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April 20, 2009
Though deaths caused by thrown or batted balls are rare, frequent close calls, including another last week, keep the issue of ballpark safety in play
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April 20, 2009

Hit In The Head

Though deaths caused by thrown or batted balls are rare, frequent close calls, including another last week, keep the issue of ballpark safety in play

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A ROUND THE beginning of February 2007, as the Cleveland Indians' staff was preparing to leave for spring training, team vice president Bob DiBiasio picked up the ringing phone in his office at Jacobs Field. "You've got to get down here," said Jim Goldwire of the team's operations department. "You won't believe what we just found."

DiBiasio rode an elevator down to the stadium's clubhouse level and walked to a storage room that's known as "the promotional warehouse," a dumping ground for bats, baseball caps, bobblehead dolls and other begrimed giveaways from years past. Goldwire and the head of the mail room, Steve Walters, led DiBiasio to one of the piles. They shoved aside a bunch of CC Sabathia hand puppets, brushed the dirt off a wood crate and removed the top. There it was—huge, darkened by oxidation, nearly unreadable. "You've got to be kidding," DiBiasio said.

After he joined the club in 1979, DiBiasio received occasional calls from old-timers looking for a four-by-three-foot, 245-pound bronze plaque dedicated to the late Indians shortstop Ray Chapman. The callers said it had hung in League Park in the '20s, then in Municipal Stadium just after the team moved there in '46. DiBiasio asked around. Nobody in the organization had any memory of the plaque. "I've never seen it," DiBiasio would tell the callers. "We've looked. We don't know what you're talking about." Eventually the calls stopped.

Now, after more than 50 years lost, Ray Chapman's memorial was found. Because of the decay, you couldn't see the two-foot-long bat with the glove dangling from it, or the eulogy embossed along the bottom: HE LIVES IN THE HEARTS OF ALL WHO KNEW HIM. In the ensuing weeks, as the plaque's lettering was sandblasted and polished, all those involved in its restoration took pride in rescuing a vital piece of baseball's past. It didn't matter that it marked one of the game's darkest moments.

Chapman, after all, was the most famous example of the damage a thrown or batted baseball can do. On Aug. 16, 1920, the popular ballplayer—29 years old, newly married, mulling retirement—was hit in the left temple by a fastball fired by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. He was carried off the field at New York's Polo Grounds and died the next morning, the first and last player ever killed on a major league diamond.

The Indians would honor the man they called Chappie by winning their first World Series that year, and some good would come to the sport in response to his death: Because Mays was suspected of having doctored the ball, professional baseball banned the spitball and began requiring umpires to monitor balls and replace dirty ones. Chapman's name was invoked over the ensuing decades whenever baseball suffered other scares.

And they weren't rare. According to researcher Bob Gorman—who this year published, along with his colleague David Weeks, the definitive account of baseball fatalities, Death at the Ballpark—nine minor leaguers and 111 amateur baseball players as young as eight years old have died as a result of beanings since 1887. More than 90 other players were killed either by pitches that hit other parts of their bodies, usually the chest, or by balls thrown by other fielders. The last pro beaning fatality occurred in June 1951, when Dothan (Ala.) Browns outfielder Ottis Johnson took a pitch by the Headland Dixie Runners' Jack Clifton in the temple, fell unconscious and expired eight days later. Later that month a catcher for the Twin Falls (Idaho) Cowboys, Richard Conway, was killed during fielding practice by a throw that hit him just below the heart.

Among those who survived injuries from thrown or batted balls were some of the best players on the field. In 1957 Indians lefthander Herb Score, who struck out a total of 508 batters in his first two seasons (tops in the American League), was nearly blinded when a liner by the Yankees' Gil McDougald hit him in the right eye. Score's retina was damaged, and he never came close to dominating again. In July 1962 Twins pitcher and 16-time Gold Glove winner Jim Kaat lost three front teeth to a one-hopper by the Tigers' Bubba Morton. Legend has it that after Kaat cleaned up his bloodied mouth and wiped bits of tooth off his glove, he went to a party and responded to his host's startled look by saying, "I was invited, wasn't I?"

Still, nothing matched Ray Chapman for pathos until Aug. 18, 1967, when the left cheekbone of Red Sox rightfielder Tony Conigliaro was pulverized by a rising fastball from the right hand of Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. Before that night Conigliaro seemed on a sure path to the Hall of Fame: He had homered in his first Fenway Park at bat, in 1964; hit 32 homers in his second season to become, at 20, the youngest home run champ in American League history; and become, at 22, the youngest player ever to reach 100 career home runs. Against Hamilton, Conigliaro was wearing a batting helmet, but not one with a protective earflap, and on impact the ball felt as if, he later said, it would "go in one side of my head and come out the other."

By the time Conigliaro hit the dirt his left eye was purple and swollen to the size of a handball. The retina was permanently damaged; two inches higher, a doctor would later tell him, and he would've been dead. "His whole face was swelling up, blood rushing in there," says Bill Valentine, the home plate umpire that day. "When he hit the ground his eye was completely shut. It was unbelievable."

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