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Snake Pit Film Review: War on the Diamond

Based on the award-winning book “The Pitch That Killed,” the hundred-year battle between the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians) and the New York Yankees is told by Emmy award-winning director Andy Billman in “War on the Diamond.” 

Portrait of Ray Chapman Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

On August 16, 1920, Cleveland shortstop, Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch from the Yankees’ Carl Mays. Twelve hours later, he died from the injury. Chapman (thankfully) remains the only player in Major League Baseball history to die from an injury sustained while playing. This dramatized documentary uses that event as a framing device for the long-running rivalry between the two clubs, marking this as a sort of inciting incident.

The film opens and closes with commentary about Chapman and how he is still revered among baseball fans in Cleveland. However, Chapman’s tragic story is a relatively short one, so it is working extra hard to carry the narrative of being the start of the Cleveland-Yankees “rivalry”. In addition to covering the details of the incident, the film touches briefly on the genesis of each team and then starts making firm side-by-side comparisons with the 1920 season. The narrative is further enhanced by jumping from era to era, something I generally despise, but which works rather well in this case. While the era jumps could perhaps have been handled more smoothly (or if there had perhaps been fewer of them) they do help to establish the various points being made about the competitive nature of each franchise at various points in time.

Ray Chapman’s Story

Chapman’s story begins with him spending a brief period of time as a coal miner before moving on to professional baseball. Shortly after his transition, he established himself as one of the best shortstops in the game. This, combined with his blue collar mentality made him Cleveland’s darling. This attracted the attention of a popular debutante, Kathleen Daly. The pair were married shortly before the 1920 season. Daly’s father was a powerful local businessman who felt that baseball was not a proper career for a family man. So, Chapman made arrangements to join the family business as an executive. Then, good friend and best man at his wedding, Tris Speaker was named player-manager for Cleveland. With the team having a firm plan in place for contending and with his mate running the show while also playing center field, Chapman agreed to play one more season. Cleveland got off to a hot start and never really looked back, though the team started to struggle a bit in August. It was then that Cleveland departed on a three-week road trip that included a series against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds.

On August 16th, the skies at the Polo Grounds caused fits. One moment the sky was brilliant and bright, the next moment, there were clouds and an overcast haze. These changes persisted throughout the game. The Yankees had Carl Mays on the mound. Mays was a known hothead with a reputation for headhunting. He also threw sidearm but from a submarine angle, not unlike Byung-hyun Kim, though even more pronounced, as he would sometimes drag his knuckles though the dirt delivering pitches. The ball being used was 80-90 pitches old, scuffed, dirty, and almost impossible to see in the overcast conditions. Mays saw Chapman shuffle his feet in the box and assumed that Chapman (one of the best bunt hitters in MLB history) was preparing to bunt. Mays chose to counter that by pitching high to induce a pop-up.

The pitch came out featuring heavy arm-side run. Given the velocity, the angle of approach, and the visibility conditions, it is likely that Chapman never saw the pitch that struck his head so hard it sounded like it had hit the bat. Mays fielded the ball and threw to Wally Pipp at first. Then, Chapman dropped to the ground with blood pouring from his left ear. Unable to walk, Chapman was assisted from the field and then taken to the hospital - after the game was complete. Emergency surgery was performed, but Chapman still succumbed to his injuries. Chapman’s family never truly recovered. His wife never recovered from depression and died of an “accidental poisoning” that has often been speculated was suicide. His daughter died shortly thereafter, the victim of a measles outbreak.

The number of individual incidents that went into creating the circumstances is mind-boggling. Any one circumstance being altered even slightly, almost certainly changes the course of history. Cleveland did find a way to bounce back from the tragedy. Speaker led the team to World Series victory.

The Rivalry

From that game in 1920, the film examines the heated rivalry between Cleveland and the Yankees. It discusses how the newly arrived Babe Ruth helped the Yankees bury Cleveland after the fateful 1920 World Series. Then, the Yankees moved on to DiMaggio, then Mantle, while Cleveland looked to the likes of Bob Feller and Herb Score (himself injured by a baseball to the head when the Yankees’ Gil McDougald hit a comebacker which struck Score in the eye and permanently derailed Score’s vision and career). Cleveland is painted as the Giant slayer, the team that, on the backs of Feller, Larry Doby, and Satchel Paige broke up winning seasons by the Yankees. The 1954 team is looked at as the end of a winning era for Cleveland, the wind being knocked from their sails when Willie Mays made “The Catch”.

The film chronicles how Cleveland was almost bought by George Steinbrenner, only to have that deal fall through because of Steinbrenner’s past transgressions. It then chronicles the spirited playoff history between the two teams, including highlights from the 1997 playoffs when Cleveland eliminated the Yankees, causing Steinbrenner to go into a tirade that nearly ended with him blowing the team up. Instead, Steinbrenner gave the team one more year. The Cleveland Indians lost to the Atlanta Braves in the 1997 World Series and then spent the next four seasons being regularly beaten by what would go on to be one of the great Yankees dynasties. Now, two decades later, the two teams are at it again, facing off against each other in postseason play.

The Interviews

The best parts of this film probably stem from the various interviews. From interviewing Mike Sowell, the author of The Pitch that Killed, the book from which this documentary is adapted, to interviews with Chapman’s sister, Margaret Chapman Joy (who possibly provides some of the most entertaining and interesting stories in her parts), to hearing from Carl Mays himself, discussing his lack of sufficient remorse, “...I didn’t hit Chapman, Chapman hit his self.” The individuals interviewed bring a very different perspective to the event and to the development of the rivalry.

Still, with regard to this “rivalry”, one of the best lines about the entire affair likely comes from Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, “But the problem is, the Yankees don’t see us as much of a rivalry, as the Indians see the Yankees.”

The film, War on the Diamond will be available for streaming November 15th, 2022 on Apple, Amazon, Google and VOD platforms everywhere.

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