Baseball Legends Revealed #27

This is the twenty-seventh in a series of examinations of baseball-related legends and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Ray Chapman was the first player killed during a baseball game.

STATUS: False

From a Cleveland area news site:

Ray Chapman was the first and only Major League player to die as a result of a baseball game itself.

I won’t pick on this particular site because it is a commonly held belief, so why knock one site more than another?

In any event, yes, Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians sadly DID die in a baseball game in 1920, when he was struck in the skull by a pitch by noted spitballer, Carl Mays of the New York Yankees.

At the time, pitchers often tried to dirty the ball up so much that you could barely see it, and on that sunny day in August of 1920, the sun was shining in so that Chapman pretty much didn’t see the ball coming at all. As reports of the day would later say, Chapman did not even MOVE as the pitch came sailing towards his head.

It landed on his skull with such a loud crack that Mays presumed it had hit his bat, so as the ball bounced back to Mays, he picked it up and tried to make the out at first base. Then he, and everyone else, realized what had actually happened – Chapman had crumpled to the floor, unconscious.

Chapman was rushed to a hospital where he would die around 4:00 AM the next morning.

The Indians wore black armbands all season long in honor of their fallen teammate, and they actually went on to win the World Series that year. Chapman’s replacement at shortstop, Joe Sewell, actually went on to make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Indians gave Chapman a plaque that fell into disrepair over the years until fairly recently when it was restored and hung up at the Indians’ Progressive Field.

In any event, many folks refer to Chapman as the first and only player to ever die from injuries suffered during a baseball game.

This is not true.

Eleven years earlier, veteran Philadelphia Athletics catcher (and part time first baseman), Michael “Doc” Powers (so nicknamed because he was, in fact, a licensed physician) suffered severe injuries from crashing into a wall trying to make a catch of a pop up that went foul. It was early in the 1909 season.

After the game, Powers began complaining about stomach pain. He felt that it came from a bad cheese sandwich that he had before the game. In reality, the crash had given Powers severe internal injuries. After a number of intestinal surgeries over the next week or so, Powers eventually came down with peritonitis from infections resulting from all the surgeries (a hundred years ago is not a time you wanted to be having any surgeries, let alone THREE).

So Powers is the first player to die due to injuries suffered in a Major League baseball game, not Chapman.

However, many article writers rightfully adapt the statement to “as a result of getting hit by a baseball,” where Chapman IS the first (and I believe ONLY) player to die of such injuries.

BASEBALL LEGEND: Eddie Stanky developed a unique way to score on a sacrifice fly that was later specifically banned by Major League Baseball.

STATUS: True

Eddie Stanky is probably best known for the last team he played in the Majors, the St. Louis Cardinals, who he joined in 1952 as the player-manager (he became a full-time manager the next season).

He managed the team until 1955. He gained a good deal of press during that period, but he was already well known in the world of baseball, and not for his three All-Star appearances as a player. No, Stanky was well-known for being one of the most annoying baseball players ever.

And Stanky would not even deny it if asked about it – he knew that he was annoying, but he felt that doing so would be the best bet for his team to win. Occasionally his annoying actions went beyond the pale (like when he tried to get his team at the time, the Brooklyn Dodgers, refuse to let Jackie Robinson play for the team – perhaps non-coincidentally, 1947 was Stanky’s last year with the team), but for the most part they had a certain sort of charm to them.

For instance, the “Eddie Stanky Manuever” is what other players would call it when Stanky came up with the idea of “Hey, if I’m playing second base, why don’t I jump up and down to try to distract the batter?”

But what I wish to talk about here is another one of Stanky’s innovations, one that, while perhaps a little annoying to Major League Baseball (as they banned the practice) I think is actually pretty darn ingenious (and no wonder he was picked up as a manager – he had a good brain for baseball strategy).

You see, in baseball, with less than two outs, a player is allowed to attempt to the next base on any groundball or any flyball. In the case of the former play, the player can just run to the next base and be safe. In the case of the latter play, the player must wait until the catch is made by the fielder, at which point the player can try to run from their base to the next base before the fielder throws the ball to that base. The most extreme case of this rule is when runners on third base try to advance to home plate to score a run under what is called a “sacrifice fly.” It’s often a dramatic play, as the runner and the ball from the fielder often arrive at home plate at roughly the same time, so you never know whether the runner will score.

Well, Stanky came up with an idea that, as I’ve already noted, was pretty ingenious. Whenever he was on third base, he would actually stand a few feet BEHIND the bag, in left field!! He would do this so that he could watch a fly ball hit to the outfield and see from the arc when it would hit the glove of the fielder. Stanky would then figure out the timing in his mind and then race full speed from BEHIND third base so that he would hit third base in full stride right when the ball hits the fielder’s glove. Since Stanky would already be in a full-out run, he would score easily (as typically, players don’t START running until the catch is made, making them easier to throw out). It’s a brilliant little attempt at a loophole in the rules, but it is a loophole that eventually Major League Baseball outlawed.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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