In the early 1900s, baseball was by its very nature a pitcher’s game. Characterized by low scoring games and few home runs, it was dubbed the “Dead-Ball Era.” Home runs were so scarce that the record set by Roger Connor in 1897, a mere 138, stood for 24 years until Babe Ruth broke it in 1921 on the way to his legendary 714. Pitchers got maximum results with minimal effort, which not only helped beef up their won/lost records, but also allowed them to pitch more often, as they needed less rest between starts. It was an era that saw the rise of such legends as Christy Matthewson, Walter Johnson and the great Cy Young, whose record of 511 wins has stood for 95 years and will likely never be broken.
In the early 1900s, baseball was by its very nature a pitcher’s game. Characterized by low scoring games and few home runs, it was dubbed the “dead ball era” Home runs were so scarce that the record set by in 1897, a mere 138, stood for 24 years until broke it in 1921 on the way to his legendary 714. Pitchers got maximum results with minimal effort, which not only helped beef up their won/lost records, but also allowed them to pitch more often, as they needed less rest between starts. It was an era that saw the rise of such legends as , and the great , whose record of 511 wins has stood for 95 years and will likely never be broken. In those days, it was not uncommon for pitchers to deliberately muck up a ball in order to make it harder for batters to see and make contact with. From the moment a pitcher got his hands on a new ball, he was allowed, even expected, to do his best to alter it as much as possible. The spitball and the emery ball were not only commonplace, they were perfectly legal. Pitchers routinely rubbed balls with dirt, tobacco juice, licorice and anything else they could find to discolor it. They used sandpaper on the balls and even cut grooves into them. Anything they could do to alter a ball to their advantage, they did. In the early days of the game, the balls were loosely wound, and over the course of a game, they often became misshapen. Their movements were often erratic, and they were hard to see. Batters in those days were at a tremendous disadvantage, none more so than Raymond Johnson Chapman.
On August 16, 1920, manager Tris Speaker led his Cleveland Indians into New York’s famed Polo Grounds to take on the Yankees. On the mound for the Yankees that day was Carl Mays. Mays had a nasty reputation among his peers. He was a submarine pitcher who favored the spitball, and he wasn’t above going inside on a batter that was crowding the plate. In the fifth inning, Indians shortstop Ray Chapman stepped up to the plate. After two pitches, the count stood at 1-1. Chapman moved in, crouched over the plate in anticipation of Mays’ delivery. Mays let loose with a fast rising fastball high and inside that caught Chapman square in the temple. The pitch hit so hard that the resulting crack was so loud Mays thought the ball had actually made contact with the bat, and it bounced back so far that he was able to field it and throw it to first base. Chapman got up and walked to first base, where he collapsed. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where it was discovered that the pitch had actually crushed his skull. He never regained consciousness, and he died the next day. For the remainder of the season, the Indians’ players wore black armbands to honor their fallen teammate as they went on to win the pennant and capture their first world series title.
To date, Chapman is the only known casualty of baseball. His death not only brought about significant changes, but it marked the start of a whole new era in America’s pastime. Following the Chapman tragedy, it was decided that as soon as a ball got dirty, the umpire was to substitute a new, stark white ball. The spitball was outlawed, and the balls were wound more tightly to prevent deformity and make the ball livelier. Not only did this make the balls easier for batters to see and make contact with, but also the new, more tightly wound balls were lighter, more compact, and they carried further. In one tragic moment in 1920, the entire face of baseball changed. Gone were the days of the pitchers’ game, and baseball stood poised and ready to usher in the era of the home run hitter.
Posted originally: 2006-11-05 21:04:57