Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

DEATH ON THE DIAMOND



The Killing Game 

On almost any day of any baseball season, a team gets killed.  No, not literally, but figuratively.  And, over the last century and a half in the history of baseball in America, many people have been killed by pitched, batted and thrown balls, as well as by player collisions and flying bats.   Some are even killed by Mother Nature and bad boys up to no good.  

My interest in players getting killed in a game came when I read a 1920 issue of the Macon Telegraph. My grandfather, Irving Scott of Macon, was sitting among 21,000 fans  in the grandstands at the Polo Grounds in New York watching the August 16, 1920  game between the New York Yankees and the visiting Cleveland Indians.  There were no lights in those days. It was late in the afternoon. when Cleveland's Ray Chapman walked up to the plate to lead off the top of the 5th inning.  Babe Ruth, on his way to his first 50 plus home run season,  was settling down to his usual spot in right field.

Yankee submarine-style pitcher, Carl Mays,  (LEFT) threw his third pitch of the inning.   The ball hit Chapman, the Indian shortstop,  squarely in the skull.  The ball bounced quickly back to the pitcher. Thinking that the loud pop was the sound of Chapman's bat striking the ball, Mays threw the once white, but then slightly brown, ball  to first base. As the Yankee infield was throwing the ball around the diamond celebrating an easy out, first baseman Wally Pipp noticed that something wasn't just right.  In his score book, the official scorer would simply note that Mays hit Chapman with a pitch on that fateful day.

The prevailing thought today is that Chapman never saw the tobacco-stained, dirt-rubbed ball in the oncoming twilight.  Scott, known as "Great Scott" on Lanier High's 1919 Southern High School Basketball Championship team, saw it differently.

"From where I was sitting, I could not say whether Chapman crowded the plate or not," Scott recalled.  The ball that Mays delivered was not a "bean ball, but not more than waist high, said Scott, who postulated, "If Chapman had  stood up or not moved at all, the ball would have not hit him any higher than the waist line.  As it was, he was fooled by the break the ball took, and instead of getting out the way, dodged right into it." A United Press reporter, who somewhat corroborated Scott's account, wrote, "Chapman  was crouching down and crowding the plate and moved into the sharply breaking curve ball."  

Chapman (LEFT) stumbled a few steps and fell to the ground.  After medical help arrived, Chapman was able to stand and walk, if only briefly, before once again collapsing before he made it to the dugout.  Ray Chapman, to this day, remains the only player ever killed by a pitch in a major league game. Cleveland scored a fourth run that inning and held off a last at bat comeback by the Yankees, 4-3. Mays, understandably devastated, never fully recovered from that horrible day.

Now run the clock forward 45 years.  That's the day when I saw a pitcher get hit square in the middle of the chest with a batted ball.  It was my chest.  In fact, it was in that same grandfather's front yard when I threw my best fastball to my father, a pretty fair country boy, baseball player.  As he always taught me, Daddy met the ball as it crossed the plate. He blasted the ball right at me, some forty or fifty feet away.  I still remember the  ball coming at me some forty-eight years ago.  A few moments later I woke up.  My father was standing over me.

I only ever saw my Daddy cry twice.  Once, when his 16-year-old great-nephew drowned and on that day when thought he had killed me.  You see, Daddy knew that hitting someone in the heart between beats can often be fatal.  Most of the deaths which take place on the baseball diamond come from players being hit by batted or thrown baseballs in the chest or in the head.

Catchers have been killed by pitchers too.  W.H. Williams, brother of Dublin attorney G.H. Williams, was catching for the Soperton team on the afternoon of July 25, 1906.  He wasn't wearing a chest protector that day.  A fast ball struck Williams above the heart.  The catcher collapsed, dead before he hit the sandlot. No one remembered what the score was that, nor was it noted who threw the pitch  or if the teams even finished the game. The score wasn't important that day.  Williams, a popular young man, was dead on the diamond.

Ephraim Jones was struck and killed too.  In southwestern Cordele on July 3, 1912  the outfielder was practicing baseball when a fly ball slipped through his hands, struck him just over the heart and killed him dead.

A Negro convict was not watching when another convict threw a ball in anger at another convict.  The errant ball missed its target, striking the bystander and causing a fatal injury at McRee's Convict Camp near Valdosta in the summer of 1899.

Flying bats are often dangerous and can be extremely fatal.  Sometimes they inexplicably fly out of the batters hands in the direction of a player or sail randomly into the stands.  In 1908,  Little Willie Watson, of LaFayette,  was playing with his friends, when a bat slipped and struck the ten-year-old over the heart, killing him on the spot.  And, sometimes, players get so angry that they pick them up and whop another player up said their head.  This was the case in Fitzgerald, when in a late spring game at Pearson's Mill, Cato Mack walloped Melvin Wilson in his head with a bat and immediately left the diamond for parts unknown.

Teams from Evans and Sandtown were playing a game when Fred Dozier and Russell Morton converged toward a line drive in right center field.  So intent on stopping the bounding ball, Morton, quite smaller than his teammate, never saw the sprinting Dozier. Morton's head struck Dozier's upper abdomen.  No serious after effects were noticed until later that night when Dozier, 17, began to have violent attacks of pain. He died within two hours.  

Fans are not immune from being killed as well. Four-year-old William Evans, of Sandersville,  was standing close to a batter when a pitched ball hit him in the head, paralyzing and killing him instantly.   Ironically, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. George C. Evans, were attending a funeral at the time of the incident.

With today's technology and more stringent rules, umpires and game managers suspend ball games when there is any hint of lightning in the area.  Such was not the case in the early 1900s when  a bolt of lightning would strike with no warning and kill anything within its path.  Dan Harrell and a Negro man were victims of a savage strike in lightning  a 1908 game at Bullards, in northwestern Twiggs County.

Five people were killed in New York City alone in 1910.  In 1914, there were an estimated 35 deaths in baseball, 20 from pitched balls, 5 by flying bats, 4  from collisions, 4 from heart attacks and 1 from fighting.  Three hundred and fourteen  limbs were broken, 13  skulls were fractured, and 317 lower extremities were sprained. And,  that was only what was reported.

So as you see, America's pastime can be and has been somewhat deadly. Most of us rightly think that the most deadly major sport is football, but now you know baseball can be deadly too.   So as you watch your favorite team this season, keep your eyes on the ball and the bat all the time.  And, by the way, watch the skies too and don't' get into any brawls.





No comments: