clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

War On The Diamond: A half interesting, half-frustrating new documentary

A fascinating story is kinda bungled, and a minor story made more interesting than you'd expect.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians
This was actually lost for years. Stuffed in a box. Ah, well, we all end up dead and forgotten eventually.
Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

On August 16th, 1920, Yankees pitcher Carl Mays was facing Cleveland batter Ray Chapman. Suspecting that Chapman intended to bunt, Mays threw high and inside, hoping to induce a pop-up. By this point the ball was covered in dirt and spit (so, mud), and it was late in the afternoon on an overcast day. Chapman couldn’t completely see the ball. It struck him in the head, driving a piece of skull into his brain.

As Chapman was helped off the field, he mumbled “I’m all right; tell Mays not to worry... ring....Katie’s ring” (referring to his recent marriage). He died in the hospital 12 hours later.

To this day, that is the only time an MLB player has died directly from something that happened in a game. (Although amateur baseball players have died. Some hit by lightning, of all things.)

It’s partly the subject of a new 75-minute documentary, War On The Diamond, about the Cleveland/New York rivalry over the years. Cleveland would go on to win the World Series in that 1920 season. The Yankees’ Babe Ruth dynasty would win their first championship in 1921.

As one Cleveland fan puts it, the rivalry is especially annoying because while Cleveland fans consider the Yankees an enemy, Yankees fans don’t think about Cleveland much at all. (Twins fans can sympathize.) However, during some periods of Yankee dominance, Cleveland was their closest competitor — such as the early Jeter and DiMaggio years.

The film is written/produced/directed by veteran TV hand Andy Billman, who’s worked on ESPN’S 30 For 30 series. Like much of that series, WOTD relies heavily on interviews, and those are very well done. It’s a wide range of people — mostly sports journalists, but also some baseball historians, baseball players, radio hosts, and even a pretty decent US Senator. My favorite was Kenny Lofton, who showed the same energy he did as a player; somebody get this guy on MLB Network! (Or, you know, maybe hold off on that... and maybe that Senator guy, too…)

The whole story of Cleveland’s (sort of) rivalry with the Yankees is pretty entertaining stuff. It’s always fun revisiting the 2007 ALDS “Midge Game,” of course.

And I’m a sucker for well-selected historical photographs/footage. Or any mention of the wonderfully bizarre Bill Veeck (owner of the last Cleveland team to win a championship, father of former Saints owner Mike. Here’s a SABR issue that’s got both a story on Veeck and one by Twins historian Stew Thornley on the end of the reserve clause. Enjoy!)

Unfortunately, the other half of War On The Diamond — the half about Carl Mays and Ray Chapman — isn’t as good as the rivalry stuff. It has its highlights (more solid interviews, and audio of an elderly Mays looking back on his baseball career), but it has one serious mistake.

We’re talking re-enactments.

Rather than stick to photographs and interviews with historians, Billman decides to use performers as Mays, Chapman, Chapman’s wife, and manager Tris Speaker.

(Speaker was also Chapman’s best friend, and convinced him to play one more season even after his new, rich father-in-law had set Chapman up with a comfy corporate job for life. The classic cop movie “I’m only a few months from retirement” thing, but real, in this case.)

It’s always dicey to use re-enactment footage in a documentary. The brilliant documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris, used re-enactments from different perspectives to show the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in The Thin Blue Line. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made (and it got a Death Row conviction overturned. In Texas.) But when Morris used re-enactments in Wormwood to dramatize the last days of Frank Olson (a bioweapons researcher who was possibly murdered by the CIA in the 1950s), the effect was hollow, and flat, and took you out of the real drama inherent to the mystery.

The actors here do their best. It’s still an off-putting decision (less 30-For-30 or a quality local PBS show than a History Channel episode of Most Gruesome Sports Deaths). The story itself is strong and sad enough.

Chapman was one of the best-liked players in baseball; he even got along with Ty Cobb, and nobody got along with Ty Cobb. Chapman was by all accounts a warm, kind man, with a lovely singing voice — and his wife was pregnant when he died. (His widow spent time in sanitariums afterwards, and eventually died of a self-poisoning that was probably suicide.)

The re-enactment performers dramatize Chapman’s courtship of his wife, and her grief (and Tris Speaker’s) when he dies. It’s silent, though. All the sound you hear is narration, or interviews with baseball historians. After Drunk History satirized this form, it’s really dodgy to use it. (Drunk History, now cancelled by idiots, got its history very right; it’s just that the narrators are completely, medically hazardously drunk.)

Another decision I questioned was the use of audio from the real Carl Mays. The clips are selected to highlight him reminiscing about what a mean, tough S.O.B. he was. And this is, as I understand, completely true. Mays was not a fun teammate. His attitude was play hard, earn hard, the owners will replace you in a second if you falter. You’re not out there to make buddies.

But he was a well-liked coach of young athletes after he retired. (Which WOTD does mention, at the very end.) In fact, Mays chose to be buried, not in California where he died, or Kentucky where he was born, but in Portland, OR, where he owned and ran a baseball academy. Per Wiki, his #1 focus was safety.

In the audio clips, Mays doesn’t blame himself for killing Chapman. Well, why should he? If he didn’t mean to hurt Chapman, then there wouldn’t have been much point in living a life wracked by guilt. I’d feel horrible if my car hit an oil slick and skidded into a pedestrian, but it wouldn’t be my fault. (I’d need therapy to get past it, but it wouldn’t be my fault.)

The audio of Mays is a good find... yet I disagree with using it to make him out as the bad guy, only including some humanizing elements of his story at the end. (And WOTD leaves out completely how Mays’s father died when he was 12. That’s the sort of thing which can make someone a pretty emotionally guarded, I’m-looking-out-for-myself teammate.)

Is WOTD worth renting on any of the various systems? (“iTunes/Apple, Amazon, Google, Vudu, YouTube, Microsoft and cable and satellite VOD platforms,” the press release tells me.)

That depends on how much you feel willing to spend on such rentals. If it was the old Blockbuster days, and I grabbed three movies to watch on the weekend, I’d be happy if one was pretty cool, one stunk, and one was interesting history with some parts I enjoyed and some I didn’t. Nowadays, though, most of us get that from one or more streaming services we pay a flat monthly fee for. VOD rentals for anything less than “The Mauer Chevrolet Cocaine Scandal” is outside my usual video budget.

I’d definitely recommend the movie to our friends at Covering The Corner, or to baseball fans who want something baseball-y to watch in the offseason and regularly rent VOD movies.

It’s just that this is really two movies. The one movie, about Cleveland-vs.-New York, I enjoyed. (It’s also clearly a labor of love by Billman, who shoots gorgeous modern-day footage of what used to be Cleveland’s baseball stadium in 1920.) The other movie, about Ray Chapman and Carl Mays, I didn’t enjoy as much.

A neat Cleveland/NYY tidbit? George Steinbrenner, a Cleveland native, tried to buy that team years before he bought the Yankees. The owner wouldn’t sell, because those two had a History. It’s classic Steinbrenner sleaze, and I won’t spoil it here. You’ll have to watch the movie.

For the Chapman/Mays story, I gotta go with my old faves, The Baseball Project. The last two lines in this song are haunting, and incredibly true. That is how what can happen, can happen.

At least MLB started replacing dirty spit-covered mud balls with new ones after this awful event! But, you know, MLB, it’s hasn’t always been run by the most conscientious of people. That hasn’t changed a lot in 100 years, has it?