Indians uncover lost Chapman plaque

CLEVELAND -- Tucked away and forgotten for years, a plaque commemorating one of baseball's darkest moments has been brought back to life.

A 175-pound bronzed memorial for Ray Chapman, the Cleveland Indians shortstop killed when he was hit in the head with a pitch in a 1920 game, was recently rediscovered after decades in storage.

Now refurbished, it will be displayed as one of the signature pieces in the new Heritage Park, a walkthrough exhibit beyond the center-field wall at Jacobs Field honoring Cleveland's Hall of Famers and the Indians' history.

"It's absolutely beautiful," said Jim Folk, Indians vice president of operations, admiring the once-hidden treasure. "This was a lucky accident."

Chapman was one of the Indians' most popular players. "Chappie," as he was known to everyone, was struck in the temple by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds on Aug. 16, 1920. Chapman passed away from his injury the next morning.

The beaning came before the advent of batting helmets, and the 29-year-old Chapman was hit so hard that Mays, a renowned submariner and spitballer, thought the ball had come off Chapman's bat. He fielded the ball and threw to first.

"Chapman didn't react at all," said Rod Nelson of the Society of American Baseball Research, who has culled through dozens of newspaper articles on Chapman's death. "It was at twilight and it froze him."

Not long after Chapman died, the plaque was dedicated and hung at League Park and later at Cleveland Municipal Stadium before being taken down for unknown reasons.

"It was in a store room under an escalator in a little nook and cranny," Folk said. "We didn't know what we were going to do with it, but there was no way it was just going to stay there when we moved to Jacobs Field. We had it crated up and put on a moving truck and it came over along with our file cabinets and all the other stuff that came out of the stadium."

The Indians considered hanging it in the Jake, but unable to come up with the perfect spot, the plague was misplaced. Time passed and Chapman's plaque became a lost piece of history.

"It just kind of got forgotten about, to be honest," Folk said.

Six weeks ago, while workers cleaned out a storage room, it was found -- in horrible condition. The neglected plague was covered by years of dust and dirt, making its text illegible.

"You couldn't read anything on it," said Bob Knazek of Engineered Products Inc., the company in charge of overseeing the Heritage Park memorial. "It was oxidized, dark brown."

The plaque was cleaned, restoring Chapman and his sad story for another generation of fans.

"We're really pleased with it," Knazek said. "It just turned out to be a piece of artwork. It's a great focal point for the ballpark."

In elegant detail, Raymond Johnson Chapman's bust is framed by a baseball diamond and flanked by two bats, one of them cradling a fielder's mitt. At the bottom of the tablet is the inscription, "He Lives In The Hearts Of All Who Knew Him."

After cutting the ceremonial ribbon at Heritage Park, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller was one of many who paused to remember Chapman, the only major leaguer to die from an injury sustained in a game.

"It wasn't the first time he threw at somebody," the 88-year-old Feller said of Mays. "Whether he threw at Chapman, I have no idea. But I told my grandson, who is a 15-year-old pitcher, 'Don't ever throw at a hitter, no matter how upset you are or what happened in the game, don't ever do it.' That's the No. 1 rule of being a pitcher, besides throwing strikes."