Monday, February 15, 2010

A Sickening Thud

A "sickening thud," said Fred Lieb who was sitting about fifty feet behind the umpire. An "explosive sound," described Babe Ruth who was at his position in right field. That's what it sounded like as Carl Mays' pitch struck Ray Chapman in the head on August 16, 1920. Mays and Catcher Muddy Ruel both heard a crack as if the ball had hit Chapman's bat. The ball was fielded and thrown to first base. Chapman actually took a few steps towards first base before he collapsed to the ground, blood dripping from his temple. He died the next day.

Chapman was the only Major League player ever killed by a pitch which is surprising especially when you consider the baseballs of the Deadball Era were used until they nearly fell apart and the spitball was legal. By the end of a game the ball would often be so covered with tobacco juice, dirt and grass it could hardly be seen. This was especially true on an overcast afternoon such as Chapman's last game. Chapman's death was a contributing factor to outlawing the spitball, requiring a new ball to be used when the game ball became worn and the end of the Deadball Era. Batting helmets, however, were not required for another fifty years.

The amazing part of this tragedy to me is that although Chapman's teammates were stricken by grief and fear, after an initial slump, they went on to win the 1920 World Series. Mays, cleared of all guilt in the incident, also continued to pitch despite calls for his resignation. I can almost hear a player's heart pounding with fear as he came to the plate to face Mays for the first time after Chapman's death. This ability to ignore that internal voice telling you to run away in fear seems to be a required trait for a successful baseball player and probably any athlete. Think of the Olympic athletes headed down the luge track after hearing of the tragedy on the same track just days earlier.

John Montgomery Ward, in Base-Ball: How to Become a Player recognized "the most important attribute of all in the composition of a good batter is courage" and offers the following advice, "It is absolutely necessary, then, to first conquer one's self, to fight down fear and forget everything except that the ball must be hit." Once again I find baseball is parallel to life and baseball wisdom speaking to be as life advice. Too often in life I've let fear stop me and missed out on opportunities. The times that I've been able to "conquer myself" and "fight down fear" I've come out in the end feeling stronger and growing as a result. So the next time I hear the little internal voice telling me to run I'll remember Ward's advice and just focus on the ball that needs to be hit, remembering that I live in a world with batting helmets and without spitballs!


  1. Nicely written piece about one of baseball's (sadly) forgotten tragedies - I've always been interested in learning more about the Mays-Chapman incident. I like how you tied it into fighting internal fears. Well done!

  2. Thanks Bryan! It was very interesting to research this topic. I also found this article about a high school pitcher in Iowa who threw balls that killed two boys in one season:


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