Hall of Fame umpire Tommy Connolly witnessed the only pitch that killed a major league baseball player 100 years ago.
The Natick resident was behind the plate when Yankee pitcher Carl Mays beaned Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman on Aug. 16, 1920, in a game at the Polo Grounds in New York.
“My grandfather told the family that when the ball hit him in the temple it sounded like a dry shingle breaking and they heard it throughout the Polo Grounds,” said Peggy Kilroy Sill in a telephone interview.
The Chapman beaning marked a crossroads in baseball history. Before the 1920 season (the Deadball Era) baseballs were rarely ever replaced, and they were routinely scuffed and rubbed with chewing tobacco. But in 1920, the rules changed and umpires started tossing out baseballs at the first sign of wear.
Owners complained bitterly about umpires wasting hundreds of perfectly good $2.50 baseballs. American League president Ban Johnson ordered the umps “to keep the balls in the game as much as possible, except those which (are) dangerous,” according to “The Pitch That Killed” by Mike Sowell.
On that fateful late afternoon, a light rain had stopped before Chapman stepped into the batter’s box in the fifth inning to face Mays, the former Red Sox righthander who won the clinching game of the 1918 World Series.
The two players couldn’t be more different. The speedy Chapman was popular with his teammates. He led the team in stolen bases, sacrifices, and team sing-alongs.
Mays, a spitball-throwing submariner whose knuckles sometimes scrapped the dirt during his delivery, had a reputation as a headhunter. A loner, he often berated his teammates when they made errors.
Chapman was crowding the plate; some accounts say his head was actually over the plate. When Mays saw him lower his bat to bunt, he went up and in with a fastball. Yankees catcher Muddy Ruel believed the pitch was in the strike zone.
Chapman never moved, and the baseball struck his left temple. Mays, who thought it hit his bat handle, fielded the ball and threw to first.
“At the plate, Chapman, who had stood motionless for a brief moment after being struck, was sinking slowly to the ground, his face twisted in agony. Ruel stepped forward to grab him but he slumped to his knees, never uttering a sound, " according to Sowell’s account.
When Connolly took one look at the blood rushing from Chapman’s left ear, he ripped off his mask and ran toward the stands.
“We need a doctor!” he shouted. “Is there a doctor in the house?”
Two doctors attended to Chapman, who was revived and tried to walk to the center-field clubhouse. But his knees buckled at second base and two players had to carry him in.
Chapman underwent emergency surgery at a local hospital. His skull was crushed in on one side and was fractured on the opposite side. He died early the next morning at age 29, leaving a pregnant wife who years later committed suicide.
Mays always swore he did nothing wrong.
“If I were not absolutely sure in my own heart that it was an accident pure and simple I do not think I could stand it,” he said. “My conscience is absolutely clear.”
He blamed umpire Connolly, a devout Catholic who went to Mass every morning.
“It was the umpire’s fault,’' Mays said. “A roughened spot on the ball, sometimes even a scratch, will make a ball do queer things. Umpires are instructed to throw out balls that have been roughed.”
Connolly, who would later become the American League’s first supervisor of umpires, did not respond to Mays’s comments. Two umpires immediately stepped forward and defended Connolly.
“No pitcher in the American League resorted to more trickery than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball to get a break on it,” wrote Billy Evans and Bill Dineen in a statement. “Hundreds of balls were thrown out every year because of this act.”
At the next game, fans cheered Connolly for his “presence of mind,” according to a newspaper article headlined “Big-Hearted Connolly.”
Connolly’s credentials were impeccable in his 56 years in the majors. He called the first game ever played in the American League in 1901, the first World Series in 1903, and the opening of both Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.
Born in England, he worked his way up from umpiring in the Natick YMCA league to become the foremost authority on baseball rules. And at 5 feet 7 inches and 140 pounds, Connolly was viewed as unfailingly polite and wore a tie split with a jeweled stickpin. In an age in which umpires were brash, he was understated.
He once stopped an enraged Babe Ruth from going after a heckler. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he said as he ejected the Bambino.
Another time he called Ty Cobb out for stepping across home plate for a swing.
"You can go just so far with Tommy," Cobb said. "Once you see his neck get red, it's time to lay off."
After his retirement, Connolly enjoyed hanging out at the Natick fire station and Fenway Park.
“He enjoyed talking to everyday men,” says Peggy Sill.
Upon his death in 1961, the New York Times called Connolly perhaps “the perfect umpire”.
In 1929, Mays retired with a 207-126 career record and later started a baseball school that a young shortstop named Johnny Pesky attended.
“Nobody ever remembers anything about me except one thing,” Mays once wrote. “That a pitch I threw caused a man to die.”
The American League didn’t officially mandate protective headgear until 1958, and Major League Baseball didn’t make batting helmets mandatory until 1971.
But baseball is fortunate there weren’t more fatalities among the tens of millions of pitches thrown since the 1870s. The sound of a baseball colliding with a skull is unforgettable.
“It was horrific,” said Red Sox Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Jim Lonborg, recalling the “loud thwack” of slugger Tony Conigliaro getting beaned by the Angels’ Jack Hamilton on Aug. 18, 1967.
“It reminded me of going deer hunting and the sound the bullet makes when it hits a deer,” he said.
At Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Indians fans still leave bats, balls, and gloves at Chapman’s grave.
For the 100th anniversary Sunday, the Indians played in Detroit and no formal ceremonies were held. But major league umpire Ted Barrett, an ordained minister, says Chapman will not be forgotten.
“I think a prayer for Ray Chapman is a wonderful idea,” he wrote in an email.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.