The Only Person To Die As the Result of a Baseball Pitch

On August 16, 1920, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray “Chappie” Chapman stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the top of the fifth inning. The first pitch from Yankees pitcher Carl Mays struck Chapman in the temple. Chapman, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, crumpled to the ground, but then managed to make his way off the field. A short time later, he collapsed again and was rushed to the hospital. There, the next morning, he became the first and only MLB player to die as the direct result of being hit by a pitch. Baseball — 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. In fact, the MLB only mandated helmets for the first time in 1971. Additionally, pitchers used a wide range of techniques to make the ball harder to hit. Many of those techniques are banned today. 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. A celebrated bunter, Ray Chapman 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. The New York Times eulogized Chapman as “a true sportsman, a skillful player, and one of the most popular men in the major leagues.”