On occasion, an athletic event can bring two people together in such as way that it can feel almost as if it had been preordained, forever changing the landscape of the sport. On August 16, 1920, baseball was forever changed when one man's innocent spitter cracked the skull of another. From then on, the names Ray Chapman and Carl Mays would be forged together as tragically as any other duo in history. This is their story.
The Early Years
Their story begins with Ray. Born on January 15, 1891 in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, his family moved to Herrin, Illinois when he was young. It was there amongst a small, unassuming town of barely 1,500, that Ray Chapman began to fall in love with the game of baseball. He spent much of his childhood working in the mines and playing baseball. While he sacrificed the sanctity of his lungs, a hunger began to build within young Ray's gullet. He wanted more for himself and couldn't imagine a future where he would spend the majority of his life toiling in the darkness of his hometown mines. Baseball was the key.
Nearly 10 months to the day when Ray Chapman was born, Carl Mays entered the world in Liberty, Kentucky, just a two-hour drive west of Beaver Dam. His family life was more tragic than Ray's. When he was young, the family moved to Mansfield, Mississippi where his father, a Methodist minister would die when young Carl was just 12 years old.
Soon after, the Mays family would move to Kingfisher, Oklahoma where the family could pick up the pieces of their shattered hearts. As young Carl began to go about life without his father, his cousin introduced him to baseball. As his cousin, a catcher, taught him the nuances of the happenings behind home plate, Carl Mays took a liking to the position that seemed just a bit closer to his father, the pitcher's mound.
The divergent trails of Ray Chapman and Carl Mays began on minor league ballfields all over America. While Chapman played for teams in Mount Vernon, Springfield (Illinois) and Davenport, Mays played for teams in Boise and Providence. The Cleveland Naps purchased Chapman's rights in 1911 and placed him with their minor league team in Toledo, hoping to sharpen his skills for the majors. He made the big leagues the following years and recorded 19 rbi and 10 stolen bases in his few appearances.
The next two years, he continued to prove his worth, blasting five home runs and batting over .250 over that span. Meanwhile, Carl Mays was making a name for himself with the Boston Red Sox. Though he joined the club with Babe Ruth in 1915, he didn't appear in the World Series that year. He pitched in the Fall Classic the following year, but he lost in his only appearance and his team rallied to beat the Braves. Two years later, Mays starred in the World Series, winning both of his starts and posting a scintillating ERA 1.00 while the Red Sox won their last World Series for the next 86 years.
Meanwhile, Ray Chapman continued his elusiveness at the bag, stealing 128 bases from 1915 through 1918. While his bat was erratic, by 1919 he appeared to have found his stroke, averaging .300 that year and .303 the following year. His career was going well almost as well as his life. Before the 1920 season began, Ray Chapman married the daughter of a prominent Cleveland businessman. There was even speculation that that year would be his last as a player. Fate would turn that speculation into tragic irony all too soon.
It was Monday, August 16, 1920 and the Yankees had returned home to the Polo Grounds after a tough 6-4 loss to the Washington Senators just the day before. Meanwhile, the Indians arrived having defeated the Saint Louis Browns 5-0 the day before and were tied with the Yankees for first place in the American League. Before the season began, the major leagues decided to outlaw the spitball but allowed several players to be grandfathered in for the remainder of their careers. Carl Mays was one of those players. Over the years, he had gained a bad reputation for plunking opposing players with his spitters. As time went on, teams became convinced that he was doing it on purpose to gain a mental edge.
The Indians were leading by three when Ray Chapman led off at the top of the fifth inning. On the first pitch, Mays' famed spitter nailed Chapman in the temple, instantly toppling him to the ground. A pall was cast over the crowd of 21,000 and for a moment no one moved a muscle, unsure of what to do. Suddenly, umpire Tommy Connolly turned to the stand and asked if there was a doctor in the stands. Two rose to the occasion and tended to the mortally wounded player.
Eventually, Ray awoke from his slumber and was helped to his feet by nearby teammates. As he walked gingerly to the clubhouse in deep centerfield, he began to feel wobbly. By the time he reached the entrance to the staircase that led to the team's clubhouse, his knees began to buckle beneath him and he had to be carried the rest of the way.
Unsure of how best to proceed, Ray Chapman's teammates turned to something that had carried them for most of their young lives, baseball. With Harry Lunte running for his injured teammate, Tris Speaker hit a single which, when put into play, forced Lunte out but Speaker remained safe. Back-to-back singles pushed Speaker further until he reached home, extending Cleveland's lead to four. the Indians remained comfortably in the lead until the Yankees staged a late comeback in the bottom of the ninth inning, ultimately falling short with Cleveland prevailing 4-3.
Meanwhile, their injured teammate was being treated half a mile away at St. Lawrence Hospital, undergoing x-rays and other procedures to determine the best course of action. The doctors operated on Ray Chapman's fractured skull later that day and though he initially pulled through just fine, he passed away that night.
Carl Mays went into seclusion for 10 days after the accident. He didn't accompany his teammates when they visited Cleveland later that year and spent much of the year trying to avoid the label that no ballplayer ever wants to earn: a killer.
While attending his funeral at Cleveland's St. John's Cathedral just days later, Ray's teammates were understandably devastated. They went through the motions in the two doubleheaders in Boston right after the funeral, losing three of four. In those early days, they began to realize that the game that they loved so much could kill them. In short, they were shell-shocked.
But they rebounded soon after, winning the pennant and the World Series (over the Boston Robins) for their fallen comrade. Due to the tragedy, the victory was bittersweet. they wanted their beloved comrade along for the ride. Instead, he rested in a coffin, the latest victim of a perishing strategy.
Like the Indians, Carl Mays eventually rebounded, winning the World Series in 1923, the Yankee's first. Even though a man was dead, Major League Baseball took a while to make the critical changes to prevent another tragedy from happening. Despite the tragedy, the major leagues decided to stick with their original plan, allowing players to be grandfathered in long after 1920. The strategy ultimately died out completely when Pittsburgh's Burleigh Grimes retired in 1934. It wasn't until December 1970 that batting helmets were required for all batters at the plate. Carl Mays passed away in 1971, having witnessed the end of his beloved spitter and the rise of batting helmets as a direct result of the tragedy that forever linked him with Ray Chapman.