Saturday, January 28, 2017

Common Demoninator: Ray Chapman

"Struck out against The Big Train despite still having at least one swing left, killed by a pitch from Carl Mays in 1920."

That would be Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman. His death from a pitched ball was one of baseball's saddest episodes. His team went on to win the World Series that year without him.

Chapman hit an impressive .312 in a 31-game trial with the Cleveland Indians in 1912, and was there to stay until that one tragic day. His batting average would dip to just .258 in his first full season, but the Indians had him as there everyday shortstop. And Ray led the American League in putouts by a shortstop in 1915, 1917 and 1918.

But against Walter Johnson in a contest played in 1915, Ray walked away. With two strikes. The Big Train was simply humming along, and Ray and company weren't hitting him. So Walter had poor Ray and his team in his back pocket. But Johnson was the best pitcher of his time (I rank him ahead of Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander) and maybe any time. When Ray Chapman played 31 games in 1912, Walter Johnson's ERA was a AL-leading 1.39. The next year it was even better, 1.14. 1.27 in 1918, 1.49 in 1919. When his career was over, Walter had one stat that will never be duplicated: 110 shutouts!

In 1918, Ray led the junior circuit in runs scored (84) and walks (84). But it was for the fourth time in the decade, Carl Mays' Boston Red Sox that won the pennant and the World Series. Carl had been there since 1915, and along with Babe Ruth, Rube Foster, Smokey Joe Wood and Dutch Leonard, part of a formidable pitching staff. The days of Bob Feller, Early Wynn and Bob Lemon were years away for Cleveland. Without pitching, no one was touching the Red Sox.

Mays himself, along with Babe Ruth, was out of Boston in 1920. They were teammates on the New York Yankees. Chapman, meanwhile, was just getting better. So he'd hit .302 in 1917. His averaged dipped to .267 in 1918, but was back over .300 in 1919. In fact, Ray hit exactly .300 that season (130-433). After August 15th of 1920, Ray was hitting .304, but in a big slump. On July 15th, Chapman was at .326, but would hit just .252 in the next 31 games. The last 31 games of his career, sadly.

On August 16th, it was Ray Chapman's Cleveland Indians up against Babe Ruth's New York Yankees at the old Polo Grounds. Yankee Stadium would not be build until 1923.

There had been a rain delay, but Cleveland was up 3-0. Chapman himself had been up twice going into the top of the fifth inning, but had only a sacrifice bunt to show for two plate appearances. After taking a pitch (a ball, 1-0), Mays delivered, and a horrible thing happend!

The ball hit Ray Chapman.

He would die early the next morning, too. The Indians couldn't have cared that they won the ballgame 4-3.

Mays wasn't exactly Mr. Popular with teammates, and the opposition had no love lost for him either. Ty Cobb thought he tried to hit him at least once. In any event, despite all this, Mays finished the season 8-2 from then on in. The pitcher was 26-11 for the season. He'd go one to win over 200 games and post an ERA of 2.92. Despite all this, Mays was never voted to the Hall Of Fame.

Cleveland, meanwhile, went back to the chores of winning despite such a huge loss. They won the pennant, then beat the Brooklyn Robins 5-2 in the best-of-nine Fall Classic. Ray Chapman was replaced at short by Joe Sewell, who hit only .174 in the World Series.

Mays' team went on to pennants of their own the following two seasons. And in 1923, Babe Ruth brought the Yankees the World Series crown. Cleveland has only won it once, ever since.

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