Ray Chapman joined the Cleveland Indians late in 1912, and over the next eight seasons put together an impressive resume, despite losing time to broken legs and a World War. Through the 1919 season, Chapman batted .275/.355/.371, good enough for an adjusted OPS of 111, while playing solid defense. He took a ton of walks for his day and was the most prolific bunter of his era (a time during which bunting was thought to be a good thing). He once finished top-ten in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and had a total of 25.3 WAR by the time he was 28. He was, in the words of the New York Times, “a true sportsman, a skillful player, and one of the most popular men in the major leagues.”
Unfortunately, the Indians were the very picture of mediocrity for most of Chapman’s tenure, never once winning the pennant, though 1919 saw the team enjoy its second consecutive second-place finish. Chapman at this point was thinking about hanging up his spikes, but his best man, Tris Speaker, had been made player-manager halfway through the 1919 season, so he figured he might stick around for one last shot at a title.
The 1920 Indians jumped out to a hot start, winning 6 of their first 7 and found themselves embroiled in a three-team race with the New York Yankees and their legacy-changing acquisition, Babe Ruth, and the Chicago White Sox, who were playing with the investigation of the 1919 World Series fixing scandal looming over their heads.
Chapman awoke on August 16, 1920, to find his team tied for first with the ChiSox, and heading to the Bronx to face the Bombers, who were nipping at their heels, just a half-game back in third place. On the hill for the Yankees that day was Carl Mays, one of the best young pitchers in the American League.
In the first inning, Chapman laid down a bunt to push Charlie Jameson to second, though the Indians couldn’t get Jameson home. In the third, Jameson again led off the inning with a single, and this time Mays popped into an unassisted double play. Chapman then led off the fifth with his team up 3-0.
Chapman crouched with bat in hand as Mays went into his windup and delivered a high hard one, which came bouncing back to him. Mays scooped up the ball and fired to first, not realizing the ball had caromed off the left side of Chapman’s head, rather than stuck his bat. In fact, Mays was unaware of what had happened until he saw home plate umpire Tommy Connelly motion for medical help.
Chapman was taken to St. Lawrence Hospital, where Dr. T.M. Merrigan operated for 75 minutes on the three and a half-inch long depressed fracture on the left side of Chapman’s head, removing a piece of skull roughly an inch and a half square. The ball had struck with such force that there were lacerations not only on the side of impact, but on the right side, as well, where the brain hit the skull. Despite Merrigan’s best efforts, Chapman was pronounced dead at 4:40am on the 17th.
Mays, for his part, was so grief-stricken that he presented himself to the district attorney, saying “It was a little too close, and I saw Chapman duck his head in an effort to get out of the path of the ball. He was too late, however, and a second later he fell to the grounds. It was the most regrettable incident of my career, and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened.”
Mays was, of course, exonerated. Some of Chapman’s teammates, however, felt justice had not been done, though Speaker made it clear that cooler heads would prevail.
"It is the duty of all of us, of all the players, not only for the good of the game, but also out of respect to the poor fellow who was killed, to suppress all bitter feeling," Speaker said after hearing the news of Chapman’s death.
The Indians managed to hold on that day for a 4-3 win, but in the days following Chapman's death, the dispirited squad dropped 7 of 9, falling three and a half games out of first place before going 25-9 down the stretch to win the franchise’s first ever American League pennant, two games ahead of the White Sox, before going on to beat the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series, 5 games to 2, for their first title.
Chapman remains the only player in Major League Baseball history to die as a direct result of an on-field injury.