WAR ON THE DIAMOND
There are many heralded sports rivalries: Cowboys vs. Redskins (Commanders), Yankees vs. Red Sox, Dodgers vs. Padres. However, only one came to exist due to a literal death. War on the Diamond covers a lesser-known sports rivalry whose genesis was a tragedy. Made with love and sincerity, War on the Diamond is sadly jumbled in its execution.
Ostensibly, War on the Diamond chronicles the only death resulting from playing baseball. That was on August 16, 1920 at the Polo Grounds. The then-Cleveland Indians were playing against the New York Yankees. At bat was Ray Chapman, recently married and rumored to be in his final year of professional baseball. On the mound, Carl Mays, a surly pitcher not known for kindness or sentimentality.
At the time, pitchers would use the same baseball throughout the game. As a result, the ball would get dirtier and harder to see. Mays' pitch struck Chapman on the head so hard that Mays initially mistook the sound of Chapman's head-bashing for a hit. Chapman died the next day from his head injury.
Ever since then, War on the Diamond suggests, the Indians (now Guardians) and the Yankees have been bitter rivals. That rivalry grows stronger when Cleveland native George Steinbrenner buys the New York Yankees. The blend of Cleveland bravado and New York attitude drives Indians/Guardians fans up the wall.
War on the Diamond may use the tagline, "The Deadly Pitch That Launched a Rivalry", but oddly, it does not focus on said pitch. Instead, War on the Diamond wanders hither and yon from that story to the Steinbrenner story and back again for no discernable reason. Director Andrew Billman and the documentary's producers adapted the nonfiction book The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell for their story.
The question remains, "What story were they interested in?". War on the Diamond oddly suggests that this purported Yankees/Guardians rivalry was more due to Steinbrenner than it was to Mays. It does not help that for Yankees fans, Cleveland is at most an afterthought. The Red Sox, that is a rivalry. The Indians/Guardians? Nothing.
At least twice I noted during the 90 minute running time how odd it was that War on the Diamond shifted from recent days to 1920. How Chapman's tragedy connects to that of Herb Score, an Indians pitcher bound for greatness until, strangely enough, another Yankee (Gil McDougald) hit him in the head the film does not say.
The Chapman and Score stories might connect (though a bit of a stretch), but how to make sense of the inclusion of what was dubbed "the Midges Game" in a documentary film supposedly about an event from 1920? Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series was 1-0 for the Yankees at the 8th inning when a sudden infestation of midges overwhelmed the New York players. The Indians/Guardians ended up winning, in part due to the distraction and chaos the midges played on their supposed rivals.
War on the Diamond cannot make the claim that the Midges Game somehow connects to the Chapman tragedy as part of a long-running rivalry. It can't even prove there is a rivalry.
It is not as though there are not interesting elements in War of the Diamond. Seeing an archival interview from Ray Chapman's elderly sister Margaret Chapman Joy is a treat, giving us her unique firsthand knowledge of both her brother and the tragedies that befell him and his wife Kathleen. A brief snippet of an interview with Carl Mays too is fascinating, as is a tidbit that Mays became so despised that even Ty Cobb hated him, calling him a killer.
The film also has an interesting bookend story. War on the Diamond opens and closes with the story of the Ray Chapman Memorial Plaque, which had mysteriously been lost when the team moved stadiums only to emerge decades later in a storage room. The plaque was restored and given a place of honor at Progressive Field.
Apart from those points, War on the Diamond sadly flounders, more so with a toxic mix of reenactments, incessant music and rather dull narration. It reminded me of a locally produced series of El Paso-centered documentaries. The quality is not top-notch but serviceable for viewing. Likewise, War on the Diamond might be interesting for baseball fans, specifically from Cleveland. Outside of them, it might be too hodgepodge and frankly, a bit boring, for others.
The Ray Chapman story should be remembered. War on the Diamond is a decent primer, but the limitations show.