Saturday, November 17, 2012

Diamond Deaths (Cont'd)

Because of its picnic-like atmosphere, people sometimes forget how dangerous the game of baseball is. Major league hitters have less than a second to react to react to the 9-inch rawhide sphere, which weighs roughly 5 ounces and arrives at the plate in the blink of an eye. In August of 1920, the ball became a lethal projectile at the Polo Grounds at New York.

On a damp, overcast day, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman stepped into the box to face Yankee hurler Carl Mays. The 29 year-old Chapman had decent speed but little power. He was just coming into his prime offensively, having hit .300 the previous year and carrying a .304 average into this game. Mays was a submariner with a good rising fastball. He could make the ball sink or curve depending on his arm angle at the time of release. He was known to throw an occasional spitball. Hitless in two appearances, Chapman crouched slightly and crowded the plate as Mays wound and fired. Camouflaged in a wet, hazy background, it's doubtful that Chapman even saw the pitch, which struck him squarely in the left temple. There was an audible crack.

Accounts of what happened next vary widely. According to a newspaper report, the ball rolled to Mays, who scooped it up and fired to Wally Pipp at first base. Pipp stepped on the bag, making the apparent out as Chapman staggered out of the box then collapsed in a heap. At some point, the Cleveland infielder regained consciousness and was helped to his feet. He tried to walk, but fell again before being transported to St. Lawrence Hospital. Eight hours later, he was dead. Just like that, major league baseball was dealing with the fallout of its first pitched ball fatality.

In the aftermath, the game "cleaned itself up"--literally. Umpires were encouraged to put fresh balls into play more often. Balls had previously been used  until they became lopsided and soggy as fans were pressured to throw foul pops back onto the field. As for Mays, well, he became one of the most universally disliked figures in the game, commenting after his retirement, "I won over 200 big league games. No one remembers that. When they think of me, I'm the guy that killed Ray Chapman."

More than ninety years later, we still remember him that way.

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