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A Dangerous Game

It was the top of the fifth inning, and 29-year-old Ray had only about twelve hours to live. But, of course, he didn’t know that.

He stepped from the Cleveland dugout swinging his bat as though he meant business and strode to the plate. He stepped into the batter’s box, shouldered his bat, and took his characteristic hunched-over stance, his head nearly in the strike zone.

Ray Chapman was the Cleveland Indians’ star shortstop and one of the most popular players in the team’s history. In his nine-year major league career, he already had led the league in put-outs three times. As a batter, his specialty was getting on base the hard way–by getting hit by pitches. That was as good a way to get on base as any, he reasoned. Anything to help the team win.

Chapman was on his way to a possible place in the Hall of Fame. In his nine years, he had scored 671 runs; gotten 1,053 hits, 162 doubles, and 81 triples; stolen 238 bases; and gotten 452 walks. His batting average topped .300 four times. And the Kentucky-born baseballer had gotten on base by being hit by pitches 19 times.

In the game on Monday, August 16, 1920, Chapman had failed to get on base his first time up, but the law of averages was on his side. After all, he was batting .303 as he stepped to the plate. His wife was expecting their first child. He would get on base for her.

As Chapman stepped up to bat, he faced another Kentucky-born player, the New York Yankees’ submarine fastball pitcher Carl Mays. Mays was also a Hall-of-Fame-quality player. Already half-way through the sixth year as a major league player, he had another nine years of baseball ahead of him. His career stats would show five years with 20 or more wins and only four years with a losing record. He would end the 1920 season with a record of 26-11 and follow that with a 27-9 record in 1921. He wasn’t a bad batter either, especially for a pitcher. He would end up with a career batting average of .268. In 1927, he would bat a career high of .406. In only two seasons would he bat below .200.

But unlike Chapman, Mays was not a popular man. Not even his teammates liked him. A lot of it had to do with his pitching style. His submarine delivery made the ball hard to see. Sometimes his delivery was so low that his knuckles actually dragged the mound before he released the ball. And Mays was an infamous “head hunter,” a “bean-ball” pitcher. He was not at all reluctant to brush batters off the plate. When the batter inched away from the plate for fear of getting “beaned,” Mays ran the ball outside, yet just close enough to the zone to get the strike called. In 1917, Mays led the league with 14 hit batters. In his fifteen-year career, he would bean 89 batters.

Chapman entered the batter’s box second guessing Mays. He expected a curve ball that would look as though it was going to be a ball inside but would suddenly run outside and catch the outside corner. So when Mays threw a hard, straight fastball, Chapman didn’t bail out. He didn’t even flinch.

Fans and players alike heard a tremendous crack, and they looked this way and that to see where the ball had been hit. Babe Ruth, playing right field, later said that he had heard an “explosion.” Mays saw the ball trickle toward the first-base side of the mound. He leaped over and fielded the ball and flipped it to Wally Pipp for the out. But Pipp saw that Chapman hadn’t run. Instead, he had collapsed at home plate, blood streaming from his ear. The ball had hit him squarely in the left temple.

The Cleveland players raced to the plate to see if their teammate was okay. They helped him to his feet, and, in their supporting arms, he walked back toward the clubhouse, but then he collapsed, unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors operated to relieve pressure on his brain. He never regained consciousness and died at 12:30 the next morning. Chapman was the only major league baseball player to die of an injury received on the playing field.

Baseball changed after that terrible incident. Umpires, who had been under fire for using too many balls during games, began requiring that game balls be changed more frequently. If the ball was scuffed or discolored in any way, they exchanged it for a new one. That made the ball easier to see. The assumption of baseball brass was that Chapman had not seen the ball.

The balls also were made differently thereafter. They were wound more tightly, which meant that batters hit them farther when they made contact. The era of the “dead ball” was over; the day of the home run had arrived. And with it came hitters like Babe Ruth, men who clobbered the ball.

And that led to changes in how pitchers pitched. Hurlers had to pitch more carefully; if they were careless, they might be watching their pitches fly from the park. That meant more and harder work for them, so they were unable to pitch as many innings. The number of complete games pitched by a starter dropped. Teams then had to beef up their bullpens with more and better relief pitchers. Whereas relievers had been used generally in the late innings, now they came into games in middle innings.

Some people wanted changes that were not so quickly forthcoming. Many players, including Ty Cobb, called for Mays to be banned from baseball. That never happened. He played for another nine seasons. Other people called for a requirement that all batters wear helmets. That didn’t happen right away, but today players at all levels wear helmets.

But another baseball event occurred on August 16: the great Babe Ruth, a teammate of Carl Mays, died in 1948. The Babe had retired in 1935, amassing a legendary record, especially with his 714 career home runs, a record that would stand until Henry Aaron surpassed it in 1974, and his 60 homers in a single season, which Roger Maris broke by one only in 1961. Ruth had started out as a formidable pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, but his years as a hitter for New York would be his legacy.

But Ruth was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1946. Despite treatments, little could be done for him. He last wore his New York pin-stripes on June 13, 1948, when he watched as the Yankees retired his number 3. Two months later, he was dead at the age of 53.

August 16 is a sad date in the annals of baseball history. It’s a day for thinking about the need for safety in the game. It’s sad that players get so caught up with the desire to win that they fail to regard their own and other players’ safety. It’s sad when great careers must end because of injuries, aging, or disease. It’s sad when players make mistakes and are robbed of the honors due them because of that one indiscretion.

But it’s all a part of that great game, America’s pastime–baseball.

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