‘War on the Diamond’ a gateway to baseball’s crucial year: 1920

War on the Diamond book cover.

By George Castle, CBM Historian
April 23, 2021

Here’s a nugget you likely don’t know. I surely didn’t. The White Sox wanted to trade for young shortstop Ray Chapman from the Cleveland Indians in 1915 before settling for hard-hitting outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Maybe this fact won’t make it into Andy Billman’s upcoming documentary, “War On the Diamond,” about the tragic death of shortstop Chapman after a beaning from the Yankees’ Carl Mays on Aug. 16, 1920 in New York. With a pedigreed ESPN background, Billman displays his Cleveland roots by detailing the hot rivalry between the Indians and Yankees over the next century. You’ll be able to watch his finished product on several platforms, probably including streaming, later in 2021.

But the remembrance of Chapman, only major leaguer to die of an injury on the diamond, opens the door to an even wider look at the world of 1920, perhaps the most impactful season in baseball history this side of 1947.

Just in the “baseballscape,” the relationships include the White Sox, whose roster was stocked with the under-suspicion Black Sox players from the previous year’s World Series. Seven of the eventual Eight Men Out – ringleader Chick Gandil had moved on after 1919 — were suspended by Sox owner Charles Comiskey with three games to go. The Sox, having been locked in a tight race with the Chapman-mourning, yet inspired Indians, for weeks, still had a shot at the American League pennant.

The suspensions collapsed the franchise and consigned the Sox to second fiddle in the Chicago market to the Cubs, a status that was maintained despite the Sox’s revival in their “Go-Go” years in 195 — thanks to superior TV exposure on WGN.

The Chapman tragedy would not have the legs it should have possessed. On the New York end, one outsized personality would instantly transform both baseball into its present long-ball-happy form and the concept of celebrity. Babe Ruth, Boston owner Harry Frazee’s all-time gift to the Yankees, slugged 54 homers, more than any other AL team. No longer would baseball be a pitch-and-putt, low-scoring, below-the-fences sport, with an underpinning of gambling and attempts to fix games.

Ruth immediately paved the way for the Yankees to become baseball’s dynastic franchise. At their performance peaks over the decades, both the Sox and the Indians just were a little short of the Yankees and could count AL pennants on one hand total through 1995.

The second-division Cubs were peripherally involved in all the above. An attempt to fix a late-season Cubs-Phillies game in 1920 attracted the attention of a Cook County grand jury. But the panel soon shifted its attention to long-simmering Sox rumors. Soon the Black Sox (minus Fred McMullin) would go on trial for their corruption but be acquitted by a friendly jury abetted by a system that seemed to want to forgive their heroes.

Not so fast. Frightened by the tidal wave of gambling, owners handed autocratic power to their first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who took office soon after the 1920 season. Landis imposed the career death penalty to the Black Sox immediately after their legal acquittal, sweeping up third baseman Buck Weaver in his zealous dragnet merely because he did not rat out his tainted teammates while taking no payoffs.

But while clamping down on game-fixing, Landis’ presence also delayed the integration of baseball until after his death late in 1944.  “Justice for all” did not exist in the old bones of former federal judge Landis.

Ray Chapman had almost a matinee-idol appeal in Cleveland. (Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.)

Ray Chapman had almost a matinee-idol appeal in Cleveland. (Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.)

1920 momentous off the field, too

And if the confluence of everything seemed to take place in 1920 baseball, just look outside the walls of the cramped ballparks of the day. The Spanish Flu pandemic had finally started to abate, replaced by the rampant affliction of racism and intolerance against Blacks, immigrants, social dissenters and left-wing activists. The Ku Klux Klan was poised for its biggest post-Reconstruction revival.

Women finally got the vote in 1920, but the glow of mass enfranchisement was practically canceled out by Al Capone-paced crime bred by the start of Prohibition. The good times of the Roaring Twenties was a lot of hype when you encompass all events and what was to follow in 1929.

Billman would need to craft a Ken Burns-sized series to cover everything here. He had enough hubris growing up a Cleveland fan to focus on Indians-Yankees.

And, of course, the connection to the Cubs is always around. Didn’t the Chicago National League Ballclub come back from a 3-1 deficit and a big Indians rally in Game 7 to win the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field? All the while Indians fans made a mint selling their tickets to Cubs fans. I heard $10,000 in cold cash bought you seats near the visitors’ dugout. Humiliation is always within reach for a Cleveland rooter.

Which is tragic when it wasn’t just dark humor, or the slapstick comedy of “Major League.” Thoroughly compelling is the story of Chapman, a real golden child, an All-American kid who was the people’s choice at League Park. All the hazards of the beanball and the lack of batting helmets until the 1950s, and the only fatality was an Indians star.

We’ve heard of the Chapman-Mays story through the ages, how Mays ended up a heavy. But it gets pushed back in the consciousness of the fans. It’s never the ultimate cautionary tale, never a horror story. Billman knows why. There was an intentional civic forgetfulness in Cleveland ever after the Indians beat Brooklyn Robins (soon to be renamed the Dodgers) in the 1920 World Series. And Cleveland was a flyover city even at a time when rickety bi-planes could only meander overhead at a few thousand feet.

Carl Mays' submarine delivery lent itself to close shaves for right-handed hitters. It proved fatal for Ray Chapman. (Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.)

Carl Mays’ submarine delivery lent itself to close shaves for right-handed hitters. It proved fatal for Ray Chapman. (Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.)

The forgotten championship

“When I grew up, we celebrated 1948 and 1954,” Billman said. “We talked about Herb Score (a top lefty whose career was cut short when he was felled by a liner off the bat of Gil McDougald).

“But we never heard about 1920. There was a championship parade afterward, but it turned sour when Chapman was memorialized. If you were in New York and this was the Giants, it would have been a huge story. What happened was Clevelanders tried to forget it. It hurt much more. Even when they won the championship, it’s a forgotten championship.”

One witness to the 1920 World Series at League Park was Archie Fletcher, Sr., grandfather of Chicago Baseball Museum president Dr. David J. Fletcher. The Fletcher family were generations-long Cleveland residents.

Author Mike Sowell, whose 1989 book “The Pitch That Killed” detailed the Chapman tragedy, is still puzzled the incident never was front and center in the collective baseball mindset.

“I was surprised Chapman was not more publicized,” Sowell said. “Chapman did not play with the Yankees. Grantland Rice he never wrote anything about it. It quickly got overshadowed by Ruth.  It was kind of just a Cleveland thing. When you learn the story, it’s like a Hollywood story.”

Chapman’s tragedy was compounded when he was not given proper medical treatment, even for the primitive times. He was not carried off the field on a stretcher. He tried to walk off, but collapsed.

“He was not given ice,” Billman said. “Why he laid there (in the Polo Grounds locker room) for hours is unclear. They treated the injury as if he’d be OK. After four-five hours, they took him to the hospital. He had surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. They thought the worst was over.”

Chapman died 12 hours after the beaning.

After an off-season to process the tragedy, the Indians tried an immediate solution to beanballs in spring training 1921.

“The Indians tried to use old football helmets,” Sowell said of the distinctive leather gear.” “But there’s a reluctance to change. If you’re 20 years old in the majors and never have worn protective gear, you’re not going to do it.”

Major League Baseball did not introduce batting helmets until after World War II. Even then, the helmets were not mandatory. Many players simply put in liners in their caps.

Santo, Dawson dodged bullets

Ray Chapman's death superceded other news in Ohio in Aug. 1920.

Ray Chapman’s death superceded other news in Ohio in Aug. 1920.

Additional protective flaps for helmets did not gain traction until much later. The Cubs’ Ron Santo finally wore a flap after the Mets’ Jack Fisher hit him the face with a pitch in 1966. Santo suffered a fractured orbital bone below the eye, requiring immediate surgery. The tough-guy mentality that enveloped the stunned Chapman also affected Santo. He was back in the lineup, with the rigged-up flap, in one week.

Just in relatively recent history, players like Santo have dodged some serious bullets. On July 7, 1987, Padres pitcher Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face after The Hawk had battered San Diego pitching for a slew of homers in the series. Dawson was not knocked out or down at all. Instead, bleeding profusely from a wound requiring more than 20 stitches, he charged Show like an raging bull, requiring five strong uniformed Cubs to hold him back. Show was escorted from the ballpark by Chicago police.

Billman also will provide perspective on the tortured existence of Mays. The most effective right-handed starter in the American League on both the Red Sox and Yankees, Mays developed a reputation as a headhunter, as did other pitchers. The difference is even the mean-spirited on the mound blended into the camaraderie of their teams. Baseball is truly the buddy system. But Mays had no friends in the game. Puzzled, he talked of his isolated nature.

Other than ducking a late-season trip to Cleveland in 1920 for obvious reasons, Mays never paid a price for Chapman’s death. He pitched another decade. In the game’s usual twist of fate, Mays worked as a scout for the Indians in later years. He lived long enough to do a recorded interview about his date with infamy.

As a documentarian, Billman got fortunate about the year his narrative is based. While Santo’s and Dawson’s careers are well-preserved on video, TV was science fiction in 1920, the year commercial radio began on KDKA in Pittsburgh. But newsreel companies had recently set up shop to snare their silent footage. Filmmakers roamed everywhere with their big, bulky cameras. Billman did not have to resort to just bringing still photographs to life as Burns often has had to do in his long PBS visual essays.

“There are more photos and film footage from 1920 than people knew,” said Billman, who also projects some re-creations with actors. “By the late 1910s and 1920s, people began filming things. There is some motion picture footage of Chapman playing. People starting filming college football games. People started realizing the value of it.”

‘What ifs’ involve Sox

Documentarian Andy Billman (right) interviews longtime CBS Sports stalwart Lesley Visser for his Ray Chapman-Carl Mays project.

Documentarian Andy Billman (right) interviews longtime CBS Sports stalwart Lesley Visser for his Ray Chapman-Carl Mays project.

When the completed “War on the Diamond” is finally shown, inevitably it will only bring up more “what ifs?,” a staple of baseball since the sport went pro in 1869.

“What if” the Indians hadn’t seemingly been possessed to win as without their beloved shortstop? They won 16 of their last 21 games, with the Sox just ½ game out when Comiskey gutted his roster with the suspensions. Suppose the Sox were in first place a few games ahead of the Indians, Comiskey still acted out of conscience with his suspensions and the talent-stripped Sox won the pennant?

“’What if’ the Sox had played again in the World Series with all that hanging over their heads?” asked Sowell.

“’What if’ the Indians had agreed to trade Chapman to the Sox in Aug. 2015? Already with two seasons under his belt as a slick shortstop and a .287 hitter, Chapman batted third in the lineup – and .327 hitter Shoeless Joe batted fourth.

“Chapman in 1915 was one of the rising stars of league,” said Sowell. “But the Indians wanted Chapman ahead of Jackson. The Indians would not trade him.

“If Chapman had gone to the Sox instead of Jackson, would the makeup of the team have been different if Gandil was thwarted in his fixing scheme? Chapman could have been a tempering effect.”

Instead, shortstop Swede Risberg ended up as one of the Black Sox. And another question comes up: “What if” as a Sox, Chapman lives a long life as the exact situation of his beaning by Mays is not duplicated?

Indeed, say it ain’t so, Joe.

More information about “War on the Diamond” can be found at:

www.facebook.com/WarOnTheDiamondMovie and www.waronthediamond.com.

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