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Review: The Pitch That Killed

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The Pitch That Killed (1989)
By Mike Sowell

Among the pantheon of tragic figures in Indians history, Ray Chapman has to stand alone. He was the only player in major-league history to be killed by a pitch. Chapman, a man almost everyone liked, and Carl Mays a pitcher who almost nobody liked, are forever linked in baseball history because of one pitch in the fifth inning of a baseball game on August 16, 1920.

The Pitch That Killed brings together not only that singular tragedy but places it in the world of 1920, bringing together other important events of the day. We see the confluence of the end of the deadball era, the Black Sox scandal, the sale of Babe Ruth, and the end of Ban Johnson's power as American League president. Sowell's vivid portrayals of the players of the day make it worth the price of the book alone: we learn about Tris Speaker, Bill Wambsganss, Jack Graney, Steve O'Neill, Doc Johnston, eccentric Walter Mails, and Joe Sewell, Chapman's replacement, who went on to have quite a career for himself. And of course, there was the pennant race of 1920, which Sowell brings to life as if we were there watching the games at League Park.

The style of the writing is documentary in nature, but it is not stuffy or boring prose. The events are exciting enough unilluminated, and Sowell lets the story tell itself. The book is meticulously researched, with sources from the newpapers and magazines of the day to interviews with ballplayers and members of Chapman's family.

I highly recommend this book.