“The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920” by Mike Sowell
Baseball, professional, history, Yankees, Indians, tragedy
September 1, 1989
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Most baseball fans know about Ray Chapman being the only player to die because of an on-the-field incident when he was beaned by Carl Mays. These same fans may also know that he was very popular, not just with the fans of the Cleveland Indians but also is teammates. Then they may also be aware that Mays was not very popular, even before this tragedy, with the players, teammates and opponents alike.
Just these topics would make a good book, but author Mike Sowell takes these and crafts an even better book by giving readers a complete picture of not only Mays and Chapman and that fateful day of August 16, 1920, but by including so many other key baseball men such as Tris Speaker (the Indians manager), Babe Ruth and Miller Huggins, the reader gets the complete picture of the men involved and the lead-up to that fateful pitch.
Mays was known as a trouble maker before arriving to the Yankees from his days with the Boston Red Sox. It didn’t affect his pitching as he had success with both teams and was a key member of the Yankees staff as they were involved in a three team pennant race with the Indians and the Chicago White Sox. His pitching was affected, however by a new rule that was enacted to disallow trick pitches. Mays’ underhanded delivery was deemed to be this, but he still threw in that manner that was effective and hard for a batter to pick up, as would be horribly on display during an at bat by Ray Chapman.
Chapman, on the other hand, was a young player on the rise with the Indians. A gifted shortstop, he was becoming a better player and gaining the confidence of his teammates. Newly married and expecting his first child, the young man seemed to have the world in his hands when he stepped up to the plate during a game against the Yankees. A pitch from Mays was coming in high and tight on Chapman, who never saw it coming. It hit him in the left temple and he was knocked to the ground bleeding and unconscious. He was able to make if off the field with help from his teammates, but died the next day in the hospital.
Just this alone would make a good book, but Sowell turns it into fascinating reading by including many details on both Mays and Chapman, such as when Mays told his wife in 1918 that he may have needed to do something “out of the ordinary” to get his name in the papers, or that Chapman may have retired after the 1920 season after promising his father-in-law to consider giving up the game to run their successful family business. Sowell also weaves the tight American League pennant race into the story along with other people that makes story of Chapman’s death even more completing. Little items such as Speaker getting involved in the decision on where to bury Chapman, a New York writer who tried to implicate Mays in throwing games during the 1921 World Series and the talk of players boycotting any game in which Mays was the pitcher.
All of this and more makes this book one that every baseball fan and historian must read. Even though I had known about this book for many years, I never picked it up until it was selected as a book of the month in an online baseball book club. My only problem with that is that now I am kicking myself for waiting so long to read it.
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