Hit in the Head
Around the beginning of February 2007, as the Cleveland Indians' staff was preparing to leave for spring training, team vice president
DiBiasio rode an elevator down to the stadium's clubhouse level and walked to a storage room that's known as "the promotional warehouse," a dumping ground for bats, baseball caps, bobblehead dolls and other begrimed giveaways from years past. Goldwire and the head of the mail room,
After he joined the club in 1979, DiBiasio received occasional calls from old-timers looking for a four-by-three-foot, 245-pound bronze plaque dedicated to the late Indians shortstop
Now, after more than 50 years lost, Ray Chapman's memorial was found. Because of the decay, you couldn't see the two-foot-long bat with the glove dangling from it, or the eulogy embossed along the bottom: HE LIVES IN THE HEARTS OF ALL WHO KNEW HIM. In the ensuing weeks, as the plaque's lettering was sandblasted and polished, all those involved in its restoration took pride in rescuing a vital piece of baseball's past. It didn't matter that it marked one of the game's darkest moments.
Chapman, after all, was the most famous example of the damage a thrown or batted baseball can do. On Aug. 16, 1920, the popular ballplayer -- 29 years old, newly married, mulling retirement -- was hit in the left temple by a fastball fired by Yankees pitcher
The Indians would honor the man they called Chappie by winning their first World Series that year, and some good would come to the sport in response to his death: Because Mays was suspected of having doctored the ball, professional baseball banned the spitball and began requiring umpires to monitor balls and replace dirty ones. Chapman's name was invoked over the ensuing decades whenever baseball suffered other scares.
And they weren't rare. According to researcher
Among those who survived injuries from thrown or batted balls were some of the best players on the field. In 1957 Indians left-hander
Still, nothing matched Ray Chapman for pathos until Aug. 18, 1967, when the left cheekbone of Red Sox right fielder
By the time Conigliaro hit the dirt his left eye was purple and swollen to the size of a handball. The retina was permanently damaged; two inches higher, a doctor would later tell him, and he would've been dead. "His whole face was swelling up, blood rushing in there," says
Hamilton was known for his spitball, and Conigliaro later maintained that the ball had moved unlike any legal pitch. But Hamilton, who had never hit anyone in the head before, has always said that he wasn't throwing at Conigliaro or using his spitter; he blames the shadows and his own incompetence. "The pitch got away from me, in the middle of the afternoon," he says. He tried visiting Conigliaro in the hospital that night but was told only family members could do so. The two men never spoke.
After the incident Conigliaro had some sweet moments -- Comeback Player of the Year in 1969, 36 homers in '70 -- but his eyesight deteriorated. He was traded to the Angels in 1971 and soon retired, came back briefly in '75 and then retired for good. But the black cloud over him never quite lifted. In 1982 he was in Boston interviewing for a Red Sox broadcasting job when he suffered a heart attack, then a coma-inducing stroke. He spent the next eight years in a vegetative state until dying in 1990, at age 45.
It was a wonder he was even walking. On May 26 of that year, McLaughlin, a relief pitcher for the A's, had started the eighth inning of a losing effort against the White Sox. He got the first two batters out, then threw a 91-mph sinker to
The ball shattered McLaughlin's left cheekbone, broke his eye socket in five places and fractured his jaw and nose, spinning him around so that he got a full view of the center fielder before falling on his back. He vomited five dugout towels' worth of blood and went into shock. "That," says
Doctors at Oakland's Merritt Hospital weren't sure McLaughlin would survive the night. It took two surgeries to wire his cheekbone and left eye socket. For Baines, meanwhile, speaking with McLaughlin by phone in the ensuing days did little to ease his mind. Baines had been hitting over .300 that month, but he immediately fell into a slump -- 6 for 42, .143 -- that ended only when the major league players went on strike 16 days after the accident.
McLaughlin was 27 at the time. A six-year veteran who'd spent most of his career in the bullpen for the Astros and then the A's, winning 10 games and losing 20, he was nobody's idea of special. He came back to pitch for Oakland that September, but the muscles and nerves in his cheek hadn't healed and he couldn't get in shape; when he ran it felt as if a hockey puck were sliding around beneath the skin. He appeared in four games, in which he seemed to be fine until he got two outs; then he fell apart. On Sept. 20 in Chicago he started the eighth inning, got two quick outs, then surrendered three walks and a single, threw a wild pitch and finally saw Baines come to the plate to face him for the first time since the accident. A's catcher
Baines put the accident behind him. He played 20 more years and was one of the best players of his era. He never came close to hitting anyone again. "It's unfortunate," Baines, now a White Sox coach, says of the accident, "but it's part of the game."
McLaughlin played the 1982 season with Oakland. He worked 48 1/3 innings and had a 4.84 ERA. He bounced around the Triple A Pacific Coast League for three more seasons, mostly treating it, he says, "like a beer league." He never had another major league win. He married, had three children, started a real estate business and a baseball camp. In '92 Cubs manager
There aren't many days that McLaughlin isn't reminded of the accident. When he's home in Phoenix and the temperature hits 113° or so, the metal in his face gets so hot that the whites of his eyes turn red. He's considered a fine coach, committed and communicative, yet he hardly exudes a contagious passion. "I'm not a fan of baseball," he says softly. "Never was."
When the use of plastic batting helmets was mandated at all levels of professional baseball in 1971, serious injuries from pitched balls instantly declined. (Earflaps became mandatory for new players in 1983.) But the case of Astros shortstop
In 1987 Mariners pitcher
Just last Thursday, Giants reliever
Surprisingly, no professional player at any level on the U.S. mainland has been killed by a batted ball. Of the 76 deaths caused in that manner -- five of which involved batters killed by their own foul tips -- all occurred in amateur games and included kids as young as six. In Puerto Rico, meanwhile, a catcher named
Of course, coaches, umpires and other on-field personnel also run a risk of injury from batted balls. In 1964, 13-year-old
Any career baseball man has a near-miss tale. In April 2002
When questioned on the topic, however, players and coaches say, almost to a man, that they're most concerned about the safety of the fans. Fifty-two spectators are known to have been killed by foul balls since 1887, two in pro games. In 1960
"The first time I took my kids to Yankee Stadium, I was a nervous wreck," says
But in the last few decades the sport has done little to shield its oft-distracted spectators. Unlike Japanese ballparks, which have protective screens running from behind the plate all the way to the outfield walls, U.S. major and minor league parks don't even have screens that extend as far as the dugouts -- thus allowing dozens of foul balls to fly into crowds at every game. There are, increasingly, ballparks like Tampa's George M. Steinbrenner Field, which has signs at lower-level entrances reading, CAUTION: WATCH FOR LIVE BATS AND BALLS LEAVING THE FIELD AT ALL TIMES. But with no standard, pro baseball leaves the decision on such signage, as well as the breadth of netting in each park, to the discretion of each team.
"It's about balancing the need to protect the fans with maintaining the baseball atmosphere we traditionally enjoy," says
But if professional baseball is protected from legal action because of the 145-word warning on the back of each ticket that shifts all responsibility for injury to the fan, it doesn't lessen the danger. "Somebody's going to get hurt," says Hamilton, the pitcher who beaned Conigliaro. "Somebody's going to get hit with one of those broken bats, too, before long." Indeed, since baseball's Safety and Health Advisory Committee was reconstituted in 2008, all of its time -- and some $500,000 -- has been spent studying the increasing trend of bats splintering into dangerous flying shards. "The foul-ball issue has not been discussed," Halem says.
Veteran ballplayers, though, think about it constantly, and many insist that their loved ones sit behind protective netting. First baseman
"I couldn't even concentrate after that. I struck out. I kept calling after the game. Kid was in the hospital, and they said he's going to be O.K. Had a concussion, stayed that night. I said, 'Give me his number,' and I ended up calling him when I made it to the big leagues [later that season]." Zinter pauses, watching the moment unreel again in his mind. "His dad ran him up the steps..."
On March 4, 2007,
Coolbaugh was one of those players who feared that his wife or children would get hit by a baseball ripped into the stands. "He was more worried about it than anybody I've ever met," says his wife,
Maldonado and Coolbaugh set up the protective L screen in the grass in front of the pitcher's mound. Maldonado began to throw -- slurves, changeups and fastballs, mixing location in and out. His dad,
At first Jesse thought his son was gone. Finally Jay sat up, fighting to stay conscious by fixing his eyes on the fence, the bat, Coolbaugh's stricken face -- anything. He and Coolbaugh then sat on a bench, their breathing slowly returning to normal.
The wound left a sizable bruise, but Maldonado refused to see a doctor. Coolbaugh went home that night worried. He always paced when something upset him, and he kept it up that night after telling Mandy what happened, fighting back tears. "That can kill a guy," he said.
The Mexico tryout didn't lead to a job, but later that season Coolbaugh landed with the Tulsa Drillers as a first base coach. On July 22, 2007, after only 21/2 weeks in that position, Coolbaugh was struck in the back of the neck by a foul ball during a game at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, Ark., and died almost instantly. He was 35.
In the park that night were several people who had experienced the harm a thrown or batted ball can do. Bo McLaughlin watched from the top step of the Drillers' dugout. Bill Valentine watched from the park's broadcast booth. Warren Stephens watched from his luxury box behind home plate. Tulsa pitcher
Six weeks after Coolbaugh's death, the 11-year career of Cardinals outfielder