On August 17, 1920, twenty-nine year old Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman became the first and only Major League Baseball baseball player in history to die after being hit in head by a pitch thrown by New York Yankee’s pitcher Carl Mays twelve hours earlier. In The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920, Mike Sowell takes readers back to this dark moment in baseball’s history to retell the story of two players who will forever be etched side-by-side because of one fatal pitch.
As the game has continued to progress with no other fatality, Chapman’s death and his career has slowly faded away into distant memory. Sowell points out, “Although he was one of the top stars of his era, Chapman has been remembered almost solely for his unfortunate ending. Even in this regard, he has not fared well.”
Sowell narrative and structure of the book helps create a personal understanding to the career of both Mays and Chapman. During his career, Mays was one of the best pitchers of his era, but his fiery attitude and fearlessness to brush hitters back off the plate made him one of the most feared pitchers of the game. On the other hand, Chapman was the opposite of Mays. His scrappy play and quickness made him and well-liked an excellent ballplayer.
By breaking the book up into seven different parts, it really provides insight on the impact and affects Chapman’s death had on the rest of Major League Baseball. On the mound, Mays projected no remorse about Chapman’s death, but he was no doubt impacted for the rest of his life. Sowell’s does an excellent job laying out the aftermath and affects it on Mays and those around baseball. Not only does Sowell do a good job bringing Chapman’s back to life, he also allows to understand Mays beyond the mound
For those baseball fanatics who already know about this tragedy, the book may not offer up anything new, but for those casual baseball fans of the early twentieth century, they will not be disappointed as the book offers up a fresh perspective to the baseball scholarship. In keeping with this approach that is focused on specific years, Sowell’s book should be added to the list of other books on this field of baseball history.