Michael Ceraolo in [photo by John Burroughs]


Some Deaths on the Field





         1



Monday August 16, 1920

A hot humid day,

                          with light rain

at the Polo Grounds in New York City

(Babe Ruth was in his first year with the team,

                                                                   and

it would take a few years as a drawing card

for him to enable The House That Ruth Built)

Neither team had won a pennant

at that time in the American League’s history

                                                                   (and

there had been some fluky circumstances

in each team’s history along the way,

                                                       such as

the single-season winningest pitcher in the twentieth century

tossing a wild pitch to lose a deciding game,

                                                                 or

losing a pennant by a half-game because

the team ahead didn’t have to make up a game,

                                                                      or

losing out because a world war ended the season

a month earlier than usual,

                                       a month

when you would have had most of your games at home),

                                                                                   but

both teams were contenders this year



The rain had stopped,

                                and

the skies were gray,

                              and

Cleveland led 3-0

as Ray Chapman came to bat

leading off the top of the fifth inning

By a recent directive from the league

dirty baseballs would be replaced less often,

and it may have been a 

scuffed

              stained

                          or dirty baseball

that sped toward home plate on submariner

Carl Mays’ first pitch



“I heard that sound

when the ball crushed his skull,

                                               and

I saw him fall”

                      “I didn’t want

any closer view than that”
(legend says the ball was fielded

as though it had been a batted ball)



The future cliche

“Is there a doctor in the house?”

went through the crowd,

                                    and

two doctors,

                   including

the Yankees team physician,

responded to the summons

Chapman was revived after some minutes

and helped to his feet,

                                 attempting

to walk off the field under his own power

                                                              but

he was unable to walk very far

and had to be carried off the field

An ambulance took Chapman to the hospital



At the hospital,

                        Chapman told a friend

not to call his wife,

                            but if he had to,

                                                    to

“tell her I’m all right”

before he lost consciousness

                                               And

after his pulse rate continued to drop,

the doctors decided to operate,

                                              the operation

beginning at 12:29 AM on the seventeenth

and lasting an hour and a quarter,

                                                   removing

a small square section of Chapman’s skull,

along with some blood clots

The next forty-eight hours would be critical

in determining recovery



                                      but

he would only live about three hours

after the operation ended,

                                      dying

at 4:40 AM August 17, 1920



The morning paper on the 17th,

                                              amid

the headlines of the presidential campaign

and the ongoing ‘Red Scare’ ,

had a Nostradumbass

express his doubt as to whether

Chapman had suffered a skull fracture,

                                                         though

in the same article he hedged his bets

by saying x-rays would tell for sure



The headline in that same paper on the eighteenth

(at the top of the page):

CHAPMAN’S BODY ARRIVES HOME TODAY



Chapman was the first,

                                  and

to this day remains the only

major leaguer killed on the field,

                                               and

his death was the beginning

of a string of family tragedies:

his wife committed suicide eight years later,

and his daughter,

                          born six months after his death,

would die of measles a year after her mother’s death





          2



October 7, 1923

A sunny Sunday afternoon

for a semi-pro football game

at Austin Field in Willoughby

along the banks of the Chagrin River

                                                      (today,

ninety years later,

                             on a day

as much cooler-than-usual

as the day back then was,

                                        but overcast,

                                                            with

no frost in today’s overnight forecast

as there was frost overnight back then,

I visit the site,

                     now called Todd Field

and carved up into several ball diamonds

and a soccer field,

                            and

picture that game)



The Willoughby Merchants team would be playing

the Klesch Sports team from the big city of Cleveland

It was the opening game of the season for the Merchants

(no word on which game it was for Klesch Sports)

Chester Mares,

                       a twenty-three year-old,

would be playing fullback for Klesch



Mares had played football for,

                                            and

had even graduated from,

Central High in 1920,

                                which

put him beyond the average level

of education of the day,

                                        though,

having graduated at twenty,

he apparently was not college material

even with his football ability

                                          Nor

was he quite good enough for pro football,

                                                              even

with the NFL in its infancy

                                        and

the gap between pro and semi-pro

far less than it is today



Wearing primitive helmets and primitive pads,

                                                                  or

perhaps having no protection at all,

the year before Mares had suffered

a skull fracture serious enough

to put him in a coma for four days,

                                                   and

doctors had advised against playing again

Mares disregarded the advice,

                                             but

this would not be a case of foreshadowing:

what would happen to him was both

less expected and less explicable



With around two minutes left in the game

Mares dropped back to throw a pass

from his fullback position

                                     (down,

distance,

              and game score

                                        not recorded,

                                                            but

given the prevailing strategy of the day

his team must have been behind

if he was attempting a pass),

                                            and,

after letting the ball go,

                                  he was bumped,

lightly according to the reporter,

and fell backwards

                             And

during or after his fall

he choked on his chewing tobacco,

                                                    and

after a doctor on the scene

was unable to revive him,

he died in the back of the ambulance

on the way to the hospital





          3



Tuesday June 24, 1947

A smoke-filled steamy Cleveland Arena,

the marquee outside advertising

a welterweight title fight between

the challenger Jimmy Doyle

(born James Delaney),

                                  just a little

over a month shy of his twenty-third birthday,

coming into the fight with a record

of forty-three wins,

                           seven losses,

                                                and one draw

(or possibly a record of forty-six and five),

                                                            with

fourteen wins by knockout,

                                        and

the champion Sugar Ray Robinson

(born Walker Smith, Jr.),

                                      who

had just turned twenty-six

and had a record of

seventy-eight wins,

                            one loss,

                                          and one draw

(no dispute here:

champions’ careers are always better documented),

with fifty-two knockouts



“It’s the fear of many of Jimmy’s supporters

that he hasn’t fully recovered from that baleful beating yet”
referring to Doyle being knocked out

by Artie Lange in March 1946
in a fight that took place in Cleveland,

                                                       but

after that fight Doyle would proclaim

“If I don’t go back to Cleveland

and fight in the same ring again

I’m not a man”

                       (Lange

had also knocked down Robinson

in the fourth round of their fight

on November 6, 1946,

                                though

Robinson came back to knock out Lange

in yet another fight that took place in Cleveland)



As the fight progressed

spectators were wowed by Robinson’s ability

and impressed by Doyle’s toughness

in taking Robinson’s punches,

                                            though

Doyle also earned respect

with some of the punches he threw,

                                                    stunning

Robinson in the third round

and opening a cut over his eye

in the sixth round,

                           possibly

winning both of those rounds,

                                           and

at the end of the seventh round,

in response to the unknown instructions

coming from his corner,

Doyle was heard to say

“I will I will”



“Saved by the bell!”

said the headline in the next morning’s paper,

referring to the round’s ending

before a fighter could be counted out,

                                                       but

while it had been true as far as boxing 

it was already dubious in a much larger way

by the time the article appeared:

                                                  Doyle

had been taken to St. Vincent Charity Hospital

by ambulance immediately after the fight,

having been carried out on a stretcher,

unconscious



At the hospital

the doctors on duty realized

they needed more expertise,

                                          and

they called in brain specialist Spencer Braden

from his home in suburban Chagrin Falls

to perform the necessary surgery

The surgery started at three a.m.,

                                                 showing

extensive brain damage,

                                    and

ended after an unrecorded amount of time,

and all settled in to wait for Time

to determine Doyle’s outcome



                                               but

there would be less than a day to wait:

around noon a priest was called

to administer last rites,

                                  and

in the early afternoon on the twenty-fifth

Doyle died,

seventeen hours after being knocked out,

never regaining consciousness,

                                               leaving

the repeated I will at the end of the seventh round

to stand as his last words



In the undignified next-to-last act,

Cuyahoga County Coroner Sam Gerber,

warming up for the Sheppard case seven years later

(no fear of being defeated in the two elections

to be held during that time),

                                         showed

he could generate headlines even then,

                                                         first

with his insinuations that ‘the powers that be’

were leaning on him to rule this

an accidental death,

                              so as

not to jeopardize future title fights

                                                  (while of course

never naming a single name of the alleged pressurers),

                                                                               and

again at the inquest:



“CORONER CALLS CHAMPION ‘EVASIVE’ “



but in the end bringing no charges against anyone



And in the dignified last act

Robinson subsequently fought a few fights

for the benefit of Doyle’s family,

                                              risking

his title in the process,

                                  but

coming through still the champion

and enabling Doyle’s mother

to finally buy the house

she had long dreamed of owning





Postscript:  Two Close Calls



August 24, 1919

A Sunday afternoon,

as all games were day games back then

Game 109 of the scheduled 140,

                                                as

the owners in their infinite unwisdom    

decided to cut the schedule back

from the usual one hundred fifty-four games,

                                                                thinking

the fans would stay away in droves after

the previous year’s war-shortened season,

                                                              costing

themselves a fair amount of money

when the fans did return

                                      Ray Caldwell,

called Rube or Slim,

                               as well as

other unflattering unofficial nicknames,

would make his Indians debut

in today’s game at League Park,

                                                having

been acquired just a few days earlier

in a trade with the Boston Red Sox



The Red Sox were the second team

to throw up their hands trying to deal with Slim,

the New York Yankees having been the first to do so;

he had had a good year or two for the Yankees

back in the early and mid-teens, 

                                               but

had been erratic for several years since,

                                                           though

he had been pitching decent baseball

at the time of the trade

                                    but

Caldwell suffered from the disease of alcoholism,

                                                                        then

considered a moral failing rather than a medical matter,

and thus was getting probably his last chance,

                                                                    starting

with today’s game against the Philadelphia A’s



The A’s were in the midst of what would be

another last-place season,

                                       their fifth straight

in a stretch of seven consecutive such finishes,

                                                                     and

were pitching Rollie Naylor,

                                         who came into the game

with a record of two wins and sixteen losses

                                                                    But

given the game’s fine line between good and bad,

anyone can have a good game at any time,

                                                               and

Naylor had one of those today,

                                              giving up

only three hits and two runs (one earned)

over his eight innings

                                  But

Caldwell matched him pitch for pitch,

                                                       having

given up four hits and one run

when a sudden summer thunderstorm

rolled in off the lake

with two outs in the top of the ninth



A C–R–A–A–A–S–H

was heard in the stands,

                                     though

the first lightning had gone unnoticed

                                                          But

the second flash

                          was seen,

                                          and noted,

                                                          and felt,

most players feeling a slight tingle

from their metal spikes being in contact

with the charged ground

                                      But somehow

Ray Caldwell was more affected

                                                 (though

no one was sure how or why it was so),

being knocked completely off his feet

without suffering any serious or lasting damage

He got up,

                 declined

any medical assistance,

                                     declined

to come out of the game,

                                     and

retired the last batter to finish the game,

                                                          and

then everybody got the hell off the field

safely—-





September 13, 1948

A Monday afternoon make-up game

against the woeful St. Louis Browns,

                                                      and

with the time of day and short notice

only seven thousand and eight fans were on hand,

in a year the team would set the

single-season attendance record,

to witness a near-tragedy



Early in a scoreless game

Don Black came to bat,

                                   and

after fouling off the second pitch,

staggered out of the batter’s box

as though in a stupor,

                                 and

then collapsed,

                       unconscious,

                                            and

was taken to the hospital by ambulance



Had Black,

who suffered from alcoholism

but seemed to be in recovery,

suffered a relapse?



No

        The papers reported

that he had suffered a burst aneurysm

(though it was more likely a leaking one

that had bled into his brain),

                                          reported

that Black’s life hung in the balance,

                                                      reported,

in those days before medical privacy,

that doctors were giving him

a fifty-fifty chance of survival



Black did indeed survive the brain bleed,

                                                          but

his baseball career ended with that swing,

                                                             and

he died just over a decade later

at the age of forty-two


* * * * *
This poem comes from Michael Ceraolo’s work in progress Euclid Creek Book Three.  We also recommend:
 
Euclid Creek – available from
Deep Cleveland Books
Cleveland Scores Early – from Kendra Steiner Editions
Cleveland Haiku – from Green Panda Press

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