By John Antonik
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A Mountaineer sports tragedy, since lost to history, occurred 100 years ago on Wednesday, May 30, 1923, and casted a pall over the WVU campus on Memorial Day weekend.
That was the afternoon West Virginia University first baseman Cassell “Ike” Mowery was accidentally struck in the head with a baseball during a game played against Pitt at the old Athletic Field on the WVU’s downtown campus located in an area where the Mountainlair currently sits.
It happened in the fourth inning of a game the Mountaineers were trailing 5-0. Mowery, whose last name was misspelled “Mowrey” in several news reports, was hit in the temple, rendering him immediately unconscious.
He was transported to City Hospital in Morgantown where emergency surgery was eventually performed by Dr. Walter A. Dearth, surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital. Assisting Dearth were Dr. Clarence Spears, also West Virginia’s head football coach, and Dr. H.W. Howell, surgeon at City Hospital.
The surgery required two bone fragments from Mowery’s skull imbedded in his brain to be removed during a Friday morning procedure. Bulletins published on the front page of the local newspaper that evening and Saturday morning were favorable until his condition deteriorated rapidly Saturday afternoon. He never regained consciousness and died at 4:10 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, 1923.
It was only the second death ever associated with a West Virginia University sporting event, the first taking place 13 years prior in 1910 when football player Rudolph Munk died after sustaining a blow to the head during a game against Bethany College at Wheeling Island Stadium.
Mowery’s passing hit West Virginia University hard.
A sophomore law student and a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, he was among the most popular and most well-liked students on campus. He came to WVU from Washington Irving High in Clarksburg where he was a three-sport standout for the Hilltoppers.
He tried out for the Mountaineer football team as a freshman, but a broken collarbone sustained during training camp curtailed his grid career. He also appeared in six games as a backup center on the basketball team, but it was on the baseball diamond where he made his mark.
Mowery became the team’s starting first baseman during the 1922 season and batted .314 in 13 games for the Mountaineers, including a four-hit performance in an 11-7 victory over Virginia Tech.
His sophomore campaign in 1923 got off to a great start with multi-hit games against Duquesne, Bethany and Maryland, and a three-hit performance in a 16-0 victory at Lehigh, but he went into a midseason slump, getting only two hits during a nine-game stretch.
He was just coming out of his slump with four hits versus Grove City College, and another hit in his first at bat against Pitt, when he was struck in the head.
The guy who hit him was considered one of the greatest players in Pitt baseball history, Steve Swetonic. He was a Steel City sandlot legend who led Allegheny High to three straight WPIAL titles.
The hard-throwing righthander pitched two seasons for the Panthers in 1923-24 before Pitt dropped its baseball program. He then signed a minor league contract with the Indianapolis Indians and won 20 games for them in 1928 before being sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $25,000 and two players. Swetonic pitched five seasons for the Pirates, winning a career-best 12 games in 1933, before a sore arm prematurely ended his career.
His major league record was 37-36.
After giving up baseball, Swetonic became a salesman for Blaw-Knox Steel Company and a Sunday golfer at South Hills Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh. He died in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on April 22, 1974.
Mowery, meanwhile, was only 21 at the time of his tragic passing.
When word came of Mowery’s death, the annual varsity-alumni baseball game played during commencement weekend was called off in the fourth inning and a dance scheduled for that evening at the Armory was also canceled.
Mowery’s body, after being prepared for burial, was taken to the Delta Tau Delta house for a Sunday viewing and then was transported to Big Issac in Doddridge County for a Monday afternoon burial.
The funeral procession included Washington Irving classmates, 28 Delta Tau Delta fraternity brothers and his WVU teammates. H.E. Stone, dean of men, represented the University. West Virginia University president Dr. Frank Butler Trotter was unable to attend the burial because of commencement exercises taking place that afternoon.
Coach Ira Errett Rodgers, team captain Fulton Woods, fraternity brothers Robert Hawkins, Cabell Davis and Fred Schroeder and Washington Irving classmate Harry Byer served as pall bearers.
The front page of the Monday morning paper was adorned with tributes to Mowery.
“The University regrets exceedingly the unavoidable accident which caused the young man’s death and deepest sympathy is extended by the president and the faculty to the bereaved family, as well as to the student body as a whole and the sophomore class in particular in the loss of one of its most popular members,” Trotter said.
“(Mowery) was the type of athlete who makes the work of any coach easy – willing, conscientious, clean and a sportsman first, last and always,” Rodgers noted. “The baseball team knew him perhaps better than those other branches of sport and our sorrow is beyond expression.”
Spears, West Virginia’s nationally known football coach, also issued a public tribute.
“In the death of (Mowery) there is lost a young man who was a credit to his family, his home community, his fraternity and the University in general,” he said.
Harry Stansbury, director of athletics, said WVU lost a man “whose place will be difficult to fill on the athletic field, in the classroom and on the campus.” Stansbury later indicated a willingness to explore some means of honoring Mowery, as was the case with a plaque established at Mountaineer Field recognizing Munk’s passing, but nothing ever materialized.
The University of Pittsburgh sent telegrams of sympathy to WVU and to Mowery’s family as well.
It was the only reported death of a college baseball player that year.
Ray Chapman, Cleveland Indians shortstop, is the only big-league player to die directly from an injury received in a game. It happened in 1920 during a contest played against the New York Yankees in the Polo Grounds when he was hit in the head by Carl Mays’ pitch. The only rule change to come out of Chapman’s death was umpires being required to change baseballs when they became dirty.
Protective batting helmets did not become a requirement in Little League baseball until the early 1950s, while the National League adopted batting helmets in 1956 and the American League followed in 1958, although older players were grandfathered from wearing them. It wasn’t until 1971 when Major League Baseball passed a rule strictly enforcing the use of batting helmets for all batters, almost five decades after the deaths of Chapman and Mowery.
Incidentally, All-American men’s basketball player Rod Thorn’s promising WVU baseball career came to an abrupt ending during the fifth game of the 1963 season against West Virginia Wesleyan when he was struck in the back of the head with a baseball.
However, the ball that hit Thorn was thrown by a teammate while he was standing in the infield.
Thorn, the second player taken in the NBA Draft that year, at one time was considering playing both sports professionally.
Fortunately for Thorn, he wasn’t seriously injured or lost his life like Cassell Mowery did 40 years prior. It was a tragedy that probably could have been prevented had batting helmets been mandatory back then.