The Trouble with Safety

On August 16, 1920, shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by the New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays at Polo Grounds. He would die 12 hours later at the age of 29.

The sound of the ball hitting his skull was rumored to be so loud that Mays assumed the ball had hit Chapman’s bat, so he fielded the ball and threw it to first base. Home Plate Umpire Tommy Connolly knew something was wrong when he noticed that Chapman was bleeding — so the umpire began screaming for a doctor. Tris Speaker, who had been on deck, rushed to his teammate as did several other players on the field and in the dugout.

Chapman didn’t react at all. It was twilight and it froze him.

Rod Nelson, Society of American Baseball Research

The entire time Carl Mays stood on the mound never flinching.

Chapman attempted to walk, but his knees buckled. Rushed to the hospital with his teammates by his side. Speaker phoned Chapman’s wife Kate, informing her that she would need to come right away. In a sick twist of fate, Kate Chapman did not make it in time to say goodbye to her husband. The Kentucky born Chapman died at 4 A.M. and his wife wouldn’t arrive from New York until 10 A.M.

Chapman’s wife Kate was pregnant at the time, fainting upon receiving the news of her husband’s tragic death.

Chapman’s death resulted in Major League Baseball establishing the rule in which umpires are required to replace the ball whenever it becomes dirty. The ban on pitchers using the spitball came — although it was still used by pitchers that were considered, “grandfathered in,” because the spitball was their bread and butter pitch.

While baseball fanatics never had the chance to see what kind of career Chapman could have had, Mays continued to play until 1929. At one point, there were talks of boycotting the games in which Mays pitched in. There are stories in the world of baseball that Ty Cobb had even threatened Mays at one point over the death of Chapman.

While Chapman remains the only Major League Baseball player to die from an injury sustained during a game, he is not the only person to die from the impact of a baseball hitting their skull during a game.

Like most issues regarding safety and MLB, it took 30 years after that fateful day for the league to adopt a rule requiring the use of batting helmets. Yes, a whopping 30 years after Chapman’s death.

Surprisingly enough, 99 years later, we’re still battling for safety when it comes to professional baseball. Only this time, rather than a batter being nailed with a spitball, it’s a spectator in danger of a foul ball.

In the last eight seasons, a study found that more than 800 fans had been injured by baseballs while in attendance. More than 800 fans is simply staggering. It’s 2019, how is this possible?

You feel for that person. You see a direct hit to that lady, and it came off the bat hot. You never want to see that happen.

Dave Roberts, 2019

In August 2018, 79-year-old Linda Goldbloom died four days after being hit in the head by a foul ball above the netting behind home plate at Dodger Stadium. A teenage girl was also struck in the head by a Cody Bellinger foul ball this season at Dodger Stadium. Bellinger, the 2019 MVP, made sure to check on the girl before taking his position in right field.

On May 29, 2019 in Houston, Chicago Cubs OF Albert Almora Jr. dropped down to one knee and buried his face in his hands, stricken with horror and tears streaming down his face. He had just watched a foul ball fly off of his bat, striking a two-year-old girl in the head, fracturing her skull.

It’s so sad, I don’t know what we can do. Let’s just put fences up around the whole field. I think any safety measure we can take to make sure fans are safe, we should do it.

Kris Bryant, 2019

But this isn’t a new thing in baseball due to social media, distracted fans, and juiced balls. On August 7, 1982, Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox saved a child’s life. Four-year-old Jonathan Keane was struck in the head by a foul ball hit by Chicago White Sox second baseman Dave Stapelton. Keane was quickly on the ground, bleeding and terrified. Rice, who was in the dugout lead to action, picking up the small child and carrying him into the clubhouse for medical assistance. Keane would undergo emergency surgery to relieve the pressure caused by swelling in his brain.

While Keane is alive and well today, he shouldn’t have had to experience such a traumatic event in his young life. To soften the memory at Fenway, the young boy threw out the first pitch for Opening Day 1983.

A change is coming to 2020.

According to Rob Manfred, the commissioner of baseball, every MLB team will extend the netting that protects fans from foul balls before the 2020 season. This came after NBC News lead an investigation that led to finding at least 808 reports of injuries to fans from 2012 to 2019. Injuries to fans included concussions, vision loss, orbital and skull fractures.

The first teams to announce the extended netting before Manfred’s official word, were the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, and Atlanta Braves.

While all 30 teams will extend the netting, there are certain stadiums that are designed in ways that will create difficulties. But no need to fret, there will still be netting extending beyond the dugout.

NBC News attempted to reach out to Major League Baseball but their requests were denied for information regarding the number of incidents and injuries at the ballpark for all 30 teams. A few teams stated they do not track that sort of date, others yelled about privacy concerns.

There is always an argument.

If you were take this conversation to social media, the vote would be unfortunately be split. While it makes the most sense to extend the netting and prevent injuries to spectators, there are fans that dislike the idea — believing it’ll take away from our national pastime. Here’s the thing, it won’t. Extended netting will never take away from the game.

If you go to high school games, independent league games, or sit behind home plate at a MiLB or MLB game, there is a more than likely chance you are sitting behind a net. It’s unfathomable to think there are people who would rather have the perfect view of their favorite pitcher over the safety of another human being.

99 years, 99 seasons after Ray Chapman’s death, we are still fighting to keep the men on the field and fans in the stands safe from the dangers of foul balls and wild pitches.

Follow along on Twitter @chelseabrooke / @dugoutdish for all baseball related content and things you never knew you needed.

Reference: NBC News, LA Times, SABR, and Washington Post.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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