BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
09 August 2021
ORLANDO, FL -- Stepping into the batter’s box to face Major League Baseball pitching always has been inherently risky. One wayward pitch from a pitcher, or the batter being a microsecond too slow to react, can have career-altering, even life-altering, consequences.
Here are five of the scariest beanball incidents in MLB history:
Ray Chapman likely never saw the pitch that hit his head and killed him on Aug, 16, 1920.
When a ball is speeding toward one’s head, the natural reaction is to duck. But, eyewitness accounts said that the Cleveland Indians’ shortstop never reacted to the pitch.
The New York Giants’ pitcher that day, Carl Mays, used a submarine-style pitching motion – his delivery so low, reports said, that his knuckles on occasion would scrape the pitching mound when he threw. His style was most unconventional at that time, making it difficult for some hitters to follow his pitches very well.
In addition, it was a rainy and dreary day, compounding the batters’ challenges in seeing pitches from the Giants’ right-hander. Rain had fallen intermittently throughout the day, and it rained during the first couple innings.
Leading off the fifth inning, the right-handed-hitting Chapman was struck on his left temple with the first pitch. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died the following morning after undergoing brain surgery. (MLB hitters did not begin wearing batting helmets until 1940.)
Pitchers of that era were known to throw inside to batters, to move them off the plate. And, reports then indicated that Mays was considered one of the more notorious in doing so. But Mays denied that he intentionally threw at the Indians’ infielder. In the years after that fatal pitch, Mays always contended that the ball was wet and slippery, and that it had sailed on him.
Chapman remains the only MLB player to have died from injuries suffered during a game. He was 29 years old.
Five times in his 15-year MLB career Mays won at least 20 games in a season. Two other times he won at least 18. Many experts have speculated that the Chapman incident prevented Mays from being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
As far as Major League Baseball debuts go, it’s hard to imagine one being more difficult than former Chicago Cub Adam Greenberg’s.
On July 9, 2005, the 24-year-old utility player, who had been called up from the Cubs’ Double-A minor-league team two days earlier, was sent to pinch-hit in the fifth inning against the Florida (now, Miami) Marlins. To say that it did not go well would be a huge understatement.
The first pitch from Florida’s Valerio de los Santos, a 92-mph fastball, struck Greenberg in the head. He dropped to the ground, holding his helmet. “At first, it felt like my head exploded,” he would tell the Tampa Bay Times in a 2012 interview. “Once my eyes quit rolling around and I was able to see, I saw the guys standing around me weren’t freaking out. I calmed down pretty quickly after that.”
“The next thing I remember vividly is walking off the field,” he told the Associated Press in 2014. “I forget who was holding me up, but I remember thinking, ‘At least they didn’t have to carry me off.’”
Greenberg, who suffered a concussion, would not play the rest of the season. In fact, battling vertigo, migraines, vision problems, and other ailments, he would not appear in another MLB game for seven years. Interestingly enough, that appearance in 2012, also as a pinch-hitter, occurred as a member of the Marlins. He struck out in what was his second and final plate appearance in the majors.
Despite incredible will and perseverance, his dream of a major-league career was cut down by a wayward fastball. “Life throws you curve balls," Greenberg said in that 2012 Times story. "Mine threw me a fastball at 92 miles per hour and it hit me on the back of the head.”
All across New England, 1967 is fondly remembered as “The Impossible Dream” season, when the Boston Red Sox enjoyed their first winning year since 1958 and first World Series appearance since 1946.
But, it is also remembered tragically for one of the most horrific beanings in Major League Baseball history.
Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was a star beginning to approach superstar status in 1967. The Massachusetts native was to be Boston’s next golden boy, after Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. He made his MLB debut with Boston in 1964 as a 19-year-old, and hit 84 homers in his first three seasons (1964-66), at a time when 20 home runs a year truly meant something. The young Red Sox outfielder was selected to the 1967 All-Star game, and already had 20 home runs that season when the California Angels visited Fenway Park on Aug. 19.
Conigliaro has a reputation for crowding the plate, and already has been hit by pitches numerous times during his young career. The next time would be especially tragic.
In the fourth inning, Conigliaro was hit in the face with a fastball from Angels’ hard-throwing, right-hander Jack Hamilton. The pitch dislocated Conigliaro’s jaw, cracked his left cheekbone, and damaged the retina in his left eye.
Former Boston Globe writer Clif Keane reported in his game coverage that Conigiliaro never lost consciousness, but never stirred in the batter’s box after being hit. “When I got to him, he said, ‘It hurts like hell. I heard a hissing sound and that was all,’” then-team physician Dr. Thomas Tierney told Keane.
Tony C., as he was widely known, sat out the rest of ’67 and the ’68 season. He returned to have two productive seasons with Boston, hitting a combined 56 homers in 1969 and ’70 despite suffering vision problems caused by the injury.
Conigliaro said years later that after the beaning he could not see the ball when he looked directly at the pitcher. So, he learned to use his peripheral vision and was able to track the pitches by looking a couple inches to the left.
He was traded, ironically, to the Angels prior to the 1971 season. But, he struggled as his vision continued to deteriorate. After one season with California, he retired at age 26. He attempted a comeback with Boston four years later, in 1975, but quit baseball for good after 26 games, unable to see out of his left eye.
Revenge and a fastball ended the career of Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.
Cochrane, who’d spent the first nine of his 13 years in the majors playing for the Philadelphia A’s, was catching for Detroit when the Tigers visited Yankee Stadium on May 25, 1937.
The catcher hit his second homer of the season and 119th of his career in the third inning. According to postgame news reports, Yankee pitcher Irving “Bump” Hadley wanted revenge. So, when Cochrane stepped into the batter’s box a couple innings later, Hadley sent a fastball right at the Tiger catcher’s head.
This was three years before hitters began wearing batting helmets, and the pitch fractured Cochrane’s skull. “The x-rays looked like a road map,” one doctor said.
Cochrane was hospitalized and remained unconscious for 10 days. He did not play again that season, and retired. He is one of 60 players to homer in his last official at-bat in the majors.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame 10 years later, in 1947.
Similar to Conigliaro, Dickie Thon was a rising star – the Houston Astros’ shortstop was selected to the 1983 National League All-Star team – when tragedy struck on April 8, 1984.
In just the fifth game of that season, a pitch from New York Mets’ right-hander Mike Torrez hit Thon in his left eye, fracturing the orbital bone and causing permanent partial blindness.
As Torrez recalled years later, in a sabr.org article by Bob LeMoine, the pitcher had retired Thon in his first at-bat with a pitch on the outside portion of the plate, and decided he’d pitch inside the next time to Thon.
“He has a tendency to crowd the plate and lunge for balls so I thought I’d jam him,” LeMoine quotes Torrez. “It was a strategy decision, nothing more. But my ball was sailing that day.”
After he released the pitch, Torrez said, he yelled a warning at Thon, which the batter apparently did not hear. “He ducked,” Torrez said, “but he ducked into (the pitch).”
Thon gamely played nine more seasons despite problems with blurred vision, but never was the same player after being hit by the Torrez pitch.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.