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The View From Pluto: Remembering the Indians' Ray Chapman 100 Years After 'The Pitch That Killed'

tombstone of Ray Chapman
Fans have left dozens of baseballs and caps at the grave of Ray Chapman at Lake View Cemetery.

It was 100 years ago this week that a tragic moment in baseball history centered on Cleveland. Tribe shortstop Ray Chapman was struck and killed by a pitch. He’s the only player in major league history to die while playing the sport.

WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says Chapman's legacy carries on in Cleveland to this day. 

Who was 'Chappie'?
Chapman was born in Kentucky and raised in Illinois. He began playing professional baseball with Cleveland in 1912, when they were called the Naps. In Mike Sowell's book "The Pitch That Killed", Chapman was described as a popular, sharply-dressed player who would play guitar and serenade players on train rides to games.

As a shortstop, Pluto says Chapman was a good, but not Hall of Fame-caliber player, unlike his teammate and roommate Tris Speaker. Speaker took over as a player/manager during the 1919 season, a position he held through his final season in Cleveland in 1926. 

'Frankly, a lot more people around here remember him than they do Tris Speaker, who was one of the greatest players in baseball history. Period.'

August 16, 1920
The 1920 season saw a tragedy that would change baseball forever. The Indians were playing the New York Yankees on the road on August 16. Pluto said it was a gloomy, hazy afternoon. There were no lights, and pitchers scuffed up the baseballs, making them dirty and hard to see. Baseballs cost $2.50 then, and owners didn't like to replace them often, Pluto said. 

Chapman, a bunting specialist, was coming up to bat for the third time in the game. He bunted his previous two times at the plate. He was facing Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, who was known for being tough on batters and had a bad reputation around the league in general. 

There were no batting helmets in 1920.

"He fires the ball at Chapman, and those around said they heard first when they hit Chapman, it went 'CRACK'! And it sounded like it hit the bat because his bat went up a little bit," Pluto said. 

"The ball rolls down and Mays grabs it and throws over to first, believing it to be an out and that Chapman had bunted the ball, although in the hazy conditions, it was hard to see. [Chapman] goes down on the field, they take him off. He actually got up, but he's bleeding all over the place and they walk him out."

Twelve hours later, Chapman underwent brain surgery but did not survive. 

A ripple effect
Thousands attended Chapman's funeral in Cleveland, and he's buried at Lake View Cemetery. His death deeply impacted those who were close to him.

"Tris Speaker didn't eat for weeks and lost 15 pounds. He ended up rallying the team, and they actually won the World Series that year," Pluto said. 

In 1928, Chapman's wife, Kathleen, took her life at the age of 34. Their daughter died the following year of measles. 

As for Yankess pitcher Carl Mays, he went on to a 207-126 career record with a 3.06 ERA over 15 seasons. Pluto said Mays believed he was kept out of the Hall of Fame because of the pitch that killed Chapman. "There wasn't a lot of sympathy towards him," Pluto said.

Mays went on to become a scout for several teams after his playing days, including for the Indians, before passing away in 1971 at the age of 79.

100 Years Later
Pluto said Chapman's legacy lives on in Cleveland, where his gravestone is lined with baseballs and Indians ball caps.

"Think about a shortstop that was a flashy fielder, that could bunt, steal bases, a voice of the team with the media [and] popular with his teammates," Pluto said. "It sounds like Omar Vizquel from the Indians in the '90s. That was Ray Chapman," Pluto said. "Frankly, a lot more people around here remember him than they do Tris Speaker, who was one of the greatest players in baseball history. Period." 

After Chapman's death, players resisted wearing helmets. Pluto said they felt they couldn't see as well. In the 1930s, some players began wearing a protective insert under their ballcaps, but they weren't widely used until the 1950s. It wasn't until 1971 that baseball helmets were made mandatory for all players. In 1983 it became mandatory that helmets have at least one earflap. 

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Sean Fitzgerald is an announcer/board operator at Ideastream Public Media.