Tomorrow we ought to win pretty easily. I can’t hit this man Mays, but the rest of the team sure can.
—Ray Chapman, Cleveland Indians shortstop, 15 August 1920.
On 20 September 1920, New York Yankee pitcher Carl Mays was scheduled to appear in traffic court on a speeding charge levied three weeks earlier. Mays didn’t appear, but a Yankee secretary named Charles McManus did on his behalf, entering his guilty plea and paying his $25 fine.
Events three days earlier, and a hundred years ago today, compelled Mays to stay out of sight for what proved a full week: the death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, 29 years old, fifteen hours after a Mays pitch caught him in the head with a sickening crash leading off the top of the fifth in an overcast New York.
On the same day Mays was due in traffic court, a priest named the Rev. Dr. William A. Scullen presided over the Chapman funeral that crammed St. John’s Cathedral in Cleveland and backed up traffic and crowds outside the church. After commemorating Chapman’s skill, character, and faith, all of which made him beloved in Cleveland and liked around baseball, Scullen turned his attention to the pitcher whose service felled him.
May there be no hostility in any heart to the man who was the unfortunate occasion of his accident. He feels it more deeply than you, and no one regrets it as much as he. This great game we play, that is our national pastime, could not produce anybody who would willingly do a thing like that. Remember those would be the words of him who lies here. Do not hold any animosity.
The priest may have been too late for his words to have any impact on Mays’s behalf. Mays wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity even before the tragedy. Even Chapman’s opponents testified to his sterling self. Even Mays’s teammates and managers often testified to his less-than-agreeable self.
The Indians weren’t the only team demanding a boycott of subsequent games in which Mays was scheduled to pitch. Yet their Hall of Fame player-manager Tris Speaker was the only member of the team not to sign a letter calling for such a boycott. Nothing could bring Chapman back, and Speaker wasn’t about join the chorus calling an accident murder.
A Kentucky-born, Missouri-raised son of a Methodist minister himself, Mays was known for a submarine-style delivery, an oft-remarked reputation for head-hunting on the mound, and a then-legal spitball at least as effective as the other pitches through which he lived mostly on ground balls.
A few years after the Chapman tragedy, Mays had so alienated Yankee manager Miller Huggins that Huggins used him sparingly until finally starting him against the Indians, of all people. On a day Mays didn’t have his best, the Indians jumped him for twenty hits, thirteen runs, and a 13-0 final. Asked why he wouldn’t change pitchers, Huggins didn’t flinch.
“He told me he needed lots of work,” the manager said, perhaps with a tiny sneer, “so I gave it to him.”
As likeable and respected as Chapman was, the shortstop was known concurrently for crowding the plate, which would have made him prone to a plunk even if a pitcher wasn’t trying to hit him. That didn’t stop only too many from stopping just short of calling for criminal charges against the suddenly hapless Mays.
One week after Chapman’s funeral, The Sporting News published an editorial that barely stopped short of calling Mays a murderer, while Mays continued to stay out of sight in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath:
Mays knows what all the world is saying. He can not dodge the finger of accusation by keeping himself from public view. Nor is it “hysteria,” as his defenders would charge, when critics everywhere remind us of frequent previous complaints against his style of pitching and recount the disputes it has caused on the ball field.
No one accuses Mays of a direct intent to injure any batter, living or dead, but there are few who do not feel that Mays took the chance and made the batter take the chance, and there are many who wag the head and say such a thing as has happened was bound to happen some day.
Mays stayed in seclusion for a week after the tragedy, while talk of boycotting games Mays was due to pitch crawled all around the Show, except to talk to a Manhattan prosecutor the day after Chapman died, according to both the Society for American Baseball Research and Mike Sowell’s The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920.
He thought at first that the pitch ricocheted off Chapman’s bat, fielding it properly and throwing to first for what he thought was an inning-opening out. Not quite. Chapman was down in a heap. The next day, a Yankee employee knocked on Mays’s apartment door. Sowell:
Mark Roth, one of the ballclub’s secretaries, did not bother to identify himself.
“Carl, I’ve got some bad news for you. Ray Chapman died at five o’clock this morning.”
The words hit Mays like a sledgehammer. He stood there stunned, then slowly shut the door in Roth’s face.
The next few hours were a blur to Mays. He did not know how long he sat in his apartment in a daze. Finally, he was jarred back to reality by the ringing of the telephone. It was a police inspector, offering his sympathy and a police guard if Mays felt one was needed to ensure his privacy. Mays accepted.
Later that day, a Yankee attorney, Frederick Grant, escorted Mays to a police station where he met an assistant Manhattan district attorney identified only by the surname Joyce.
“It was a little too close, and I saw Chapman duck his head in an effort to get out of the path of the ball,” Mays told the A.D.A. “He was too late, however, and a second later he fell to the grounds. It was the most regrettable incident of my career, and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened.”
When Mays returned home, Sowell learned, his wife told him she received two threatening telephone calls, one of which threatened that her husband would be shot when next he drove his car across a viaduct on 155th Street in the Bronx. When he returned to action and beat the Detroit Tigers, the fury continued apace.
Set the Chapman tragedy to one side for a few moments. Mays’s pitching record includes that he led the American League with fourteen hit batsmen in 1917, when he pitched for the Boston Red Sox. He hit eleven and ten in each of the next two seasons. You’d be hard pressed to suggest that Mays hadn’t earned a head-hunting reputation on that record alone. Even in a time when baseball players weren’t exactly renowned for couth.
But Mays never again hit batters in double figures in any season, hitting as many as nine in a season only once, and that was the year after the Chapman tragedy, when he also led the Show with 27 wins. His final career total of hit batsmen was 89 in a fifteen-season major league career, and an average of seven per 162 games.
He isn’t even in the top 100 all-time drillers. (He’s tied at number 128.) Mays having committed the notorious hit batsman in Show history singles him out. (Two minor league players, Tom Burke and Johnny Dodge, died in 1906 and 1916, respectively, after being hit in the head by pitches. Those pitchers, Joe Yeager and Tom [Shotgun] Rogers, didn’t earn a fragment of Mays’s infamy.)
Mays wasn’t exactly an outlier among pitchers when he once said, “Any pitcher who permits a hitter to dig in on him is asking for trouble. I never deliberately tried to hit anyone in my life. I throw close just to keep the hitters loose up there.”
Chapman’s death shattered the Indians to a man—until it didn’t. Speaker swore the team would grind it out and win the pennant in his memory, the way they believed he wanted.
Abetted in no small part by the end collapse of the Chicago White Sox, when the Black Sox scandal graduated from rumour to explosive fact and eight White Sox were suspended by the team post haste, the Indians won the pennant and beat the Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the Robins) in the World Series.
Absent Chapman’s death, Mays might have been remembered best as a tough pitcher who was lost for explaining why his personality rubbed enough people in baseball the wrong way. “When I first broke into baseball, I discovered that there seemed to be a feeling against me, even from the players on my own team,” he once said. “I always have wondered why I have encountered this antipathy from so many people wherever I have been. And I have never been able to explain it, even to myself.”
He didn’t always seem to think that questioning his managers’ intelligence or his teammates’ play behind him on rough days might have had a hand in it.
If you believe in karma’s bitchcraft, you should know that life after baseball wasn’t always kind to Mays. Sowell exhumed that he lost his life’s savings ($175,000) in the 1929 stock market crash and his wife to complications from an infection in 1934. That left him to raise his two children alone, until he met and married the former schoolteacher who came to him at first as his housekeeper.
But Mays also became a longtime baseball scout and teacher who mellowed as the years went by and who made a particular point of teaching his charges to play the game as safely as possible within reason. One of his charges would become a major figure on his former team, the Red Sox: shortstop Johnny Pesky.
The Chapman tragedy caused two major rules changes. Change one: the Show outlawed the spitball officially, while allowing pitchers already throwing the pitch (including Mays and, more famously, Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes) to continue until their careers ended.
Change two: fresh, clean baseballs in play at all times. (Mays showed an umpire a scuff on the ball that hit Chapman as well as how wet the ball still might have been from light rain earlier that day, indicators that Chapman may not have picked up the flight of the ball until it was too late.)
Harry Lunte pinch-ran for Chapman played shortstop the rest of the game, which the Indians held on to win, 4-3. Then, a rookie named Joe Sewell, swearing to anyone who’d listen that he’d become the next Chapman, became the Indians’ regular shortstop—all the way to the Hall of Fame, after playing his final three seasons with the Yankees, of all people.
Mays had the credentials for the Hall of Fame when it was born in 1936, but he never made it. Not because of the Chapman tragedy, but—according to Sowell and numerous other researchers—because of suspicions never really proven that he’d tanked in the late innings of two 1921 World Series games didn’t dissipate easily. (Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis actually investigated, hiring detectives as part of it, and found the suspicions to be just that.)
It didn’t stop Mays from going to his grave believing in his heart of hearts that Ray Chapman was the number one reason he was kept out of Cooperstown. Mays was elected to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2009; that Hall notes among other things that not only did Mays stay close to his roots but often brought grosses of used major league baseballs home to give to local children.
Mays picked himself up, dusted himself off, started all over again, and finished his pitching career with a kind of stubborn courage that might have been lacking in another pitcher who might also have caused such a tragedy without malice aforethought.
Yet when he told San Diego sportswriting legend Jack Murphy the Chapman tragedy wasn’t “on my conscience, it wasn’t my fault,” the sense was that Mays said it not because he believed it in the depth of his heart of hearts but because, from the same depth, he still couldn’t bear that a sickening accident caused a death that marked him for life.
Chapman actually planned to retire after the 1920 season, having married before the season started, and having planned to enter his father-in-law’s business. He was buried in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery—four miles north of Calvary Cemetery, where his wife and daughter were buried eventually. A plaque in his memory now hangs on a wall in Progressive Field’s Heritage Park.
Mays finished raising his children before living an uncontroversial life to follow with his second wife, stubbornly continuing to hunt and fish despite age forcing him to walk with a cane due to arthritis and depriving him of some of his hearing.
Much as he loved his Missouri roots, Mays was buried next to his first wife in Portland, Oregon’s River View Cemetery. His headstone mentions not his baseball career but his military service in World War I. He once ran an Oregon baseball school whose students included a young Oregonian who became a Red Sox legend, shortstop/manager/coach Johnny Pesky.
Living well enough is usually the best revenge. But it’s also the next best thing to an absolution that’s only God’s to give when men and women can’t or won’t. That as well as the dozens of used Show baseballs and other kindnesses Mays gave children back home may help to brighten his memory. Even a little.
Ray Chapman didn’t deserve to die playing the game he loved. Carl Mays, who loved the game likewise, didn’t deserve to be stricken with the next worst thing to the mark of Cain for a terrible accident.