Is it true that the Ray Chapman death ball, which reportedly resurfaced in the '70s, had a life of its own? Where is it now?
These questions have become harder to answer over the years as newspaper accounts have yellowed, and witnesses of the only fatal beaning in major league history have died.
The beaning happened the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1920, in the top of the fifth at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. TheCleveland Indians versus the New York Yankees. Stan Coveleski versus Carl Mays. The Indians would go on to win the World Series, but they would have to do it without Chapman, a slick-fielding shortstop and renowned hunter, and one of the team's best-liked players.
Mays, a reputed knockdown artist with a whippy submarine delivery, faced Chapman for the third time in the game leading off the fifth. On the first pitch Chapman took a fastball in the left temple. The sound was chilling. Chapmanhad been crouched over the plate, probably to bunt, as he had done in the first inning. He never moved as the ball came at him.
At St. Lawrence Hospital that night, doctors removed a 1�-square-inch piece of Chapman's skull in a desperate attempt to save his life. But it was no use. Chapman failed to regain consciousness and was pronounced dead at 4:40 a.m. He was 29 years old.
"They would've saved him today, I think," Bill Wambsganss said before his death in 1985. Wambsganss was the Indian second baseman the day of the beaning. "Chappie always leaned over [the plate], because he liked to push-bunt. Nobody knows what happened. He just froze."
Chapman's at bats against Mays were hardly a classic hitter-pitcher duel. By his own admission Chapman, a righthanded batter, could not hit the Yankee right-hander. Wambsganss, who later turned the only unassisted triple play in World Series history, remembered being with a group of players on the elevated train from the Hotel Ansonia to the Polo Grounds that morning. Chapman, who had a sweet tenor voice, led them in singing, as always.
"Who's pitching today?" Chapman asked.
"Hmmm," Chapman replied. "I'll do the fielding; you fellas do the hitting."
At the time, Ray and his wife, Kathleen, were expecting their first child, who would turn out to be a girl. Ray often said he planned to retire at the end of the season so he could spend more time with his family.
"By the '40s, all of them were gone, even the daughter," said Wambsganss, who recalled seeing a poignant picture of Chapman after the beaning. He was lying flat on the trainer's table in the visitors' clubhouse of the Polo Grounds, tugging frantically at his left ring finger and moaning. "He wanted to know where his [wedding] ring was," Wambsganss said. Before the game Chapman had given it to the team trainer for safekeeping.
Kathleen, who remarried in 1923, died in 1928, a suspected suicide. A year later the Chapmans' daughter, Rae Marie, died of measles.
In six major league seasons Mays had hit 54 batters. Chapman was No. 55. After Chapman's death, players on several teams threatened to boycott games in which Mays pitched, but they never did and Mays continued to play until 1929.
But what about the death ball? Bob Curley, a former sportswriter for the Orlando Sentinel Star, wrote in August 1977 that former Cleveland leftfielder Charlie Jamieson, who claimed to have picked up the ball after the beaning and who died in 1969, had given it to him in 1950. At the time Curley was a high school baseball coach in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. "You're a newspaperman, a coach," Curley quoted Jamieson as saying. "I don't want the ball, but I do want someone to hold onto it after I'm gone. It's yours. Keep it. It's gonna be a collector's item."
Curley, who died in 1991, said he tossed the ball into his car's glove compartment, and that the next day his players found it and used it for infield practice. It was the first time the death ball had been used since it struckChapman. According to the 1977 story, the ball took a bad hop and hit third baseman Andy Deak under his right eye, shattering his cheekbone.
"It rarely sees the light of day, and I confine it to a plastic bag in a locked cabinet in Casselberry ( Fla.)," Curley wrote. "I'm always fearful that the ball might roll out, and that someone will slip on it and break his neck."
Carl Mays' Biography Describes How One Errant Pitch Clouded An Entire Career
Carl Mays won 208 ball games in a 15-year big-league career, but he is remembered almost exclusively for a single pitch—the one that accidentally struck and killed Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 16, 1920. It remains the only on-the-field fatality in major league history, and it haunted Mays until his own death last year. His five 20-game seasons and a won-lost percentage of more than 60% have failed to dim the memory of the incident in the public mind. While several lesser contemporaries of Mays have been elected to the Hall of Fame, he has so far been shunned. "Nobody ever remembers anything about me except one thing," he once said. "That a pitch I threw caused a man to die."
In his pleasant, anecdotal biography of Mays, Baseball's Great Tragedy (Exposition Press, Jericho, N.Y., $6), Author Bob McGarigle has attempted a remedy. Through a kind of elongated interview, he provides a platform forMays to tell his story in his own words and rehabilitate an image tarnished by several controversies during a stormy career. Despite his reputation, Mays comes across as a colorful, open and surprisingly articulate storyteller.
It was not always so. Mays' youth was as rocky as his career. He lost his father at the age of 10 and quit school after two years. This made him reluctant during his playing days to associate socially with his better-educated teammates and he soon earned a reputation as a loner. He was brutally honest, a fierce competitor and made enemies regularly on the field. He felt this accounted for the rejection he suffered over the Chapman pitch, and that if it had been, say, Walter Johnson (who hit more batters than anyone in baseball), the verdict would have been kinder.
The Chapman incident was, of course, an accident. Chapman was a notorious platecrowder, and Mays intended to pitch him low and away. But as Mays wound up, Chapman lowered his bat for a bunt attempt, so Mays threw the ball high and tight. Chapman ducked right into the pitch, fracturing his skull. He was dead by the morning. Reaction to the tragedy was immediate and extreme. Ty Cobb sent Mays a note that read: "If it was within my power, I would have inscribed on Chapman's tombstone these words: Here lies the victim of arrogance, viciousness and greed."
Mays finished out his career in Cincinnati, and after his retirement conducted baseball schools in the Pacific Northwest. Among the stars he helped develop was Johnny Pesky. When he died, however, his obituaries dwelt on a single fact: the high, inside fastball he fed Ray Chapman