Ray Chapman was born on his family’s farm near Beaver Dam, Kentucky in 1891. The family moved to Herrin, Illinois when Ray was 14. Ray became a coal miner shortly after the move, becoming a member of the United Mine Workers Union until his death. As a cola minor, he played semi-pro baseball in his spare time. At age 19 he was signed by the Springfield Senators of the 3-I League. He then began working his way up through the Minor Leagues, culminating with his contract being sold to the Cleveland Indians in 1912.
Cleveland’s hometown boy Roger Peckinpaugh (who would win a MVP award with the Washington Senators in 1925) was the regular shortstop for the Indians, but once they realized what they had with Chapman they traded Peckinpaugh to the New York Yankees. Playing shortstop for the Cleveland Indians Ray’s double play partner was the aging Nap Lajoie, their right fielder was Joe Jackson. In 1913 Cleveland finished 20 games over .500, but were decimated by the upstart Federal League and fell to the cellar in 1914. Lajoie was traded to the Philadelphia A’s after the 1915 season, Jackson was sent to Chicago during the 1915 season.
The transformation was complete with the acquisition of Tris Speaker in 1916, and the Indians started to work themselves back to the first division. They finished 6th in 1916, 3rd in 1917, a close 2nd in 1918, then lost another close race in 1919. With the great Tris Speaker in center field, a solid pitching staff and the best shortstop in the league, Ray Chapman, Cleveland was poised to win their first pennant in 1920.
Baseball has never seen such a pennant race, before or after, as what transpired in 1920 in the American League. The New York Yankees, The Cleveland Indians, and the defending champion Chicago White Sox were engaged in a tense back and forth race. All with the backdrop of the infamous 1919 World Series hanging over it. Several White Sox Players had taken money from gamblers, with the promise they would then throw the World Series. The investigation and the trial were all conducted during the 1920 season.
With this backdrop the Indians faced the Yankees on August 16th in the Polo Grounds in New York. Both teams started their ace, Stan Coveleski for the Indians against hard throwing submariner (underhanded thrower) Carl Mays. Cleveland led 3-0 when Chapman came to the plate to lead off the top of the 5th. He was hitting .303 and near the league lead in runs scored with 97. Mays, who had a reputation as a headhunter, threw a fastball up and in, Chapman never moved and the ball struck him squarely on the side of his head. There was an “explosive sound” when the ball struck him.
Mays, thinking the ball had hit Chapman’s bat, fielded it and tossed it to first. Suddenly everybody realized there was something wrong with Chapman, he fell to his knees and then keeled over to the ground. Home Plate Umpire Tom Connolly shouted “We need a doctor, is there a doctor in the house.” The Yankees team physician raced out, the Indians as a team, surrounded their fallen shortstop.
After applying ice to the wound, Ray was able to stand up, but he couldn’t speak. Assisted by teammates he began walking off the field, but about second base he collapsed again and was carried off the field. He would be dead in twelve hours.
The death of Ray Chapman sent a shock through the baseball world, he was a highly respected, well liked member of the baseball community. As one of his minor league managers said to him. “You know, kid, even if you never played a game, you’d earn your pay just by sitting on the bench and being such a cheerleader.” His death did change baseball. The immediate reaction was scorn for Carl Mays.
Mays’ was not well liked by teammates or opponents. Many umpires demanded his suspension. The St. Louis Browns threatened to boycott any game he pitched. Mays’ response was, “It is terrible to consider the case at all, but when any man, however ignorant, illiterate or malicious, even hints that a man in his normal mind would stand out there on the field of sport and try to kill another, the man making the assertion is inhumane, uncivilized, bestial.” Mays would continue his controversial career, retiring in 1929 after winning 202 games. Every year before and after the Chapman incident he would be among the league leaders in hitting batters.
The more effective change was that after the incident umpires were required to keep clean white baseballs in the game. This was the single most significant structural change between the dead ball era of the teens and the dramatic increase in run production of the 1920s. Pitchers and catchers were no longer allowed to scuff and dirty the balls so they were hard to see. Hitters took control of the game. (helmets were not mandated until the 1950s).
If Chapman had live would he now be in the Hall of Fame? That’s a tough question. He was the best shortstop in the American League at the time of his death, but no other shortstop in the league at the time has been enshrined. Two contemporary National League Shortstops did make it, Dave Bancroft and Rabbit Maranville. Chapman was a very good defensive shortstop, but not as good as either Bancroft or Maranville. Bill James rates him a “B” while Bancroft earned an “A” and Maranville an “A+”. Ray was a better offensive player than both, and considering it was 1920, with baseball entering its lively ball era, his .278 batting average and .377 slugging percentage was bound to go up. He was having his best year when he was killed and he was only 29.
All this is very speculative, of course. there were rumors that he planned to quit baseball at the end of the season. He had married just prior to the 1920 season and had talked about quitting baseball to go into his wife’s family business. We’ll never know.
His replacement at shortstop of the Indians was rookie Joe Sewell, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career of his own. Even without Chapman, Cleveland did win their first American League Pennant and then down the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. This undoubtedly was aided by the suspension of eight members of the Chicago White Sox (including former Chapman teammate, Joe Jackson) with two weeks to go due to the Black Sox scandal.
The sad coincident of the whole affair is who was playing right field for the Yankees at the time of the beaning? None other than the man currently given credit for the changes in baseball in 1920…Babe Ruth. Ray Chapman is only remembered as the last man killed in a Major League baseball game.