Over the weekend, I watched the latest movie iteration of It, and it prompted my curiosity to do a search of the phrase “baseball horror.” I didn’t actually expect to find much, but much to my surprise, I found this little documentary (if you can call it that) that ALTER released earlier this year.
To be honest, I cannot say that I’m a particularly big fan of this short little spoof, though it does put forth a weirdly interesting theory. The video proposes that the death of Ray Chapman as a result of being beaned in the head by Carl Mays was actually a form of occult human sacrifice. The payoff of the sacrifice? The rise of the New York Yankees as a baseball empire.
While I do agree with the video’s assertion that baseball can be a form of religion for some folks, the whole occult/human sacrifice bit seems a bit far-fetched to me. But, here, you can judge for yourself.
On May 20, 1918, Indians outfielder Tris Speaker was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Red Sox hurler Carl Mays. A right-handed submarine pitcher, Mays denied Speaker’s allegation that the beanball pitch was intentional. Mays pitched a complete game, winning 11-1 that day. The beanball would prove a precursor to the pitch that would kill Ray Chapman two years later.
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series. Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth. Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!” The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!” It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today. At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park. Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage. However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that. Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt. This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.
Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life. I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992). Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.” His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.
From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher. From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees. The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.
Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance. However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears. But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field. Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual. His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.
After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded. He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products. Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.
Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further. The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues. The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games. Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.
During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes. The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely. Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities. The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.
Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler. Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received. Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants. Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.
During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.
It was a booming decade for the sport. However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.
The Dead Ball Era, as the name suggests, was a period in baseball history characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs. This age in baseball began in 1900 and lasted until Babe Ruth came onto the scene as a power hitter in 1919. Prior to Ruth, the game was more strategy-driven, featuring hit-and-run plays and base-stealing over hitting for power. In 1908, the lowest-scoring year, teams averaged only 3.4 runs per game. “Small ball,” as it’s known today, relied more on speed and quickness than on brute strength. Players like “Smoky” Joe Wood, Eddie Collins, and Sam Crawford flourished during this time.
Many baseball fields of the age were much larger than modern ballparks. Chicago’s West Side Grounds, for example, measured 560 feet to the center field fence. Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston measured 635 feet to the center field fence. By comparison, most ballparks today don’t measure much more than the requisite 400 feet to dead center, which makes a huge difference for a player’s ability to swing for the fences.
The state of the baseball throughout the game also contributed to the lack of home runs. The same ball was used throughout the game — unlike today, when even a tiny smudge on a ball calls for a new replacement. As the game would go on, the ball would become dirtier and dirtier, making it more difficult for hitters to see and hit. No doubt the extra dirt also contributed to the dynamics of the baseball’s movement.
Speaking of which, during the Dead Ball Era, pitcher could still legally throw a spitball. “Doctoring” the baseball in this way would alter the physics of the flight of the pitch, causing it to break or move in unexpected ways and making it more difficult to hit. Naturally, pitchers took advantage of this concession. And it wasn’t just the spitball: the emery ball, shine ball, mud ball, so on and so forth. Got any creative ideas for defacing a baseball? Give it a whirl and see what it does! The umpires won’t stop you.
On top of low-scoring contests, during these years, professional baseball also experienced turbulence through the births of baseball organizations outside of the National League. In 1900, the American League, which had been a minor league prior to this year, declared itself a Major League. Refusing to continuing recognition of the terms of the National Agreement, the AL now moved teams into cities already claimed by the NL, such as Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. By 1902, the NL realized it would be better off accepting the American League, rather than fighting against it. A three-man National Commission was created to resolve the disagreements between the two leagues. Major League Baseball prospered and the World Series was born.
The birth of the Federal League in 1913 threatened this new-found prosperity. It launched an anti-trust lawsuit against the AL and the NL, which drained the two leagues of resources. Like the AL before it, the FL moved into already-established Major League territory, seeking to carve out its own place in Major League Baseball. In the end, however, the level of play in the FL did not match that of the other two leagues, and FL teams merged into the other Major Leagues.
The outbreak of World War I also proved detrimental to baseball. Baseball became viewed as a frivolous, non-essential activity, and seasons were shortened due to the wartime atmosphere. Attendance at ballgames dropped and the leagues lost money. The resulting drop in player salaries made them more susceptible to the promises of gambling, and created an environment in which things like the Black Sox scandal could take place.
The end of the Dead Ball Era came with the end of the factors that contributed to its existence in the first place. The elimination of the spitball in 1920 had a profound effect on players’ ability to hit the ball, as pitches became less lively. The death of Ray Chapman in August 1920 changed the rule about the same baseball being used throughout a game, and clean baseballs became a staple in order to ensure the safety of players. Naturally, clean baseballs were also easier to hit.
Additionally, the rise of Babe Ruth as a power hitter resulted in a change of attitudes in baseball. Ruth proved that a man could be successful in baseball by hitting home runs, and that the game was no longer restricted to “small ball” play. From 1900 until Ruth’s emergence, there were 13 seasons in which the league leader in home runs collected fewer than ten dingers. In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs — a league record. Other players followed his lead, and baseball scores steadily increased as the years went on.
Frankly, the title “Dead Ball Era” seems a bit unfair to me. In today’s game, fans have come to expect home runs. If a player isn’t at least collecting extra-base hits on a regular basis, he receives little or no recognition. However, it seems that a game driven by strategy would be much more captivating than the slug fests of today’s contests. Bunting, the hit-and-run, and base stealing would have their due as meaningful parts of the artistry of a baseball game. Baseball would be more like a chess match and less of a display of muscle and power. Furthermore, because they were so rare during the Dead Ball Era, home runs, when they did happen, were surround by a greater sense of excitement than they are today.
“1900-1919: The Dead Ball Era.” Historic Baseball: Bringing Baseball History to Center Field. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://www.historicbaseball.com/fea/era_deadball.html
“Deadball Era.” Baseball Reference. Sports Reference, LLC, 2013. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Deadball_Era
“The Faces and Voices of Baseball’s Deadball Era.” World News, Inc., 2014. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://wn.com/dead-ball_era
Hannon, Tom. “The Dead Ball Era.” The Baseball Page, 2012. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://www.thebaseballpage.com/history/dead-ball-era
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.
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.
“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