Death by Fastball

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Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire


Molly Lawless Hit by Pitch: Ray Chapman, Carl Mays and the Fatal Fastball 195 sidor, hft., ill. Jefferson, NC: McFarland 2011 ISBN 978-0-7864-4609-4

Molly Lawless
Hit by Pitch: Ray Chapman, Carl Mays and the Fatal Fastball
195 sidor, hft., ill.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland 2011
ISBN 978-0-7864-4609-4

There is a decent number of sports where we can think fatalities are not unexpected – including sky-diving, motor racing, surfing – or at least possible – perhaps rugby or horse racing; for most of us, baseball would not be one of those; injury perhaps, but death? Yet, it happens – most notably in August 1920, during a game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees when a fastball by Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays hit the batter, Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman, in the head. Chapman died the next day as a result of his injuries.

The event is not well known outside a small group of academic historians and the teams’ committed fan base; neither Mays nor Chapman have made it to the Hall of Fame (and they are not likely to do so) although Chapman has been inducted into the Cleveland Indians’ Hall of Fame. At best, it appears as a footnote in baseball or other sports history. Chapman has a plaque at the stadium in Cleveland (although we learn here that the plaque languished in storage for over 60 years); Mays is not, as far as I know, similarly commemorated. If this event is known, it seems to be framed in the way it was in 1920 – Chapman the victim of Mays, a heartless villain.

Molly Lawless is clear that she has not set out to ‘break new scholarly ground’ (her ‘Preface’ is both explicit and humble in this regard) but instead to present a rich and dramatic tale in an accessible manner to new audiences. I suspect she has achieved that goal. In doing so, however, she has challenged the simple saint/villain dichotomy of the 1920s narrative, not by vilifying Chapman but by presenting Mays as a much more complex character than the villain trope allows. She shifts narrative position effectively, so there seem to be several narrators – her disembodied voice, the interwar baseball writer Fred Leib takes on the authorial voice for a while as do teammates, audience members and others; it is an effective narrative technique that allows the story to emerge as more complex than it at first appears.

Each of the characters in the story is humanised and made more sympathetic than a simplistic narrative voice might have done (except, perhaps, Ty Cobb – but then he is extremely difficult to make a sympathetic character of), and as a result the tale is much more a tragedy than a tale of a malicious villain and an heroic victim. Lawless has given us a subtle history and presented rich sports history that not only takes us into the events of the era around the First World War but also debunks whatever myths have emerged about the effects of the fatal fastball.

This is effective and accessible popular history, and evidence that we academic historians fall well short of the mark when it comes to exploring intriguing, successful or innovative ways to communicate with wider audiences. There is, reportedly, a film in pre-production drawing on Mike Sowell’s 1989 book about the Mays-Chapman moment, The Pitch That Killed, which Lawless cites as a principal source.

Don’t just read this for its way of doing history – it is also an extremely good graphic non-novel (bizarrely, the publishers describe it as a non-fiction graphic novel!). Lawless has a clear and engaging drawing style, the interplay of image and text, both as part of the image and as commentary, produces a book that is affectively engaging in both humour and disaster and there is extremely good use of each page as a total visual space, including white space. In particular, she has drawn Mays extremely well – as worried in the club house after hitting Chapman, as threatened by and challenging Ty Cobb later in the season and as a self-pitying elderly man (Mays lived much longer and becomes a much more visually interesting figure).

I doubt the book adds much to our understanding of the Chapman-Mays moment, but it tells the story in a humane, engaging and nuanced manner, quite likely takes it to new audiences and uses a single moment to unravel a past culture and social life in ways that allow it to be complex and messy – in the way most cultures and historical moments are. This is an excellent piece of sports history, all the more important because of the medium it uses to tell it.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2013

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