Is it true that the Ray Chapman death ball, which reportedly resurfaced in the '70s, had a life of its own? Where is it now?
These questions have become harder to answer over the years as newspaper accounts have yellowed, and witnesses of the only fatal beaning in major league history have died.
The beaning happened the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1920, in the top of the fifth at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. The Cleveland Indians versus the New York Yankees. Stan Coveleski versus Carl Mays. The Indians would go on to win the World Series, but they would have to do it without Chapman, a slick-fielding shortstop and renowned hunter, and one of the team's best-liked players.
Mays, a reputed knockdown artist with a whippy submarine delivery, faced Chapman for the third time in the game leading off the fifth. On the first pitch Chapman took a fastball in the left temple. The sound was chilling. Chapman had been crouched over the plate, probably to bunt, as he had done in the first inning. He never moved as the ball came at him.
At St. Lawrence Hospital that night, doctors removed a 1�-square-inch piece of Chapman's skull in a desperate attempt to save his life. But it was no use. Chapman failed to regain consciousness and was pronounced dead at 4:40 a.m. He was 29 years old.
"They would've saved him today, I think," Bill Wambsganss said before his death in 1985. Wambsganss was the Indian second baseman the day of the beaning. "Chappie always leaned over [the plate], because he liked to push-bunt. Nobody knows what happened. He just froze."
Chapman's at bats against Mays were hardly a classic hitter-pitcher duel. By his own admission Chapman, a righthanded batter, could not hit the Yankee right-hander. Wambsganss, who later turned the only unassisted triple play in World Series history, remembered being with a group of players on the elevated train from the Hotel Ansonia to the Polo Grounds that morning. Chapman, who had a sweet tenor voice, led them in singing, as always.
"Who's pitching today?" Chapman asked.
"Hmmm," Chapman replied. "I'll do the fielding; you fellas do the hitting."