This day in baseball: Death by pitch

Ray Chapman (Photo source: The New York Times)

In a game against the Yankees on 16 August 1920, Cleveland infielder Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays.  Though, according to some accounts, the pitch barely missed the strike zone, Chapman had been crowding the plate against the submarine huler.  Carl Mays was also well-known as a headhunter when it came to hitters who crowded the plate, and few doubted that the inside pitch was accidental (not that Mays intended to kill, of course).  After being struck by the pitch, Chapman was taken from the Polo Grounds to the hospital, where Dr. T. M. Merrigan performed surgery.  He never regained consciousness, however, and Chapman died twelve hours later, at 4:40 a.m. on 17 August.  It is the only case in Major League history in which a ballplayer died as a direct result of being hit by a pitch.

Of the tragedy, the New York Tribune wrote:

The extreme rarity of fatal or even of serious accidents in baseball is surprising, when one remembers the vast multitudes who play the game. Consider the number who are drowned while bathing or boating, who meet injury or death while hunting. In the light of such comparisons baseball is singularly free from untoward happenings. Ray Chapman’s fate, sad as it is, may be rated as sheer accident. It represents a coincidence not likely to occur again.

English: 's grave in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland

Chapman’s grave in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, the incident resulted in some rule changes in Major League Baseball.  The following season, the league established a rule that required umpires to replace the baseball anytime it got dirty (prior to this, pitchers made a point to dirty them up as much as possibly, in order to make them more difficult for a batter to see).  The banning of the spitball after the 1920 season was also due in part to Chapman’s death.  Interestingly, however, it would be another thirty years before batting helmets would be invented.

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Sources:

“Beaned by a Pitch, Ray Chapman Dies.”  The New York Times, August 17, 1920.  The New York Times Company,  2004.  Web.  Accessed 17 August 2013.  http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/sports/year_in_sports/08.17.html

Gorman, Bob.  “‘I Guess I Forgot to Duck’: On-Field Player Fatalities in the Minor Leagues.”  Nine 11.2 (Spring 2003).

“Ray Chapman.”  BaseballLibrary.com.  The Idea Logical Company, Inc., 2006.  Web.  Accessed 17 August 2013.  http://www.baseballlibrary.com/ballplayers/player.php?name=Ray_Chapman_1891


The shot heard ’round the world

It was the bottom of the ninth inning at the Polo Grounds in New York on 3 October 1951.  The Giants trailed the Dodgers 4-1.  Alvin Dark and Don Mueller each got on base with singles to start the inning.  Monte Irvin fouled out.  Whitey Lockman hit a double to drive in Dark and send Mueller to third.  Mueller, however, hurt his ankle sliding into the base and was replaced by a pinch runner, Clint Hartung.  With two runners in scoring position, only one out in the inning, and the scoreboard now reading 4-2, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen decides to replace pitcher Don Newcombe with Ralph Branca.

The rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers had been an intense battle for the hearts of the fans of New York.  It was also a rivalry that had been broadcast across the country, through television and radio.  The Giants had trailed the Dodgers by 13.5 games in August, and yet managed to tie them on the last day of the season by going 37-7 in their remaining games.  The tie resulted in the three-game playoff that would determine who would advance to the World Series.  The teams split the first two games of the series, 1-1.  It all came down to Game 3.

Outfielder Bobby Thomson now stepped up to the plate for the Giants.  If Branca could close out the game, the Dodgers would be World Series bound, and the Giants’ miracle comeback season would come to an end…


This dramatic play-by-play by radio announcer Russ Hodges pretty much secured the moment’s legacy as one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history.  Thomson described the experience, “I can remember feeling as if time was just frozen.  It was a delirious, delicious moment.”

It is a moment that would also live forever in the memory of pitcher Ralph Branca:

“I wanted to say it was a cheap Polo Grounds home run.  I wanted to say that in any other ballpark it’d be an easy out.  I wanted to believe that I was dreaming.  I didn’t want to believe that it was really happening.  I wanted the pitch back.

“But the ball was gone and the game was over.  The series was over.  The pennant was lost.

“There was pandemonium.  There was hysteria.  There was Thomson rounding the bases.  There was Durocher jumping up and down from the third-base coach’s box like a crazy child.  There was confetti flying.”

Unfortunately for the Giants, the magic wouldn’t be enough to sustain them through the World Series.  They would lose the championship to the New York Yankees in six games.

Nevertheless, “the shot heard ’round the world” is a moment that remains embedded in the heart of American culture.  In 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp celebrating Thomson’s homer.  In ESPN’s SportsCentury, the moment ranked #2 in the list of the Ten Greatest Games of the 20th Century (behind the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants).

“Now it is done,” wrote Red Smith in The New York Herald Tribune. “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Bobby Thomson surrounded by his teammates following his game-winning home run (Source: New York Times)

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Sources:

Branca, Ralph.  A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace.  New York: Scribner, 2011.

Goldstein, Richard.  “Bobby Thomson Dies at 86; Hit Epic Home Run.”  New York Times 18 August 2010, New York ed.: A16.

MacCambridge, Michael, ed.  ESPN SportsCentury. New York: Hyperion ESPN Books, 1999.

“Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”  Baseball Reference.  Sports Reference LLC, 26 January 2013.  Web.  Accessed 30 April 2013.  http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Shot_Heard_’Round_the_World