On August 16, 1920, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman is struck in the temple by a ball pitched by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees. He died 12 hours later. This was the first and only death to occur as the result of a pitched ball in major league history.
Ray Chapman was one of the young and impressive Cleveland team’s major stars and their best infielder. On the afternoon of August 16, he led off the fifth inning against Carl Mays, a fastball pitcher whose underhand style made the ball difficult for batters to see. Chapman made a habit of being hit by balls, and Mays had a longstanding reputation as a “bean ball” pitcher. With a hunched-over stance, Chapman appeared to be looking for a curveball, and when Mays instead threw a fastball, Chapman made no movement to get out of the way. The ball hit Chapman in the left temple and made a sound so loud that many in the crowd and on the field believed he had hit the ball. The crowd of 20,000 at New York’s Polo Grounds gasped as Chapman collapsed to the ground. Indians players rushed to Chapman’s side, and helped him to his feet so that he could walk back to the dugout. However, he then lost consciousness and was rushed to St. Lawrence Hospital. Despite a late-night operation to relieve the pressure on his brain, Chapman was pronounced dead at 12:30 a.m. the next day.
Chapman’s death prompted a number of important changes to the way baseball was played. Prior to the incident, it was common for just a handful of baseballs to be used for an entire game. The balls became discolored from dirt and tobacco juice rubbed in by the pitcher, as well as scuffed and misshapen, making them difficult for batters to see. After Chapman’s injury, it was mandated that scuffed or discolored balls be replaced with new white ones. In addition to being easier to see, the white balls are more tightly wound and carry farther, making it possible for hitters to send them much greater distances. As a result, home runs became much more common, and the sport’s first generation of great sluggers–including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Hack Wilson and other future Hall of Famers–put fans in the seats and powered one of the greatest eras in baseball history.
With the influx of power hitting, pitching changed. Pitchers could no longer pace themselves and attack only the best hitters. The threat of the home run led pitchers to work harder throughout the game; they then tired more easily and had to be replaced more frequently. Baseball franchises have continued to place an ever greater premium on power hitting, and, as a result, depth of pitching.