The LuLac Edition #1270, Aug. 18th, 2010
WRITE ON WEDNESDAY
The only major league player to die in a game was Ray Chapman. It happened 90 years ago yesterday. One of my readers wrote a comprehensive and interesting piece on this tragedy.
Ray Chapman died at 4:40 AM on August 17th, 1920 in New York City.
He had been struck in the left temple as the lead off batter in the top of the fifth inning during the previous day’s game between the hometown Yankees and the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds. Carl Mays threw the pitch. It was a dark, overcast afternoon, the ball was dirty and Mays used a submarine underhand delivery which made the ball hard to pick up against the late day sky. Chapman was crowding the plate as was his custom. Mays, sensing a bunt fired high and inside. Chapman probably never saw the ball. He froze!
Future Hall of Famer and Indians Manager Tris Speaker rushed to his teammate and friend from the on deck circle. In right field Babe Ruth heard the awful crack. So did the fans. Mays thinking the ball had hit the bat, fielded it and tossed to first base. About then everyone realized what had actually happened. The awful crack was Chapman’s skull. Blood ran from his ear. He was unable to speak, but he did make an effort to leave under his own power making it to around second base where he collapsed and had to be assisted to the clubhouse exit by teammates.
Emergency care was less than sophisticated at the time. Doctors did their best including surgery to relieve pressure on the brain, but Ray Chapman was not to be saved.
Up to that moment in New York, life had been working out well for Chapman. He was a standout ballplayer. Good at all aspects of the game. He could hit, bunt, steal bases, get on base and score runs. He was an excellent shortstop with a strong arm and range. Chapman hit over three hundred three times and was batting .303 when he died.
He was a popular, well liked twenty nine year old and had just married the pretty daughter of a Cleveland Power Company Tycoon who was building a house not far from the ballpark for the newlyweds. There was an office for Ray in the business and this was to be his last year in baseball.
The 1920 Cleveland Indians were in the Pennant Race and would go on to win not only the American League Championship, but the World Series, Cleveland’s first. Chapman’s closest friends on the Tribe were Manager Tris Speaker, Catcher Steve ONeill and Roomate Jack Graney.
Speaker remains one of the best outfielders in the history of the game as well as one of the top hitters of his or any era in baseball. He also managed successfully and in later years mentored upcoming Indian stars like Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby, the American Leagues first black player. He is an overlooked legend in Baseball History.
Steve ONeill was one of six brothers to avoid the mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania by playing professional baseball. Steve was the most successful. He played on and managed World Series Championship teams in Cleveland and Detroit twenty five years apart. Stephen Francis ONeill played for the Indians, Red Sox, Yankees and Browns. He never had a losing season as a Major League Manager and he was a respectable Big League Ballplayer.
Jack Graney played his entire career in Cleveland starting in 1908 with the Naps as a pitcher. He was later a Left Fielder with a lifetime .250 Batting Average. He was the first former player to go into broadcasting and enjoyed a long career on Radio and TV with the Indians.
Kathleen Daly Chapman arrived in New York by train from Cleveland the next day. Tris Speaker, best man at their recent wedding, escorted Kathleen and Ray Chapman back to Cleveland.
Kathleen’s announcement that Ray intended to convert to Catholicism was apparently not taken well by Chapman’s Parents or the one time Klansman and Protestant Son of Texas, Speaker. A compromise was reached and Ray Chapman’s Funeral Ceremony was held at Saint Johns Cathedral in Downtown Cleveland, but he was not buried in the Daly Plot at Cavalry Cemetery.
Speaker suffered what the Press called a “nervous breakdown” and was not able to attend. Graney broke down and had to be removed. ONeill was a casket bearer. The truth regarding Speaker’s breakdown was more likely the physical result of a beating suffered at the hands of Graney or ONeill or both. They felt Speaker was out of line at some point. The fight reportedly occurred at a boarding house where many of the ballplayers lived. ONeill was bothered for several games by a bruised right hand.
Ray Chapman was buried at Lake View Cemetery not too far from where he played ball. Money for his modest, but dignified tombstone was raised in nickels and dimes by Kids in Cleveland. Chapman’s neighbors for eternity include President James Garfield, John D. Rockfeller and the ashes of Elliot Ness. Baseball Fans still leave things at the grave site. Two very worn wooden bats have leaned against the stone for decades. An occasional ball turns up and always peanuts bought at the ballpark, brought to the graveyard and placed on the headstone.
Some teams protested. They threatened to boycott Mays. Ty Cobb was especially vocal. Helmets were discussed, but it would be forty or more years before that would happen. Cleaner baseballs were kept in play. Balls were no longer used as long or allowed to get darkened or nicked up. And the spitball pitchers grandfathered in before the ban, began to die out. No real safety measures were taken. Ray Chapman is the only player in the history of Major League Baseball to die as the result of a pitched ball.
Carl Mays is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame although his credentials are impressive when matched against other pitchers enshrined there. He maintained the Chapman Incident was the reason. Most believe gambling and game fixing allegations including the 1921 World Series keep him out of Cooperstown.
Six months after Ray Chapman’s death his wife gave birth to a daughter. She named her Rae-Marie. Kathleen Chapman, once a baseball fan, never went to a game again. She remarried, but it was said never got over her first love. She ingested poison and died in 1928. Rae-Marie was sent to live with a Grandmother. She contracted measles during an epidemic and died one year later at the age of seven.