It was on this day in 1920 that Cleveland Indians shortstop (and occasional second baseman) Ray Chapman “Chappie” passed away. The day before, Chapman was hit in the head by New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays in the top of the 5th inning in a game at the Polo Grounds. In 1920, Major League Baseball players didn’t wear batting helmets; the pitched ball actually fractured Chapman’s skull. The 29-year-old Chapman lived through the night and died the next day in New York’s St. Lawrence Hospital.
Mays had a reputation as a “headhunter,” someone that would throw high and tight at opposing players. He was shocked by the incident though, and believed he’d actually hit Chapman’s bat with the pitch (reportedly, the collision made a loud, sickening crack). The ball actually ricocheted back to Mays off of Chapman’s head; Mays fielded it and threw to first since he mistakenly thought the ball left the bat. After Mays saw the umpire signaling to the stands for a doctor, he realized the pitch actually connected with Chapman’s head. The Yankees manager, Miller Huggins, theorized that Chapman’s spike caught in the dirt and kept him from getting out of the way. While possible, Mays also had a very deceptive submarine delivery, and there were supposedly odd shadows on the field that day. It’s possible that Chapman didn’t see the pitch until it was too late.
Chapman’s body was escorted back to Cleveland by his wife, his wife’s brother, a friend of his wife’s, Indians Manager/Player Tris Speaker and player Joe Wood. It was actually reported that Chapman planned to retire after the season in order to settle down with his family and work on a business. The Indians were in the midst of a pennant race at that point in the season, and had to return to Cleveland and continue their push for the World Series. Joe Sewell took over for Chapman at shortstop, and the team wore black armbands for the remainder of the season to honor Chapman.
The Indians not only won the pennant and went to the World Series, but they defeated the Brooklyn Robins 5 games to 2 to win their first title in franchise history.
Chapman joined the Indians in 1912 and averaged a .278 batting average, 1,053 hits, 364 RBI and 17 home runs over his 9-year career.
An interesting, and more current note to the Chapman story – after he was killed a plaque was created in his memory. It hung at League Park, and was later moved to Cleveland Municipal Stadium. After the Indians moved to Jacobs Field, the plaque was packed up with the rest of their items, but never made it back to hang at the ballpark. In 2007 it was found, restored, and hung in Heritage Park. Even though that dark day was 91 years ago, it remains the most tragic moment in Indians history.