Mike Sowell’s 1989 classic, “The Pitch That Killed” tells the tale of the 1920 Indians season through the individual stories of Carl Mays, Joe Sewell and Ray Chapman. The book is broken into three sections, one for each player and uses quotes by the players them selves and others around them to get the reader into the head of each player involved.
The story starts out with the history of Mays, a pitcher with the Yankees, whose ill-fated pitch struck Chapman in the head in the middle of 1920 and killed him shortly after. While Mays has long been considered a villain, Sowell provides the most unbiased report possible, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the he was a murderer or just an ultra competitive pitcher.
Chapman himself is given the bulk of the book in the middle chapters, with the story going from birth to death. Much is told of Chapman’s off the field life, including his marriage to Kathleen Daly, a short and passionate affair. While Indians fans know how amazing he was on the field, the descriptions in the book on a game-by-game basis allow people to see how incredible he truly was. Chapman was a great hitter, base runner and defender with a signature style that is only recorded in this book.
The final third of the book is a recollection of the first year of Hall of Fame short stop, Joe Sewell’s Major League career. Again, Indians fans know the numbers, but the difficulty of replacing the most popular player in Cleveland history, coming from the minor leagues is rarely stated. Sowell gets into Sewell’s psyche as the child became a man.
The story is also that of the Indians 1920 pennant race and ultimate World Series victory. While Mays, Chapman and Sewell are the primary characters, other Cleveland stars like Stan Coveleski, Jim Bagby, Jack Graney, Steve O’Neill and Joe Wood are all featured as friends and teammates of Chapman. The emotions of these players are recorded well making this more than just a book about baseball. Particularly special is the way that Tris Speaker, the player manager of the 1920 Indians, handled and wasn’t able to handle the event.
If there is one negative about this book, it is that since the primary subject was a single pitch, the bulk of the over 300 pages focus on other events. There is definitely some filler as extremely detailed histories of generally unimportant people as far as the story goes are common. Sowell has a tendency to get deep into the family situation of an umpire or random player from an opposing team. While some of these are necessary, like the backgrounds of Mays and the Yankee Colonels, the vast majority make it seem like he had a minimum page limit.
Overall, the book is fantastic. Every single Indians fan should know the true and whole story of the only player to die from an event on a baseball field and the ensuing World Series championship won by the Indians later that year. Before judging anyone involved, it is important to know all the facts involved and the only way to do that is to read Mike Sowell’s account of “The Pitch That Killed.”