Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, and died 12 hours later. He remains the only Major League Baseball player to have died from an injury received during an MLB game. His death led to Major League Baseball establishing a rule requiring umpires to replace the ball whenever it became dirty, and it was partially the reason—along with sanitary concerns—that the spitball was banned after the 1920 season. Chapman's death was also one of the examples used to emphasize the need for wearing batting helmets (although the rule was not adopted until over 30 years later).
Chapman was born in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, and raised in Herrin, Illinois. He broke into the Major Leagues in 1912 with the Cleveland team, then known as the Naps.
Chapman led the American League in runs scored and walks in 1918. A top-notch bunter, Chapman is sixth on the all-time list for sacrifice hits and holds the single season record with 67 in 1917. Only Stuffy McInnis has more career sacrifices as a right-handed batter. Chapman was also an excellent shortstop who led the league in putouts three times and assists once. He batted .300 three times, and led the Indians in stolen bases four times. In 1917, he set a team record of 52 stolen bases, which stood until 1980. He was hitting .303 with 97 runs scored when he died. He was one of the few players whom Ty Cobb considered a friend.
There was conjecture that 1920 was going to be Chapman's last year as a pro baseball player. Shortly before the season began, Chapman married Kathleen Daly, who was the daughter of a prominent Cleveland businessman. Chapman had indicated he was going to retire to devote himself to the family business into which he was marrying, as well as to begin a family.
At the time of Chapman's death, part of every pitcher's job was to dirty up a new ball the moment it was thrown onto the field. By turns, they smeared it with dirt, licorice, and tobacco juice; it was deliberately scuffed, sandpapered, scarred, cut, even spiked. The result was a misshapen, earth-colored ball that traveled through the air erratically, tended to soften in the later innings, and, as it came over the plate, was very hard to see.
This practice is believed to have contributed to Chapman's death. He was struck with a pitch by Carl Mays on August 16, 1920, in a game against the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. Mays threw with a submarine delivery, and it was the top of the fifth inning, in the late afternoon. Eyewitnesses recounted that Chapman never moved out of the way of the pitch, presumably unable to see the ball. "Chapman didn't react at all," said Rod Nelson of the Society of American Baseball Research. "It was at twilight and it froze him." The sound of the ball smashing into Chapman's skull was so loud that Mays thought it had hit the end of Chapman's bat, so he fielded the ball and threw to first base.
Mike Sowell, in his book The Pitch That Killed, states that first baseman Wally Pipp caught Mays' throw to first and then realized something was very wrong. Chapman never took any steps, but rather slowly collapsed to his knees and then to the ground with blood pouring out of his left ear. The umpire quickly called for doctors in the stands to come to Chapman's aid. Eventually Chapman was able to stand and to try to walk off the field, but mumbled when he attempted to speak. As he was walking off the field, his knees buckled and he had to be assisted the rest of the way. He was replaced by Harry Lunte for the rest of the game, which the Indians won 4–3. Chapman died 12 hours later in a New York City hospital, at about 4:30 a.m.
Thousands of mourners were present for Chapman's funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland. In tribute to Chapman's memory, Cleveland players wore black armbands, with manager Tris Speaker leading the team to win both the pennant and the first World Series championship in the history of the club. Rookie Joe Sewell took Chapman's place at shortstop, and went on to have a Hall of Fame career (which he coincidentally concluded with the Yankees).
Ray Chapman is buried at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio, not far from where his new home was being built on Alvason Road in East Cleveland. He and his wife had visited the home as it was being built several hours before he departed for New York on his final road trip.