The Charger Blog

Communication Professors Explore Baseball, History, and Storytelling Through Lens of Professor’s Film

Profs. Joe Franco and Andy Billman recently discussed “War on the Diamond,” the award-winning film Prof. Billman produced and directed that tells the story of a deadly pitch and the resulting rivalry between two major league teams that continues to this day.

January 18, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Profs. Franco (left) and Billman discuss “War on the Diamond.”
Profs. Franco (left) and Billman discuss “War on the Diamond.”

Chris Elwell ’24 is passionate about sports, and he’s also a fan of learning more about sports and sports history. He recently had the opportunity to dive deeper into the history of baseball and to learn about a tragedy that launched a century-long rivalry.

As a communication major and sports editor for the Charger Bulletin, the chance to learn about sports and storytelling from two adjunct communication professors was a grand slam. They discussed “War on the Diamond,” Prof. Andy Billman’s new documentary, as part of a live conversation that was filmed in the University’s TV studio. The film tells the story of Ray Chapman, the only baseball player to die from an injury suffered in a major league game.

“I knew a lot of these stories, and learning more about baseball history is something I’m interested in,” said Elwell. “But as much as I knew about the history, I didn’t know it went back to this event.”

‘I only ever knew about the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry’

That event was a tragedy that took place during a 1920 game between the Cleveland Indians – now the Cleveland Guardians – and the New York Yankees. Chapman, a shortstop for Cleveland, was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays, and he soon became the only player to die directly from an injury that took place during a major league game. Cleveland went on to win the World Series that year, and the tragedy sparked a rivalry that unfolded over the next century and continues today, as the two teams faced each other in the playoffs last fall.

The “War on the Diamond” poster.
The “War on the Diamond” poster.

Prof. Billman, who grew up in Cleveland, directed and produced the documentary. He joined Prof. Joe Franco, who has held various management positions in production operations during his five decades at ESPN, to discuss the film and answer questions from their audience.

The discussion was a hit with Alyssa Patel ’25, one of Prof. Franco’s students. She was interested in learning more about the story behind “War on the Diamond” and in attending the networking event that followed the discussion.

“This was all new to me,” said Patel, a music and sound recording major. “I’m fascinated by the way a man’s death was handled at that time and that fans never knew about it years later.”

Prof. Franco, a Yankees fan, and Prof. Billman put the rivalry between their favorite teams aside as they discussed the film’s production, the history of the teams and the rivalry, and the impact of the tragedy and the rivalry on the game today.

“I’m a Yankees fan, and I grew up a Yankees fan,” said Prof. Franco. “I only ever knew about the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. To be able to learn about this rivalry is amazing.”

‘The story has so many layers’

The documentary includes reenactments, including some that were filmed at a ballpark in Bristol, Connecticut. It also includes a variety of interviews with individuals such as representatives from both teams, as well as historians and journalists. It also includes Mike Sowell, author of the book The Pitch That Killed, on which the film is based.

Prof. Andy Billman.
Prof. Andy Billman.

Featured on opening night of the Boston Film Festival, the film went on to earn the award for best documentary. In addition to being a film about sports and history, it is also a love story, depicting the romance between Chapman and his wife Katie, who was pregnant when he was killed.

“They were Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland,” explained Prof. Billman. “They were that big of a deal.”

As part of the discussion, Profs. Billman and Franco explored baseball culture through the lens of the tragedy. Prof. Billman describes Chapman as a “nice guy” and the most popular player on the team, likening him to David Ortiz “Big Papi” of the Boston Red Sox. Mays, who continued to play baseball after the tragedy, was, according to Prof. Billman, “competitive, complicated, and with anger issues.” He explained that Mays said publicly that the tragedy was as much Chapman’s fault as his, and Profs. Franco and Billman explained that while this may sound shocking to us now, that was “how it was” at the time.

“What struck me is that the story has so many layers,” said Prof. Franco.

‘I’m lucky to be here’

Cleveland fans continue to remember and honor Chapman, who is buried in a cemetery with “well-known Clevelanders.” Especially in the opening weeks of baseball season, fans like to leave a quarter on his grave for good luck.

“War on the Diamond” is now available for online streaming on platforms such as Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Google Play, as well as on cable and satellite TV.

Prof. Billman has several other projects in the works, including one about basketball and a film about Henry Hill, the former member of the mafia who was portrayed by actor Ray Liotta in the movie “Goodfellas.” He also looks forward to continuing to teach and inspire his students at the University, something he is very passionate about.

“I love teaching here,” he said. “I enjoy the students, and there’s a lot of good community. What’s great about the University is everyone likes and respects each other. It’s a good community of people looking out for each other. I’m lucky to be here.”