On August 20, 1920, Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays - still the only fatality in a major league baseball game.
This event is mentioned in passing whenever someone is seriously hurt by a pitch. It is not, however, a well-chronicled event in the long history of the game. So it's good to see Michael Sowell give this story the attention it deserves in this fascinating book.
The book is written as a dual biography of Chapman and Mays. It could be called a triple biography, because Joe Sewell, Chapman's rookie replacement, is also prominently featured.
However, the book covers much more than these three men and the events directly concerning the fatal pitch. Sowell captures the flavor of the dead-ball era. But as Mays and Chapman approach their destiny, change is in the air. 1920 was the greatest turning point in baseball history. In that year:
The Red Sox sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Ruth set a new home run record with 54. (The old one was 29.) Chapman is killed by Mays. The Black Sox scandal breaks. Kennesaw Landis becomes the first commissioner of baseball. The spitball is banned, and dirty baseballs are removed from play.
All of this is in the story.
Chapman, by the way, was popular. Mays was not, even before the fateful day. As for the details of the pitch that killed, I will leave you in suspense...
Amazingly, this tale has not been dramatized. Why not? This story has many ideal elements for the big screen:
* We have a tragic hero, a triumphant hero and a villain, yet none are well known. * The villain plays for the Yankees. * Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Joe Jackson, the Black Sox scandal, and the birth of the Yankee dynasty are in the background. * The fatal beaning takes place in the heat of a thrilling pennant race. * The Indians, Yankees, and Mays must cope with something that has never happened before or since. * Despite the tragedy, the good guys win the pennant and the World Series. Somewhere, Chapman is smiling. * Did I mention that in the World Series, our heroes produce the first grand slam, the first home run by a pitcher, and an UNASSISTED TRIPLE PLAY - all in one game? * Chapman becomes a martyr. Sewell becomes a Hall of Famer. Mays becomes a pariah, blackballed from Coopertown.
Sounds like good movie material to me. A good director could make his reputation with this.