Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, and died 12 hours later. He remains the only Major League Baseball player to have died from being hit by a pitch. His death led Major League Baseball to establish a rule requiring umpires to replace the ball whenever it became dirty. His death was also one of the examples used to emphasize the need for wearing batting helmets(although the rule was not adopted until over 30 years later). His death was partially the reason MLB banned the spitball after the 1920 season.
Chapman led the American League in runs scored and walks in 1918. A top-notch bunter, Chapman is sixth on the all-time list for sacrifice hits and holds the single season record with 67 in 1917. Only Stuffy McInnis has more career sacrifices as a right-handed batter. Chapman was also an excellent shortstop who led the league in putouts three times and assists once. He batted .300 three times, and led the Indians in stolen bases four times. In 1917, he set a team record of 52 stolen bases, which stood until 1980. He was hitting .303 with 97 runs scored when he died. He was one of the few players whom Ty Cobb considered a friend.
There was conjecture that 1920 was going to be Chapman's last year as a pro baseball player. Shortly before the season began, Chapman married Kathleen Daly, who was the daughter of a prominent Cleveland businessman. Chapman had indicated he was going to retire to devote himself to the family business he was marrying into, as well as to begin a family
At the time of Chapman's death, "part of every pitcher's job was to dirty up a new ball the moment it was thrown onto the field. By turns, they smeared it with dirt, licorice, tobacco juice; it was deliberately scuffed, sandpapered, scarred, cut, even spiked. The result was a misshapen, earth-colored ball that traveled through the air erratically, tended to soften in the later innings, and as it came over the plate, was very hard to see."
This practice is believed to have contributed to Chapman's death. He was struck by a pitch by Carl Mays on August 16, 1920, in a game against the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. Mays threw with a submarine delivery, and it was the top of the fifth inning, in the late afternoon. Eyewitnesses recounted that Chapman never moved out of the way of the pitch, presumably unable to see the ball. "Chapman didn't react at all," said Rod Nelson of the Society of American Baseball Research. "It was at twilight and it froze him." The sound of the ball smashing into Chapman's skull was so loud that Mays thought it had hit the end of Chapman's bat, so he fielded the ball and threw to first base.
The book Ray and Me, by Dan Gutman, says that after Mays threw the ball to first, the fielders threw it around the diamond. Chapman then took three or four steps before he collapsed. Mike Sowell's book, The Pitch That Killed, however, states that first baseman Wally Pipp caught Mays' throw to first and then realized something was very wrong. Chapman never took any steps, but rather slowly collapsed to his knees and then the ground with blood pouring out of his left ear. The umpire quickly called for doctors in the stands to come to Chapman's aid. Eventually Chapman was able to stand and try to walk off the field, but he could not speak when he tried to do so, but only mumbled. As he was walking off the field his knees buckled and he had to be assisted the rest of the way. He was replaced by Harry Lunte for the rest of the game, which the Indians won 4-3. Chapman died 12 hours later in aNew York City hospital, at about 4:30 A.M.
In tribute to Chapman's memory, Cleveland players wore black arm bands, with manager Tris Speaker leading the team to win both the pennant and the first World Series Championship in the history of the club. Rookie Joe Sewell took Chapman's place at shortstop, and went on to have a Hall of Fame career (which he coincidentally concluded with the Yankees).
Ray Chapman is buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio, not far from where his new home was being built on Alvason Road in East Cleveland. He and his wife visited the home as it was being built several hours before he departed for New York City on his final road trip
Not long after Chapman died, a bronze plaque was designed in his honor. The plaque features Chapman's bust framed by a baseball diamond and flanked by two bats, one of them draped with a fielder's mitt. At the bottom of the tablet is the inscription, "He Lives In The Hearts Of All Who Knew Him." The plaque was dedicated and hung at League Park and later at Cleveland Stadium before being taken down for unknown reasons.
In February 2007, the neglected plaque was re-discovered by workers cleaning out a storage room at Jacobs Field. Covered by years of dust and dirt, the bronze surface had oxidized a dark brown; the text was illegible. The plaque was refurbished and hung in Heritage Park, an exhibit of Indians history at Progressive Field. Jim Folk, Indians' Vice President of Ball Park Operations, said, "It was in a store room under an escalator in a little nook and cranny. We didn't know what we were going to do with it, but there was no way it was just going to stay there when we moved to Jacobs Field. We had it crated up and put on a moving truck and it came over along with our file cabinets and all the other stuff that came out of the stadium."
Chapman was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 2006.