Monday, August 6, 2012

Ray Chapman's death detailed in graphic novel

I stumbled upon a graphic novel at the library titled, "Hit by Pitch: Ray Chapman, Carl Mays and the Fatal Fastball."

If you're an Indians fan and interested in baseball history, it shouldn't be a surprise Chapman played for the Indians in the early years of the 1900s. Or the fact he's the only player in Major League Baseball history to die from an injury inflicted on the field.

What was eye-opening is the tale of the players involved, Chapman and Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Molly Lawless' graphic novel is a riveting, tragic tale with unique, revealing drawings.

From the beginning, the tale of Chapman and Mays is strange. They were born the same year (1891) in Kentucky 150 miles apart from each other.

Mays, a pitcher, was not a likable character, while Chapman was as charismatic as they come. Think a modern-day Omar Vizquel and, say, John Rocker.

Chapman married the daughter of East Ohio Gas Company president Martin Daly. In the offseason, he was the treasurer-secretary of Pioneer Alloys. As a player, Chapman wasn't much of a hitter, but was quick on the basepaths and a superb fielder.

According to the novel, teammates of Mays called him "sulky" and "an odd bird." Sportswriter F.C. Lane summed up Mays this way: "A strange, cynical figure ... virtually friendless."

Off the field, Mays was the loner and Chapman was the darling. On the field, Mays, a side-arm right-hander, was the brushback artist and Chapman the plate crowder. When they met at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1920, their encounter was fatal.

The first pitch from Mays to Chapman struck the Indians shortstop in the left temple. Indians coach Jack McAllister said he heard "an explosive sound." One account said Chapman's left eye was hanging from its socket.

Chapman was taken to the locker room and the game resumed. On the field, Mays complained to the umpire the ball did not hit Chapman, claiming the batter was faking injury. Wally Pipp, who famously lost his first-base job to Lou Gehrig, intervened, telling Mays to stop.

Lawless portrays Mays as an uncaring individual for most of the novel, but a moving drawing of a distraught Mays in the locker room is powerful stuff.

Chapman was rushed to a hospital, but died the next morning. The story does not end there. The aftermath was a story in itself.

Mays was called a murderer, and many players in the league, including the Tigers' Ty Cobb, wanted payback. Indians players wrote and signed a petition stating they would refuse to participate in any game Mays was pitching. The only one not to sign was Indians manager Tris Speaker, who was convinced Chapman's death was an accident. Eventually, the petition went away, but the hatred toward Mays did not.

Mays never contacted Chapman's wife after his death, nor did he attend the funeral. Mays, who died in 1971, insisted attending the funeral would do more damage than good.

The first interview he conducted in the midst of the controversy only added fuel to fire. Mays said he was "absolutely blameless," and that "it was the umpire's fault" for not replacing a ball that was roughed up.

As for the fatal pitch, there is a belief it was a strike. Chapman was well known as a player who hung over the plate. Mays' side-arm delivery only made matters worse, since side-arm pitches are generally difficult to see.

Things only got worse for Mays the next season, as he was accused of throwing a game during the 1921 World Series. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who famously banned many from the 1919 White Sox accused of throwing the Series, found no proof of foul play and did nothing to Mays.

As for the memory of Chapman, a service was held on Sept. 3, 1920 at League Park in his honor. Unfortunately, years later in 1928, Chapman's wife, Katy, committed suicide. Daughter Rae Marie, born in1921, died a year after her mother's suicide after contracting the measles.

A 175-pounder bronze plaque dedicated to Chapman hung at the entrance of League Park until that facility was abandoned for Municipal Stadium in the 1940s. During the move, Chapman's plaque was packed up and lost ... until 2007, when, by accident, it was found. The plaque has since been fully restored and installed at Heritage Park at Progressive Field.

As for the tale of Chapman and Mays, I'm a bit embarrassed I didn't know the details behind this terrible tragedy. Sports history fascinates me, and this story is as fascinating and tragic.

- Mark Podolski | @mpodo


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