Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Saga of Carl Mays Part 2: The Death Pitch

1920 would become one of the ten most important seasons (some have argued the most important) in baseball history.  This season would be the start of the pride of the Yankees.  This season would introduce an overall Baseball Commissioner to oversee all operations of both the National League and the American League.  This season would lead to the crusade to get rid of crooked players, managers and owners.  It would see the end of the dead ball era.  The season would see the outlawing of the use of spitballs and outlawed cutting, scuffing, mashing, scratching or otherwise defacing the ball.  It would see the one change that has most set the era of the dead ball apart from every other era in history.  These rules would come into effect because of two reasons:  the Chicago White Sox and Carl Mays.

If Carl Mays thought he could start fresh with the Yankees it was a thought that quickly faded.  The press had ripped him to shreds. His Red Sox teammates were still furious.  He had walked out on the team.  He had completely disrupted the entire league and had brought unwanted focus on the instability of the leadership which took focus away from the onfield performance.  That instability would reassert itself a few months later when the Black Sox fix unfolded.

His teammates had always hated him, the press loved him because he sold papers but the league owners, especially Comiskey and Dunn, wanted him out of the league.  He received a warm greeting from his teammates in New York but it would be short lived.  He was not a changed man in the new surroundings.  The public beratings and shaming of his fielders who made errors continuted. 

There were some familiar faces in that Yankees locker room as well.  Pitchers Dutch Leonard and Ernie Shore as well as outfielder Duffy Lewis had been traded to the Yankees before the 1919 season and at the end of the 1919 season Babe Ruth would join the Yankees.  Unfortunately for Mays, most of these players were the ones he had issues with in Boston.  The transfer of the Red Sox to the Yankees would continue throughout Mays's time there.  Harry Harper,Waite Hoyt, Wally Schang and Mike McNally followed before the 1921 season.  Just a year later, before the 1922 season, Shortstop Everett Scott and Pitchers Bullet Joe Bush and Sad Sam Jones would land with the Yankees.  Nearly everyone Mays hated, and who hated Mays (except Jack Barry), would end up as his team mate in New York.

No matter.  Mays kept pitching and kept winning and as the 1920 season unfolded a three way pennant race developed between the defending AL Champion  White Sox, the up and coming Cleveland Indians and the surprising New York Yankees.  The Yankees' history was not one of success.  It was not one of pride.  It was not even one of near misses.  It was a history of disappointment, under achieving, mismanagement and scandal.  They were just starting to build something special which would unfold over the next few years.

As the season played out,  the Indians, White Sox and Yankees jockeyed for position through the first four months and as the game began on August 16 Mays carried a record of 18-8.  The Yankees came into the game with a record of 8-6 so far in the month.  They had dropped to third place and were a game and a half off the pace.  They faced the Indians today and this head to head meeting with their competition was a must win for both teams.

The game moved to the top of the fifth inning and Ray Chapman, Cleveland's Shortstop, started the inning.  It was one of the greater contrasts in personality.  Chapman was the lovable, affable, team cheerleader.  The spirit of the Indians team.  The one who always kept things positive.  He was facing off against the morose, sullen, hated Mays.  Chapman was still young but was planning to retire in a few months to a nice, easy city funded job set up by his father in law.  His wife was expecting their first child and he wanted to be there for every precious moment of the child's life.  He just wanted to see if he could be part of an Indian's World Series before he hung up the spikes for the last time.

If you read last week's article of Carl Mays's time in Boston, you will remember that he had a side arm delivery,  It was called the submariner delivery because Mays's arm position was almost underhanded.  Mays also had a reputation for cutting the ball to get some extra movement on the ball.

The first pitch of the inning came in high and tight.  Mays heard the crack and there was a soft ground ball right back to Mays.  He fielded it, threw to Wally Pipp at first base and waited to get the ball back from Pipp.  He was already thinking of how to pitch to Tris Speaker.  He waited for the ball to come back to him but Pipp was frozen, staring toward home plate with his mouth open, bewildered.

What Pipp saw horrified him.  There was a gasp from the crowd followed by an audible hush as there was seemingly people moving in all directions while others were frozen in disbelief.  The crack that Mays had heard was not from the ball hitting the bat.  The crack was the sound of the ball crushing Chapman's temple.  Chapman froze for a second, then slowly fell to his knees, then lay prostrate in the dirt. 

The Indians' bench emptied. Not to fight Mays.  Not yet anyways, but out of concern for Chapman.  Someone yelled out for a doctor and two doctor's from opposite parts of the stadium raced each other (literally) to home plate. Chapman was conscious.  He couldn't speak but he was awake.  He made an effort to get up and go after Mays but those around him convinced him to stay down and take it easy.  The stands were silent. Watching.  Praying. Staring.  Some crying from the concern.  A few women fainted from the tension.

While the drama unfolded at home plate Mays was concerned.  After all, he had made the pitch and fielded the ball. There was one out, right?  Hadn't the ball hit the bat?  Hadn't he thrown it to Pipp for an out?  He made his case to the umpire.  When the seriousness of the moment seized him Mays pled his case in a different way.  It wasn't his fault Chapman got hurt.  After all, Chapman was hanging right over the plate.  There had also been a scuff on the ball.  He was just using the ball he had been given but yes there had been a mark on the ball.  He couldn't be blamed for that.  He took the ball.  Showed the umpire.  Look.  See this scuff mark right here?  That's what caused him to get hit.  Pipp came to the mound and talked to Mays and got him to shut up.

Chapman was geting to his feet.  His head was cloudy, pounding, throbbing.  His speech was soft, almost non existent, and difficult to make out but he was insistent he could walk to the visitors club house in Centerfield of the Polo Grounds. The same club house that Fred Merkle had sought out to avoid the swarming New York fans.  Jack Graney, one of Chapman's best friends told the other boys he would go with Chapman to the club house.  Chapman was shaky, unsteady, but the crowd was relieved when they saw Chapman moving and seemingly alert.  A cheer came up but it was quieted as Chapman reached  the grass just past the infield.  His legs wobbled, like Bambi trying to walk on ice, and he collapsed again.  Enough of this macho bull shit.  Graney and another team mate picked Chapman up and got him into the locker room as quickly as possible.

He was rushed to the hospital with a team of doctors on alert that he was on the way.  X-rays revealed the worst possible scenario.  The impact had caused a fracture in two directions and had jarred the brain against the other side of the skull.  There was severe damage to both the right and left sides of the brain.  The skull was hit so hard that it was now pressing directly on the brain causing severe clotting.  Emergency surgery was performed but Chapman had no chance.  On August 17, 1920 at 4:40 in the morning, 29 year old Raymond Johnson Chapman was officially pronounced dead.


The news of the likable Chapman's death broke the next day and players around the league were angry.  They had hated Mays.  Everyone knew he was throwing at batters' heads.  It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.  The league was again thrown into chaos because of Carl Mays.  A year ago Mays had nearly caused a revolution at the highest level.  Now the other players in the league took a step that would not be considered again until the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to boycott Jackie Robinson's entry into the league.  Players on the Tigers, Senators, Browns and White Sox threatened not to play another game until Mays was banned from the league.

"If the news had come over the wire that a ball player had been killed by a pitched ball, without naming who had pitched the ball, the Browns to a man would have guessed who did the pitching."  That was the report of the St. Louis dispatch. 

Calm eventually won out.  The season went on.   The Indians were able to pull themselves together as a team and, with the help of Chicago having eight players suspended in the last week of the season, went on to win the American League pennant and the 1920 World Series.  It was a remarkable World Series featuring the first World Series grand slam by Elmer Smith, the first World Series home run by a pitcher by  Jim Bagby and the only unassisted triple play in World Series history by Bill Wambsganns. The Indians would not win another World Series until 1948 and haven't won another since then.

The White Sox lost the American League pennant, lost eight of their best players forever and would not reach another World Series until 1959 when they lost to the Dodgers, who won their first World Series in Los Angeles.  The White Sox would not win another World Series until 2005.

The Yankees would fall short of the 1920 pennant but something special was growing in New York.  Using most of the pieces of Boston's late dynasty as well as home grown talent like Wally Pipp, Bob Meusel and Aaron Ward, the Yankees created an American League dynasty that was beyond anyone's imagination.

Mays continued to pitch for the Yankees and continued to be despised.  Despised by his teammates, by the league, by the owners and by the public.  You would think that after so much controversy the excitement of Mays's career was over but there is one more chapter in the saga of Carl Mays.  Check back next week for the finale.

Trivia Question:
For most of the season Harry Lunte was the backup shortstop to Ray Chapman and it was hoped would be the replacement for Chapman for the rest of the season.  Shortly after taking over for Chapman, Lunte pulled a hamstring and was out for the season.  Who replaced Lunte and played through the regular season and World Series?
Answer to last week's trivia question:
Babe Ruth appeared in ten World Series during his career.  Carl Mays was his teammate with the 1915, 1916 and 1918 Red Sox as well as the 1921, 1922 and 1923 Yankees.  Although he was used sparingly during the 1923 season he was a member of the first Yankees World Series team.  Mays was sold to the Cincinnati Reds following the 1923 season.


  1. Great article! That's so sad about Chapman. I'm guess his death pushed MLB to start using helmets for batters?

    Also, I'm not sure if you're going to go into it further in Part 3, but was Carl Mays charged with anything for the incident? What did he have to say about the whole thing after the fact?

  2. Great questions. You would think that this accident pushed the league to add batting helmets but only a few teams even began experimenting with the batting helmet and most of them quickly abandoned them. The batting helmet did not come into widespread everyday use until after Tony Conigliaro was hit by a pitch in the late 1970's.

    Mays was not charged with any crime. It was originally thought that he would be charged with murder, however, there would need to be proof that his intent was to kill Chapman and there were very few people who believed his intent was to kill.

    Mays felt that the death of Chapman was the reason he was kept out of the Hall of Fame despite his successful career in the majors. When you read next week's article you may have an idea of another reason he may have been kept out.

  3. Great article. I can't wait to read the next article. I am learning so much about baseball in these articles.
    I thought that the batting helmet ( at least a crude model) was put into effect because of Chapman. I never knew that someone as nasty as Mays was the person who hit Chapman.

    About a year ago I read a novel by John Grisham titled "Cocalico Joe". It was about a mean spirited pitcher who hated life and was just hanging on in the game and what happened when he beaned a rookie Phenom named Cocalico Joe. Wonder if Grisham got his idea from the Mays- Chapman incident.

    My answer to the trivia question is either Joe Cronin or Lou Boudreau. Joe Cronin I associate with the Red Sox and Boudreau was in the 40's.


  4. There were a few attempts at batting helmets developed by companies around this time but they were too bulky, uncomfortable and heavy for practical use.

    The Dodgers (and a few other players) did attempt to use a harder helmet covered by felt in the 1950's but most of the players chose just to wear their regular caps. It wasn't until Tony Conigliaro got hit in the 1960's that a greater push to enforce the batting helmet was seen.


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