Year
1920
Month Day
August 16

MLB player hit in head by pitch, dies next day

On August 16, 1920, a gloomy day at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray “Chappie” Chapman steps into the batter's box to lead off the top of the fifth inning. The first pitch from the Yankees' Carl Mays strikes the un-helmeted Chapman in the temple, and he crumples to the ground. Though he makes his way off the field a short time later, Chapman collapses again and is rushed to the hospital. There, early the next morning, he will become the first and only Major League Baseball player to die as a direct result of being hit by a pitch.

Baseball, and batting in particular, was much more dangerous in 1920 than it is today. Even after Chapman’s death, it would be two decades before any team began requiring players to wear helmets—MLB only mandated helmets in 1971. Additionally, pitchers used a wide range of techniques, many of which are banned today, to make the ball harder to hit. Rubbing spit, dirt, or even shaving cream onto the ball; lacerating it; and going to other lengths to affect a pitch's path were so common that new balls were often unrecognizable by the later innings of games. Mays, in particular, had a reputation for throwing a nasty spitball, and for frequently beaning batters. Despite the difficulty of batting in this era, Chapman excelled at the plate and on the bases. A celebrated bunter, 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.

When his pitch hit Chapman’s skull, the noise was so loud that Mays assumed the ball had hit the bat. Mays fielded the ball and threw it to first, but Chapman’s knees buckled as he tried to take his base, and he fell to the ground, bleeding from his ear. The umpire called for a physician, and while Chapman briefly regained stability, he collapsed again a short time later. “Tell Mays not to worry,” he reportedly said before losing consciousness. 

The next day’s New York Times eulogized Chapman as “a true sportsman, a skillful player, and one of the most popular men in the major leagues.” Flowers and condolences poured in from all over the league and country. Fans and some players called for Mays to be banned from baseball or even prosecuted, but no charges were made. Mays called Chapman’s death “the most regrettable incident of my baseball career,” adding, “I would give anything if I could undo what has happened. Chapman was a game, splendid fellow.” Mays withdrew from baseball for 10 days after the incident, and did not accompany his team on its next road trip to Cleveland.

Thousands of mourners attended Chapman’s funeral service in Cleveland, his family and pregnant wife among them, and more than 20,000 people donated money for a  plaque in his honor at Cleveland’s ballpark. It would be decades before helmets became common in the major leagues, but MLB banned spitballs and similar pitches following the 1920 season.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Usain Bolt sets 100-meter dash world record

On August 16, 2009, under the lights of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium at the World Championships, 22-year-old Usain Bolt strikes a lightning-bolt pose and grins before taking his mark. Then the Jamaican, already the fastest man in the world, shatters his own world record in the ...read more

"Sports Illustrated" magazine debuts

On August 16, 1954, a new magazine dedicated to covering sports appears on American newsstands. Announcing itself with a striking cover photo of Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews, his swinging bat a blur against the dramatic backdrop of a crowded Milwaukee County ...read more

U.S. surrenders Fort Detroit to the British

During the War of 1812, American General William Hull surrenders Fort Detroit and his army to the British without a fight. Hull, a 59-year-old veteran of the American Revolution, had lost hope of defending the settlement after seeing the large English and Indian force gathering ...read more

Elvis Presley dies

Popular music icon Elvis Presley dies in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 42. The death of the “King of Rock and Roll” brought legions of mourning fans to Graceland, his mansion in Memphis. Doctors said he died of a heart attack, likely brought on by his addiction to prescription ...read more

Babe Ruth dies

On August 16, 1948, baseball legend George Herman “Babe” Ruth dies from cancer in New York City. For two days following, his body lay in state at the main entrance to Yankee Stadium, and tens of thousands of people stood in line to pay their last respects. He was buried in ...read more

Los Angeles jury clears John Z. DeLorean of drug charges

After close to 30 hours of deliberation, a jury of six men and six women unanimously acquits the former automaker John Z. DeLorean of eight counts of drug trafficking in Los Angeles, California, on August 16, 1984. A Detroit native and the son of an autoworker, DeLorean began ...read more

Gold discovered in the Yukon

While salmon fishing near the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory on August 16, 1896, George Carmack reportedly spots nuggets of gold in a creek bed. His lucky discovery sparks the last great gold rush in the American West. Hoping to cash in on reported gold strikes in ...read more

Senior U.S. POW is released

On August 16, 1945, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, (captured by the Japanese on the island of Corregidor, in the Philippines), is freed by Russian forces from a POW camp in Manchuria, China. When President Franklin Roosevelt transferred Gen. Douglas MacArthur from his command in ...read more

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is challenged in Senate

On August 16, 1967, President Johnson’s broad interpretation of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is attacked in the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee by the Chairman, Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, who feels that Johnson has no mandate to conduct the war on the present ...read more

President Tyler is burned in effigy outside White House

President John Tyler vetoes a second attempt by Congress to re-establish the Bank of the United States. In response, angry supporters of the bank gathered outside the White House and burned an effigy of Tyler. The protestors were comprised primarily of members of Tyler’s own ...read more

The Ramones play their first public gig at CBGB in downtown Manhattan

Five years to the day after half a million rain-soaked hippies grooved and swayed to the psychedelic sounds of the Grateful Dead at Woodstock, four young men from Forest Hills, Queens, took to the stage of an East Village dive bar in jeans, motorcycle jackets and Converse ...read more

Plane crashes into highway

A plane crash at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Michigan kills 156 people on August 16, 1987. A four-year-old girl was the sole survivor of the accident, which was caused by pilot error. Northwest Flight 255 was headed to California with a stopover in Phoenix when it pulled away ...read more