Leaving it on the field: Baseball’s deadliest pitch discussed on “In Conversation”

Justin Coviello, Contributing Writer

Last Tuesday, Media Services recorded another installment of their “In Conversation” series in the television studio housed in the Bergami Center for Science, Technology and Innovation. This episode featured a dialogue between two ESPN employees and current adjunct professors at the University of New Haven, with former ESPN executive Joe Franco interviewing current, award-winning ESPN producer/director Andy Billman, to discuss Billman’s newest documentary, “War on the Diamond.” The documentary depicts the story of the only time a professional baseball player has ever died from injuries sustained on the diamond.

The story goes that, on Aug. 16, 1920, New York Yankees sidearm pitcher Carl Mays threw his first pitch to Cleveland Guardians’ (then known as the Cleveland Indians) shortstop Ray Chapman, hitting him in the left temple. Chapman passed away due to his injuries early the next morning. Billman’s production seeks to educate us on the long-standing rivalry between these two ball clubs which persists today. He learned about the story of Ray Chapman when he directed another ESPN project, “Believeland,” about the history of Cleveland sports.

When he was pitched the idea for “War on the Diamond,” Billman said “[I] would like to do this film a lot, and I do know the history, but I’d like to put my own twist to it.” This culminated in War on the Diamond’s probe into how that one fateful pitch would kick off what is now a century-long rivalry.

Throughout the interview, Billman describes the various roadblocks he and his team faced during production, mainly surrounding circumstances which arose during the COVID pandemic, such as subjects of the film feeling uncomfortable appearing for an in-person interview, as well as trying to shoot B-roll for the film, due to the resoundingly barren environments that were Major League Baseball stadiums for a significant portion of the 2020 and 2021 baseball seasons.

Additionally, since this story is from 1920, it was impossible to find footage, with Billman saying, “there’s no video… there’s no CNN headline news articles or magazine shows… How do you make a story come alive that’s 100 years old?”

To overcome this, the documentary relies on storytelling through reenactments to give the audience a visual element to the testimonies given, including ones from Ray Chapman’s sister, a documentarian of his life and legacy, as well as soundbites from Mays.

The film focuses on four points, described by Joe Franco as “tragedy, the rivalry, a love story and a change by Major League Baseball of a rule in 1971.” On the rivalry, Billman and his documentary paint it as one which extends well beyond the incident in 1920. Cleveland Guardians pitcher Bob Feller was known to have a “tumultuous relationship” with the New York media in the 1930’s. George Steinbrenner, infamous owner of the New York Yankees who guided them to seven World Series championships, bought the team in 1973 after being denied a bid by his hometown Guardians in 1971. It even continues today with Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor showboating a home run with a “rock-a-bye baby” motion directed at the Yankees’ bench in the 2022 American League Divisional Series, only for New York to return the favor by using the same taunt en route to a 3-2 comeback series victory. From Tris Speaker to Francisco Lindor; Babe Ruth to Joba Chamberlain, the Guardians and Yankees compose one of the fiercest historical clashes in all of American sports.

Another theme of the documentary is the focus on the love for the game, specifically the fans’ love for the players. Ray Chapman, an All-Star caliber player, may not have been the best on his team but he was “the most popular player [on the Cleveland Guardians], and by far the player everyone wanted to get autographs for if you were a kid.”

Chapman’s passing took an obvious toll on the Cleveland sports community, with fans rallying together “for a long time, and still today, Clevelanders who know the story, they will put a quarter, or put a note on [Chapman’s] grave for good luck… it’s a very proud tradition…Cleveland, even though a lot of people come in and out, we really hold onto history highly.”

A silver lining to come out of the tragedy were various rule changes implemented by Major League Baseball. Shortly afterwards, the league banned “spitballs,” which were pitches thrown where the ball would be lathered in a combination of saliva, dirt and any number of other compounds which a pitcher might use to gain an advantage, due to their unpredictability and difficulty to control. However, it would take over fifty years for helmets to be mandated to be worn by batters, a clear deterrent for head injuries and a rule that baseball fans now take for granted.

Billman has worked at ESPN since 2002 and has produced and directed for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series since 2009, which he has received multiple Producers Guild Award and International Documentary Award Nominations and has won a Telly Award in the “Documentary Series” category. He has also won a Peabody Award and two Emmys and has been recognized by the NAACP for his work.

He served as either a producer or director on various other documentaries, including “The Two Escobars,” “Winning Time,” “Youngstown Boys,” “Playing for the Mob” and “Bad Boys,” and also revealed his future plans including production on an ESPN series about Southeastern Conference college basketball and ideas for a few mafia-centric projects. But, he remains largely focused on his work as a professor, saying,“what’s really next is being here: I love teaching here, I really enjoy the kids here at the University of New Haven… there’s a lot of good community… it feels like everybody really likes each other and respects each other.”

Franco was a founding member of ESPN, working there for five decades across multiple positions, including as their manager of University and Diversity Relations. There, he helped jump-start their 24/7 informational station, ESPN News, winning four Emmy Awards for his work. He has co-founded a student-focused consulting firm, “Hired! Education” and currently serves on multiple college’s advisory boards. This episode of “In Conversation” was the first to feature a live studio audience in the new television studio with RSVP required, and the recording was followed by a Q&A session between audience members and Andy Billman. The episode is expected to be released soon on a new Youtube channel.

“War on the Diamond” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, VUDU, and Youtube.