Baseball was a rough-and-tumble game back in the 1920s. Today, if a ball gets a little dirty after a pitch, it’s removed from play and replaced with a new one. But back in baseball’s early days, pitchers rubbed baseballs with dirt, licorice or tobacco juice, or scuffed, cut and scarred them – all to get an advantage. In later innings of games, balls were often misshapen and difficult to see. That was the case in August 1920 in a contentious game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians, both locked in a pennant race.
With the Indians' Ray Chapman at bat and the Yankees' submarine-style pitcher Carl Mays on the mound, the first pitch sailed high and inside and struck Chapman in the head. Eyewitnesses said Chapman didn’t seem to see the ball at all. Chapman collapsed and was later taken to the hospital, where he died at the age of 28. Of all the bean balls thrown over the years, this was the only time someone has died playing professional baseball.
An MLB tragedy:
- Mays had a reputation for throwing spitballs and frequently plunking batters. He called the death “the most regrettable incident of my baseball career,” adding, “I would give anything if I could undo what has happened.”
- Chapman excelled at the plate and on the bases. He led the American League in runs and walks in 1918, and his 52 stolen bases in the 1917 season stood as a team record until 1980.
- Chapman’s death led to a rule that requires umpires to replace balls when they get dirty. The league also banned spitballs after the 1920 season. But while some batters started to wear helmets in the late 1950s, the league didn’t require head protection until 1971.