Ray Chapman, shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, was hit in the head by a pitch at the Polo Grounds 93 years ago today. He died the next morning at St. Lawrence Hospital (now a minimum-security prison) on West 163rd Street in Washington Heights. Two months later, the Indians appeared in, and won, their first World Series.
Mike Sowell tells the story in The Pitch That Killed (1988), an account of the grim incident itself and a history of events leading up to and following it. Though he’s too restrained to describe the 1920 season in such stark terms, from his telling, the reader begins to form a picture of it as a watershed in the history of major-league baseball.
Rumors that the White Sox had thrown the World Series to the Reds back in October 1919 were building and would culminate in a grand jury a month after Chapman’s death. In the offseason, around Christmas 1919, the Red Sox had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in what we now regard as the most monumental transaction in baseball history. He was in right field at the Polo Grounds when Chapman was hit. (Ruth himself died 28 years later to the day, in 1948, the only other year the Indians won the World Series.)
In July 1920, another good Boston pitcher, Carl Mays, whose reputation for being a headhunter followed him, ended up on the Yankees’ roster after breaking his contract with the Red Sox. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, took legal action to block the trade, which he feared would set a bad precedent, but the case ended up in a court in New York, and that was that. In August, Mays threw the pitch that killed Chapman. In late September the White Sox, locked in a tight pennant race with the Indians, lost seven of their regulars, suspects in the Black Sox scandal, when owner Charles Comiskey suspended them, practically handing the pennant to the Indians. In November 1920, the National Commission, a triumvirate consisting of the presidents of the two major leagues and the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, hired Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to fill the newly created position of commissioner of baseball.
Sowell arranges those familiar elements of baseball history to create, as I say, a picture that highlights their interlocking relationships and tells a complex story that happens to be true. But it’s in a subplot to the Chapman incident as he relates it that this reader, anyway, finds the most disturbing significance.
In August 1920, Chapman, a Protestant, had recently married a Cleveland woman who was Catholic. According to her family, he had plans to take instruction to be received into the Church during the offseason. On his deathbed, a priest administered last rites. His wife’s family arranged a Catholic funeral at St. John’s Cathedral in Cleveland. Manager Tris Speaker did not attend, and catcher Steve O’Neill showed up with a black eye. According to newspaper accounts, Speaker’s absence was due to nervous exhaustion. In a newspaper interview decades later, Bill Wambsganss, or Wamby, the second baseman for the 1920 Indians (he pulled off an unassisted triple play in Game Five of the World Series), described a fight between Speaker and O’Neill. Speaker was a Protestant and Mason; O’Neill, a Catholic. Speaker objected to what he saw as sectarian aggression by Chapman’s Catholic wife and her family. O’Neill defended their decision to have him buried in the Catholic Church. The argument escalated, according to Wamby, and punches were thrown.
During his Red Sox years (1907–15), Speaker — together with Smoky Joe Wood, who would reunite with him when Wood moved to the Indians in 1917 — was said by the Boston newspapers to be a leader of what they dubbed the “Masons,” Protestants who were opposed in the clubhouse by the “K.C.s” (Knights of Columbus), Catholics who were primarily Irish Americans. A seasoned baseball historian warns me against looking for religious conflict in major-league baseball, but here are two dots — the early-20th-century Red Sox as described by the press at the time, and Wamby’s plausible account explaining O’Neill’s black eye and Speaker’s no-show at Chapman’s funeral — that, when you connect them, do reflect what we know from history to be a dark social reality in American society at the time.