Bitter rivals: “War on the Diamond” filmmaker explains the ongoing Guardians-Yankees feud

Everyone loves to hate the Yankees, especially Cleveland fans. But have you ever wondered why? In his latest documentary “War on the Diamond,” filmmaker Andy Billman dives deep into this century-old rivalry and its continued relevance—even after the Indians became the Guardians this year. 

The film is featured at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival’s CIFF46 Streams through Sunday, April 17.

Still from War on the DiamondA Northeast Ohio native, Billman grew up in the ride-or-die Cleveland sports atmosphere. He recalls attending tribe games as a kid, celebrating “Hate the Yankees Night” without knowing the real meaning behind it. Intrigued by this, he started exploring the lasting bad blood between the New York and Cleveland baseball teams and uncovered the spark that started it all.

During the 1920 MLB season, Indians pitcher Ray Chapman was struck by a ball that came off the bat of Yankees player Carl Mays. Chapman died that night after emergency surgery, unknowingly making himself a martyr and Mays a villain. 

Both up-and-coming superstars at the time, the event was tragic for each player. Recognizing this, Billman researched the lives of Chapman and Mays, even outside of their baseball careers.

Known for celebrating their star players, the Yankees often fail to mention Mays, even today. His reputation was essentially ruined after the incident, as people made him out to be a cold-blooded killer.

“The Yankees love to brag about their superstars,” Billman explains. “It’s worth noting that Mays’ name is hardly mentioned in New York baseball history, even 100 years later.”

Chapman, on the other hand, was debating retirement after getting engaged to Cleveland socialite Katie Daley before the 1920 season. He was going to marry into wealth and would no longer need to rely on baseball for income, so the pitcher planned to explore other opportunities. 

His teammates, however, were hell-bent on winning a World Series and convinced him to play another year.

“Chapman was really considering early retirement,” says Billman. “His teammates felt guilty after he threw that pitch.”

Still from War on the DiamondWhile writing the documentary, Billman explored several different resources. He primarily used the book “The Pitch that Killed” by Mike Sowell, which provides an in-depth look at the fatal Chapman. Billman also talked to sports broadcasters in New York and Cleveland—including ESPN First Take’s Chris Russo, Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, and ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Rizzo.

As for historical resources, Billman gained access to old news stories through the archives. “It was like a wonderful time capsule from ‘90s baseball and beyond,” he says. “There were a lot of things done on Ray Chapman. I even heard an interview with his sister shortly before she died.”

What most confused Billman is how oblivious Clevelanders are to the Chapman pitch. While he was once in the same boat, he says he believes that baseball fans should have more context for the Guardians-Yankees rivalry.

“Lots of people don’t know about the Ray Chapman incident,” he says. “There is a lot of history that doesn’t get celebrated and a lot for fans to learn.”

Still from War on the DiamondAt the end of the day, this may all sound like ancient history. Chapman threw that pitch over 100 years ago, so why is there still bad blood between the Guardians and Yankees? 

According to Billman, the rivalry will always be relevant if the Yankees have ties to Northeast Ohio. The team’s owner, George Steinbrenner, was born and raised in a suburb of Cleveland. To own our sworn enemy in the baseball world goes against the proud Clevelander mentality we’ve all grown up with.

Viewer can watch “War on the Diamond” through CIFF Streams all this week, through Sunday, April 17. The stream costs $10

To keep up on all things Cleveland sports, make sure to follow Billman on Twitter and Instagram.

Read more articles by Dana Shugrue.

Dana Shugrue is a graduate of John Carroll University, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media and Professional Writing. She is a full-time Content Specialist at Budget Dumpster, and part-time freelance writer for FreshWater Cleveland. When she’s not writing, you can catch Dana taking a run through the metros or sipping a latte at her favorite local coffee shop.