The Death of Ray Chapman

Ray Chapman on the FieldRay Chapman training in Alabama (Photo: Library of Congress)

For many, autumn is best represented by the beauty of leaves changing colors and falling to the ground. For others, playoff baseball and, specifically, the World Series, are the true harbingers of the season. This year’s “Fall Classic” will be just that—a classic—no matter who wins. Both the American League champion Cleveland Indians and National League champion Chicago Cubs are trying to break long streaks without championships. The Indians last won the Series in 1948. They made it there but lost in both 1954 and 1997. The Cubs have not appeared in a World Series since 1945 and last won baseball’s biggest prize in 1908—a whopping 108 years ago.

In Cleveland, not far from Progressive Field (the Indians’ home stadium), is Lake View Cemetery. This large and beautiful burial ground holds the remains of many notable Americans, including President James Garfield, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, Secretary of State John Hay, and lawman Elliott Ness. Also there, in Section 42, Lot 16: the earthly remains of one Raymond Johnson Chapman. Lake View Cemetery’s Instagram page recently showed an image of Chapman’s headstone with the caption “Ray Chapman is getting a lot of visitors these days!” The stone was covered with Indians pennants, caps, and other memorabilia. Chapman was a professional baseball player who spent his entire career as the shortstop for the Cleveland Indians. He also holds the unfortunate distinction of being the only major leaguer ever killed in a baseball game.

Chapman was born in Kentucky on January 15, 1891. His family moved to Illinois when he was fourteen, and he played in various minor leagues throughout that state. He played every position but pitcher and catcher. The Cleveland Indians brought him into their system in 1911 and called him up to the big leagues in August 1912. He hit .312 in the thirty-one games in which he played that year, and the Indians won twenty-two of them. Over the next several years, Chapman dealt with injuries but remained a solid shortstop for the Indians. In 1918, the Chicago White Sox tried to acquire him from Cleveland. When the Indians refused to trade Chapman, the Sox had to settle for acquiring “Shoeless” Joe Jackson instead.

Chapman got married after the 1919 season and considered retiring from baseball. However, the Indians hired his good friend Tris Speaker as their new manager, so Chapman decided to hang around and try to help Cleveland win its first-ever American League pennant. It was a fateful decision.

On August 16, 1920, the Indians played the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. (The original Yankee Stadium wouldn’t open until three years later.) Carl Mays was on the mound for the Yankees, and he had a reputation for throwing inside. The Indians led 3-0 in the fifth inning when Ray Chapman came to the plate. Mays worked the count to one and one, then tossed a fastball aimed at the high inside corner. The ball hit Chapman—who never moved—in the head, and Babe Ruth swore he heard it all the way out in right field. Chapman went to his knees as blood poured from his left ear. Indians manager Speaker, umpire Tommy Connolly, and Yankees catcher Muddy Ruel all rushed to help Chapman, who walked under his own power toward the visitor’s clubhouse before collapsing. Indians teammates carried him the rest of the way to the locker room and he was taken to St. Lawrence Hospital. As doctors operated on the shortstop, the game at the Polo Grounds resumed. The Indians won 4-3.

Surgeons made an incision at the base of Chapman’s skull and found a ruptured lateral sinus and a mass of clotted blood. They also removed a piece of his skull. He appeared to be improving, then died early the next morning before his pregnant wife arrived. The Indians-Yankees game scheduled for August 17 was cancelled, and on the 18th the grieving Cleveland team lost to New York and proceeded to lose seven of their next nine. “We felt as if we did not care if we ever played baseball again,” said Indians player Jack Graney. “We cannot imagine playing without Chappie.” That feeling didn’t last, though. The Indians won twenty-four of their last thirty-two games and beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

Chapman’s wife, Kathleen, never attended another baseball game after her husband’s death (though the Indians organization awarded her the full World Series share that would have gone to Ray). Six months after Chapman’s death, she gave birth to their daughter, Rae-Marie. Mrs. Chapman remarried in 1923 and died in Los Angeles in 1928 in what may have been an accidental ingestion of poison but might also have been a suicide. Her daughter went to live with her grandmother; sadly, Rae-Marie died during a measles outbreak just a year later.

As you enjoy the World Series this year and wait to see which team will end its championship drought, spare a moment to think about Ray Chapman. His tragic death reminds us that as much as we love sports and our chosen teams, such things are rarely matters of life and death. Unfortunately for Chapman and his family, baseball really was a life-or-death proposition.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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