Ray Chapman and the Anniversary of a Death That Changed Baseball Forever

David NethersCorrespondent IAugust 15, 2008

In a quiet corner of Cleveland's Lakeview Cemetery his headstone pales in comparison to the monuments nearby—those built to mark where President James Garfield, John D. Rockefeller, and Elliot Ness are interred.  

I might not have even been able to find the final resting place of Raymond Johnson Chapman were it not for the worn out baseball gloves, the bats, balls, and occasionally difficult to explain mementos still left there by baseball fans 88 years after his death

Playing for the Cleveland Indians, Chapman led the league in sacrifice hits, stole 52 bases in one season, and in 1918 led the American League in runs scored.  But he is not best remembered for how he played the game, rather for how he died.

Precisely 88 years ago, on Aug. 16, 1920 at the Polo Grounds in New York, Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch from Yankees right hander Carl Mays, a notorious spitball hurler.

He died the next day at a New York hospital.  Lakeview Cemetery lists him as the only major league baseball player ever to die due to an injury suffered during a game.

Motivated in part by his death, the Indians rallied to win their first national championship. But the tragedy also helped urge the league to ban the spitball and to require umpires to replace dirty balls. 

Every time a child puts on a batting helmet he pays respect to the memory of Ray Chapman (even though batting helmets were not introduced until several decades later).

So on the anniversary of his death, while some are obsessed with Manny's dreadlocks, deciding between Ruth or Mays, or arguing whether or not baseball should have instant replay, honor the memory of Ray Chapman—a real unsung hero of the game.


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