Unless you’re a baseball historian, Ray Chapman probably isn’t a name that sounds familiar. If you do recognize him, it’s because he has the ignominy of being the last Major League Baseball player to die from being hit by a pitch. The Cleveland shortstop died in 1920 at the age of 29, after the Yankees pitcher Carl Mays accidentally struck Chapman in the head with a ball. That MLB has gone nearly an entire century without another on-field fatality has less to do with improvements in player safety and more to do with dumb luck.
Every season, numerous pitchers are instructed to throw—with intent to injure—at members of the opposite team. Every season, these intentional hits result in bad blood, threats of future violence, and occasionally serious injury to players whose livelihoods depend on their ability to stay fit. And every season, MLB turns a blind eye to the practice. The recent high-profile dust-up between the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics is only noteworthy because it so perfectly captures the absurdity of team-sanctioned assault. The hit batsman gets a free base, but pitchers pick their spots—waiting until there are two outs and no one on base, or after the outcome of the game is no longer in doubt. Unlike other sports, which assess a meaningful immediate penalty (lost yardage, free throws, forcing a team to play a man short for a period of time), MLB has no such disincentive and so this behavior happens frequently. Meanwhile, baseball fans roll their eyes and shrug—they’ve seen this all before.