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.