When you think of all-time great sports rivalries, the Cleveland Guardians versus the New York Yankees doesn’t immediately come to mind. The most memorable image over the past few decades is the sight of Joba Chamberlain being infamously swarmed by the Lake Erie midges during Game 2 of the ALDS.
The Cleveland-New York rivalry isn’t as well-known as the Yankees-Red Sox one. However, like the Curse of Bambino, there is a compelling story behind the rivalry. Based on Mike Sowell’s book The Pitch That Killed, War on the Diamond examines the tragic 1920 hit-by-pitch death of Cleveland’s Ray Chapman, and the subsequent fallout.
It’s not a well-known tale, even among some hardcore baseball fans. They might have a vague idea of someone dying a long, long time ago. But many aren’t familiar with the details. To this day, Chapman occupies a morbid place in baseball history: the only player in Major League Baseball history to die from being hit by a pitch.
War on the Diamond director and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Andy Billman (known for his 30 for 30 involvement as a producer on many installments and the director of Believeland) spends 80 minutes looking at how that tragedy shaped the Cleveland-New York rivalry. He time-hops between Chapman’s story and other historical ties between these teams.
By taking that approach, there is certainly a lot to tell that doesn’t involve Chapman. Billman could have easily done a separate documentary on George Steinbrenner, a Cleveland native who became the Yankees owner and one of the game’s most important figures.
War on the Diamond might have been better served by focusing solely on Chapman. That’s the story people want to know about. That’s the reason why many are going to see this movie. When War on the Diamond keeps the spotlight on Chapman, it’s riveting.
The sheer thought of someone dying after being hit by a pitch is frightening. It’s also surprising that it hasn’t happened since.
One of the fundamentals of pitching is that you need to throw inside to be successful. You can’t allow a batter to become comfortable at the plate. As a result, occasionally some guys will get hit, perhaps even in the head.
Being beaned in the face has ended seasons and careers. One of the scariest moments occurred in September 2014 when Giancarlo Stanton suffered multiple fractures and dental damage after being beaned by an 88-mph fastball.
Stanton’s gruesome injuries were shocking. These days, pitchers throw harder than ever before. We used to be amazed by 100-mph throwers. Now, it’s not uncommon for a relief pitcher you’ve never heard of to reach triple digits on the radar gun. Imagine being nailed in the head with that kind of velocity.
The terror of that is what makes Chapman’s death so fascinating. It happened at a time when average fastball velocity is nowhere near what it is today.
War on the Diamond shows how Chapman remains revered in Cleveland with recent footage of items left at his grave. He has become a martyr for Cleveland sports fandom—a ghost reminding the living of a popular shortstop whose life was cut short at 29. His loved ones never quite recovered. How could you possibly get over such a freak accident?
The last 20 minutes of the documentary are what viewers will remember the most. Billman reveals what happened on Aug. 16, 1920 between Chapman and Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. The compelling details make it seem like you’re seeing notes from a forensic autopsy. You learn all the circumstances that led to the tragedy.
With archival footage and interviews with experts, Billman paints a vivid picture of the emotions of the time, particularly the anger directed at Mays. There’s a newspaper clipping featured in the documentary with the sentence: “Sentiment is strong against Mays because of his previous record of pitching what players called “bean balls.”
Mays, who was cleared of wrongdoing, showed little remorse. He is forever remembered as the pitcher who killed Chapman.
War on the Diamond makes the case that that horrible moment sparked a century-long rivalry between the franchises. It has been largely a one-sided rivalry. Cleveland won the World Series in 1920 and captured another in 1948. Meanwhile, the Yankees are the most successful team in baseball history with 27 World Series titles.
Cleveland versus New York is not a rivalry that resonates with many people outside of Cleveland. But Chapman’s story endures. For the most part, War on the Diamond does it justice.
War on the Diamond will be available to stream Nov. 15 on iTunes/Apple, Amazon, Google, Vudu, YouTube, Microsoft and cable and satellite VOD platforms everywhere. More information can be found on the film’s website.