and Me — After Joe is hit in the head by a baseball and wakes up after two weeks in a coma, he learns about another baseball player who wasn’t so lucky – Ray Chapman. When Joe recovers from his accident, he goes back to 1920 and attempts to save Chapman from an event that changed baseball history forever.


6 Responses to “Ray Chapman, Killed by Pitched Ball August 17, 1920”
  1. Judy says:

    As if this horrific incident on the field were not enough, the collateral damage to Mays – and to the Mays and Chapman families – is very sobering indeed. Never knew about these more personal stories until now.

  2. LIa Sterlini says:

    Is Katie’s second son(not Ray’s) still alive?
    Who has any news about him?
    Lia Sterlini, Rome

  3. Mike Burns says:

    I remember reading a article years ago about the ball that killed Ray Chapman. As I remember it, the home plate umpire picked up the ball and put it in his pocket. Since this was all pre Baseball Hall of Fame, and before collecting baseball artifacts became the big business it is now, nobody ever asked him for it. He held on to it for quite a while, and years later he was talking about it with another, much younger man who was also a baseball coach. Since it’s been so long, I’m not sure what level he coached at, I seem to remember it was high school or maybe college. Anyway, the Ump gave the coach the ball, and he had it in the glove box of his pickup for a while. Then one day at a practice, one of the kids found the ball, and it ended up being tossed around, and then used for infield practice. And amazingly, it produced a bad hop, and broke the cheek bone of one of the kids! Cursed? I think he send the ball to the HOF, but I’m not sure. Do you know anything about this story? Thanks for your time and help.

  4. jane says:

    My 10 year old daughter read Ray and Me and found it amazing. She has asked me to report some ideas she learned. First, the baseball was never located. People are not sure what happened to it. If it was found it would most likely be in the Hall of Fame. Also, this fateful happening caused the end of what they call the Dead-ball era. After this accident the rules changed slightly. Since people believed that Ray did not see the pitch, because of how dirty it was, they made sure that new balls were used every inning. Lastly, she says it is almost like he made the ultimate sacrifice(Ray was really good at bunting). Talk about taking one for the team.


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] 1920 — Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians died after being hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees. He remains the only major league player ever to be killed by a pitched ball. (More info.) […]

  2. […] August 16, 1920, when Ray Chapman of the Indians squared around to bunt, he was hit in the head by the ball.  He lost consciousness, and died the next day.  Chapman, pictured above, had been a well known player, with the nickname “Chappie.”  He had […]

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

Better Tag Cloud