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March 8, 2013

Oklahoma State professor's 'Pitch That Killed' gets the Hollywood treatment

STILLWATER, Okla. — An Oklahoma State University professor’s book about a baseball game gone horribly wrong is coming soon to a theater near you.

Associate Journalism Professor Mike Sowell’s 1989 book “The Pitch That Killed” has been transformed by producers and screenwriters into a movie script. The film is in pre-production and tentatively scheduled to be released in theaters in 2014.

Sowell’s book delves into the true story of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman and New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. During a game in 1920, Mays threw a pitch that struck Chapman in the head. The crack of the ball on Chapman’s head was so loud many thought it struck the bat. Mays picked up the ball, which had bounced to the mound, and threw it to first. Chapman died hours later.

Despite millions of pitches thrown in baseball’s history, Chapman is the only player to have died from injuries sustained in a Major League Baseball game.

“It really played out like a Hollywood movie,” Sowell said.

Both players grew up in poor Kentucky homes only 50 miles from each other and both hit it big in baseball. Sowell said both were on track to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame — Chapman the best shortstop of the era, Mays the best right-handed pitcher in the league. But the fatal pitch cut Chapman’s career short and left a black mark on the rest of Mays’ career.

“They both became a victim of it,” Sowell said.

Chapman’s widow never recovered from the loss and eventually committed suicide and their daughter died from an illness shortly after that. Mays was forever known as the pitcher who threw the deadly ball.

Many, include Sowell, believe it is a major reason Mays is not in the Hall of Fame.

Sowell began writing his book in the 1980s while working as a sports reporter at the Tulsa Tribune. The three-year project started out as a biography of Chapman but as he dug deeper it became a story of two men affected by a tragedy during a pivotal season in baseball history.

Sowell poured over years of Cleveland newspapers and even interviewed several people who were alive to see the pitch and who played with Chapman.

The OSU professor said he was contacted last spring by producer and screenwriter Pam Sullivan about adapting the novel as a movie. Sowell worked with Sullivan to add detail and history to the script.

As for a cameo, Sowell said he would be happy to play one of the movie’s baseball reporters in the stands if given the opportunity.

“To see the story in movie form would be great,” Sowell said.

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