Book Reviews

Book Review: The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell

Baseball is a game where it seems like there are statistics for everything you could imagine. When I was younger, I received a Baseball Encyclopedia for Christmas one year that allowed me to pore through statistics and see many of the differences between the “old days” of baseball and the modern game. Never mind that I was as separated from those days by the same number of years that separates the youth of today from my childhood baseball games. One of the fascinating statistics that stood out was the fact that there has only ever been one player killed while playing the game.

The Pitch That Killed tells the story of that day, as well as the circumstances leading up to it as well as the effects afterward. Mike Sowell has written many books about baseball, including One Pitch Away about the 1986 baseball season. He’s done a tremendous amount of research to present readers with many details about the incident, other than the brief mention it received in Ken Burns’ series Baseball.

Ray Chapman was the well-liked shortstop for the Cleveland Indians who died on that summer afternoon in August of 1920. Newly married to the mayor’s daughter, he was considering ending his career in baseball after this season. He didn’t like the travel and being away from his family. Carl Mays, on the other hand, was well-known as a “dirty pitcher.” Up until recently doctoring the baseball had been allowed, but rules came down against it for all but a select few who were grandfathered in. Mays also had a reputation for throwing inside and hitting batters on a regular basis.

The Indians were in a three-way pennant race with the Yankees (Mays’ team) as well as the Chicago White Sox that summer. The Sox would see their chances evaporate once many of their players were indicted for throwing the 1919 World Series. Sowell details the season leading up to the incident quite thoroughly, maybe a bit too thoroughly at times. There are tangents about other players not involved in the incident except peripherally. Babe Ruth gets a lot of pages devoted to him. While he was a teammate of Mays’, he’s not that essential to the story. There’s also a lot of detail about the club owners, the American League President, and more.

There was definitely more to it than Ray Chapman stepping into the batter’s box and Carl Mays hitting him with a pitch and he died. However, much like another book I’m currently trying to get through, The Pitch That Killed goes off into tangents that sometimes had me feeling a need to just get to the point. The temptation to skip around or skip ahead was great while reading this, and I am a real baseball fan. When I finished the book, though, I was glad for the level of detail that really made me feel like an observer of that season.

Everything is intertwined, you see. Despite Mays having a record that is worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he never made it. It would be easy to say it was because of the death of Ray Chapman, but it likely had more to do with questions surrounding his playing days and possibly throwing games in the 1921 World Series.

First published in 1989, The Pitch That Killed has the meticulous detail it does because Sowell was able to interview players who were still alive from that era. His sources are listed at the back of the book for those who might want to replicate his research, but those interviews are lost to the ages. It’s surprising that it took until 1971 for Major League Baseball to make wearing batting helmets mandatory. I would think that one death would be one too many, but at the time the materials available made the prototype helmets available very heavy and cumbersome.

I recommend The Pitch That Killed only to the most devoted baseball fans. It’s a great story, filled with facts and anecdotes, but only those really into the game will appreciate it.