Baseball wars: Local filmmaker debuts film on fatal 1920 pitch that began Indians, Yankees rivalry

Cleveland Indians baseball takes center stage at the 12th Annual Chagrin Documentary Film Festival with the premiere of “War on the Diamond” tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 5.

The documentary from Elyria native and filmmaker Andy Billman explores the shocking death of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920 when he was struck in the head by a pitch from New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, and how that pitch forever entwines two men and two teams in tragedy.

Chapman is still the only player in Major League Baseball history to die from an on-field injury.

“Everything starts with Ray Chapman,” says Billman. “But I also wanted to look at the repercussions of that incident, particularly the start of the Indians and Yankees rivalry. All of that stems from what happened to Chapman in 1920.”

Billman, winner of two Sports Emmys and a Peabody Award, previously directed “Believeland” for ESPN, which celebrated the passion and unwavering faith of Cleveland sports fans. Now, he turns his attention to a neglected corner of local baseball history.

Based on Mike Sowell’s award-winning book, “The Pitch That Killed,” “War on the Diamond” features period reenactments, archival audio and video, and interviews with notable names like former Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton, sports writer Tom Verducci, and local sports writer Terry Pluto, among many others.

On Aug. 16, 1920, the Cleveland Indians were in New York to take on Babe Ruth’s Yankees amidst a fierce American League pennant race. With the Indians leading 3-0, Chapman led off the fifth inning against pitcher Carl Mays, who used a deceptive, submarine-style delivery and had a dark reputation for headhunting.

The very first pitch struck Chapman on his (helmetless) head, leaving the Indians shortstop crumpled at home plate with blood rushing from his left ear.

While such an injury would receive urgent medical attention today, that was not the case in 1920. “It’s pretty clear that Chapman did not get the best health care after being hit,” says Billman. “There could have been a lot more done to help him.”

A doctor did minister to Chapman in the immediate aftermath, but inexplicably allowed the dazed player to walk off the field without a stretcher. Chapman then collapsed a second time and had to be carried into the clubhouse by two teammates.

That night, he was rushed into emergency surgery to relieve swelling in his brain. But sadly, Chapman passed away in the wee hours.

“At that time, baseball was like the Old West,” says Billman. “Players were rough and tough and had no problem getting into heated battles. We’re not talking about gentle souls here.”

Nonetheless, Chapman’s death outraged players across the sport, with many unsuccessfully calling for Mays to be banned for life. Mays returned to the mound a week later, but never really managed to live down his role in the fatal accident.

In spite of this tragedy, the Indians regrouped in 1920 to not only beat out the Yankees for the American League pennant, but also to win the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

A century later, Ray Chapman’s story has been mostly forgotten outside of Cleveland—his name only occasionally resurrected as the grim answer to a trivia question.

“War on the Diamond” hopes to change that. Viewers will learn that there was so much more to the man affectionately known as “Chappie” than just his tragic end.

“He was, by far, the most popular player on the team,” says Billman. “We found an old interview with Margaret (Chapman) Joy, his youngest sister, where she talks about how Ray really prided himself on doing things the right way. He always tried to make kids feel special by tossing them baseballs or signing autographs."

Billman says he also sees Chapman’s untimely end as the first spark of a fiery rivalry between two proud baseball clubs. “I always wondered what caused this rivalry between the Indians and the Yankees,” he says, “and I think I discovered the answer in this one tragic event from 1920.”

Cleveland vs. New York may not garner national headlines as one of baseball’s top rivalries, but fans on both sides know better. Whether it was Ken Keltner and Lou Boudreau ending Joe DiMaggio’s epic hit streak at League Park in 1941, the Cleveland Municipal Stadium crowd defiantly waving “I Hate The Yankees” hankies throughout the late 1970s, or even the infamous “bug game” in the 2007 playoffs—these guys really don’t like each other.

One thread that Billman relishes pulling is that of Cleveland native George Steinbrenner’s blocked purchase of the Indians in 1972—which failed at the final hurdle due to bad blood between the brash shipping magnate and the Stouffer family.

The deep-pocketed Steinbrenner (and his bruised ego) instead turned to the Yankees—and took every opportunity over the ensuing decades to make the Indians rue that decision. “I’ve tried to tell the Steinbrenner story before, but this film finally provided the right footing,” he says. “I think a lot of people will gravitate to it and will be excited to learn more about some of the things we’ve uncovered.”

More than anything, though, “War on the Diamond” tells the story of how one tragic moment can echo across two cities for more than a century.

“This film is really about baseball and explaining, to myself and other fans, what brought the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees together,” says Billman. “That’s the passion for me on this one—what happened to Ray Chapman and the rivalry it caused between these two teams. Chapman is someone we can all connect with, so I want to bring his story to a more national level.”

The Chagrin Documentary Film Festival run from tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 5 through Saturday, Oct. 10. “War on the Diamond” is running tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 5 and Saturday, Oct. 9 at Chagrin Falls Intermediate School Theatre, 77 E. Washington St., Chagrin Falls. Virtual viewings are also available. Tickets to "War on the Diamond" on opening night are $25, tickets for the Oct. 9 screening are $12. Virtual viewings are $10. For tickets to any of the 97 films featured at the festival, click here.