Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was hit by a pitch thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays at the Polo Grounds on this date in 1920. Chapman apparently never saw the pitch. It hit his head hard enough that Mays thought it had hit the bat; the pitcher fielded the carom and tossed it to first for the presumed out. Chapman took a few steps and collapsed (some reports say he collapsed immediately). He died the next day.
The tragedy caused Major League Baseball to direct umpires to replace the baseball whenever it became dirty. The spitball was outlawed as well, partially in response to Chapman’s death. Previously pitchers dirtied every ball as soon as it was put in play, with dirt, tar, tobacco juice, petroleum jelly. A sticky, dirty off-balance ball could be thrown contrary to the batters expectations — and was hard to see.
Batting helmets were not made mandatory until 1971, though some teams adopted them earlier. Older players could choose not to wear a helmet. The last was in 1979.
On April 12, 1909, Philadelphia Athletics catcher Michael Riley “Doc” Powers crashed into the wall chasing a pop up. He died of of peritonitis as a result of the surgeries two weeks later. And he himself was a physician. It was opening day.
Those are the only two fatalities from on-field action in Major League history.
I attended a game, probably in 1957. Kansas City vs. Detroit at Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium. If I’ve found the right game, it was Jim Bunning vs. Don Larsen. I do remember Vic Power coming to the plate as a pinch hitter and declining a batting helmet. Bunning made him reconsider quickly however, and Power made a great show of going to the dugout and putting on a helmet.