Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman sadly became the first and only major league player to lose his life due to events that occurred during a major league baseball game. He died hours after being struck in the head by a pitch during an August 17th, 1920 game against the New York Yankees. However, if not for a stroke of good fortune, Yankees’ utility man Chick Fewster narrowly missed the dubious distinction himself just months earlier.
Wilson Lloyd “Chick” Fewster was born in Baltimore in 1895. He was a talented ball player; noted for an ability to play all over the diamond. He joined the Yankees in 1917 and played sparingly over the next several years but established himself as a primary bench option in the 1919 season, hitting .283 in 81 games. Manager Miller Huggins excitedly proclaimed, “Chick has everything. I have never seen a greater prospect.”
As the 1920 season rolled around, the 24-year-old appeared to be in a good position. He was primed to resume his utility role on a team that had just acquired slugger Babe Ruth, who had exploded in popularity after transitioning from being an excellent pitcher to the most dangerous hitter in baseball.
Before the regular season could get under way, tragedy struck. On March 25th, Fewster faced off against Brooklyn Dodgers’ right-handed pitcher Jeff Pfeffer (not to be confused with his brother Big Jeff Pfeffer, another right-handed pitcher of the same era who was actually two inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter) in a spring training contest in Jacksonville, Florida. The hurler hit the unprotected Fewster, who was known for crowding the plate, in the head behind his ear with a fastball. He immediately crumpled to the ground in a state of unconsciousness.
The New York Times reported, “The impact sounded like a cocoanut [SIC] shell cracking.” He became the third New York player to be lost that day, as Wally Pipp and Clarence Mitchell both suffered injuries earlier in the day during batting practice.
After about 10 minutes, Fewster came to and was believed to be alright other than a significant bruise on his head. However, the following day he was unable to speak. Terrified, he was rushed to a hospital where it was determined he actually had suffered a fractured skull and a concussion. He was hospitalized for nearly a week before it was discovered he had also developed a blot clot on his brain. Emergency surgery extracted the clot, which required the removal of a piece of his skull. It was replaced by a silver plate the size of a silver dollar — throwing a recovery, much less a resumption of his playing career into doubt.
Ralph Davis of the Pittsburgh Press wrote, “The injury to Chick Fewster, which seems to make it certain that he will never play another game of ball,” spoke to the severity of his condition.
Incredibly, Fewster bounced back with lightning speed. His speech came back and he regained his strength as if by magic, even talking about resuming his season just a couple of weeks after his procedure.
Just six weeks later he appeared in his first game of the season, on July 5th, playing in both games of a doubleheader. Naturally, he was struck by a pitch the next day, but hung in and didn’t become gun shy at the plate like some thought might occur. He went on to play sparingly the rest of the way, collecting six hits in 21 at-bats (a .286 batting average) in 21 games. The Yankees arranged for special batting helmets to be made for him out of cork and felt to provide some protection, but he refused to wear them and stand out in any way from his fellow players.
Almost exactly a year after his near-death experience, Fewster faced Pfeffer again during a spring training game in 1921. Instead of being apprehensive, he lashed the first pitch he saw for a triple, prompting the New York Evening Mail to gush, “There are many kinds of courage in this world… Chick Fewster possesses all the kinds…”
Fewster played every non-pitcher position during his 11-year big-league career except for first base and catcher. He never became a full-time starter or cashed in on the promise that had accompanied him earlier in his career but always received consistent playing time. It was noted that after his brush with death, he had difficulty playing on particularly hot days, as the heat made him weak and dizzy.
In addition to his five-plus seasons with the Yankees, he also spent time with the Boston Red Sox, Indians and Dodgers. In 644 career games, he batted .258 with six home runs, 167 RBIs and 57 stolen bases.
The moment Fewster is still remember most often for is being the first player to ever record an at-bat in the original Yankee Stadium. Having been traded to the Red Sox the year before, he christened the grand venue by tapping out to shortstop in the top of the first inning against former teammate Bob Shawkey on April 18, 1923.
Fewster also had an interesting life after his playing career ended. Following the 1927 season with the Dodgers, he played the next two years in the minor leagues and then eventually moved on to run a baseball academy in Brooklyn. Succumbing to patriotism, he joined the Merchant Marines shortly after Pearl Harbor despite being 46. He saw action in Africa and the Persian Gulf, among others. Sadly, he passed away in 1945 in Baltimore from a heart attack. He was just 49. While an unfortunate injury nearly ended his career and his life, he fought back from long odds and was still able to claim a significant space in baseball history.