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One fateful pitch still in Mays' Hall path

One fateful pitch still in Mays' Hall path

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Carl Mays, who is on the Veterans Committee ballot this year, went to his grave believing one pitch cost him from being enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

It may be the most infamous pitch in Major League history. Mays threw the pitch in the fifth inning on Aug. 16, 1920, while with the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. He was pitching against the Cleveland Indians and the batter was shortstop Ray Chapman.

It was a high fastball and Chapman was known to crowd the plate. Mays, a submarine-style pitcher who released his pitches just off the ground, had a reputation for throwing inside but insisted afterward that Chapman leaned into the pitch. One theory suggested that the spikes on Chapman's front left shoe got caught in the dirt and kept him from getting out of the way.

For whatever reason, he did not. Instead the pitch hit him on the left side of the head. In those days, they did not wear batting helmets and wouldn't for several more decades.

The ball made a loud sickening sound as it hit Chapman and bounded back to Mays. The pitcher thought the ball had hit the bat and threw over to first base for the out.

Chapman crumpled to the ground. He eventually tried to get up and walk toward the clubhouse in deep center field but collapsed around second base. The ball hit him so hard that it not only lacerated the left side of his face at the point of impact but on the opposite side as well where the brain pushed against the skin. Blood came out of the right ear.

He was taken to the clubhouse, where he mumbled, "I'm all right, tell Mays not to worry." He eventually lapsed into a coma and was taken to a hospital, where he eventually died.

He is the only player to ever die from an injury on a Major League Baseball field and that continues to weigh heavily when one reviews Mays' Hall of Fame credentials.

Mays said afterward that a rough spot on the baseball made it take an unexpected twist. But two American League umpires -- Billy Evans and William Dineen -- issued a statement that pointed a finger at Mays.

"No pitcher in the American League resorted to a trickery more than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball, in order to get a break on it which would make it difficult to hit," the umpires said.

There were predictions that Mays would never pitch again. There was one report that suggested he had a nervous breakdown. But he never showed much remorse about the pitch that killed Ray Chapman and his career continued unabated.

"It's not on my conscience," Mays said 50 years later, just before his death in 1971. "It wasn't my fault."

In his book, "Every Pitcher Tells a Story," author Seth Swirsky uncovered a letter that Mays had written to a friend in which he talks about hitting Chapman.

Wrote Mays, who misspelled Chapman's name, "I've had to live with this thing, with hitting Chatman. The papers said I was guilty and the general public believes everything they see in the paper.

"Chatman was hit because when he shifted his back foot, we all knew he was going to push the ball down the first-base line. If he did, no one could throw him out, he was so fast. So we would bring the ball up, try to make him pop it up. So he ran into a high pitch, over the plate. Please make a mental picture of this for me."

In the letter, Mays twice underlines the phrase "over the plate" to emphasis that he thought the pitch was a strike. Yankees pitcher Bob Shawkey, in the book, "Man in the Dugout," talked about Mays and the aftermath of the incident.

Said Shawkey: "Down south in the spring of next year, none of the regular players would mix with him. He corralled some of the younger players and told them, 'If you got to knock somebody down to win a ballgame, do it. It's your bread and butter.' He says this after killing a man!"

Mays died the same year that Rube Marquard, a pitcher for the New York Giants during the same era, was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Mays, just before he passed away, reacted by saying, "I think I belong. I know I earned it. They took in Marquard in this year and that's fine with me. But I deserve it too. I won seven more games than him. What's wrong with me?"

Mays just wasn't well-liked, even before throwing the fatal pitch that hit Chapman. He was already known for throwing at hitters, leading the league in hit batters in 1917 and finishing second the next two years.

An altercation with Ty Cobb almost caused a riot at Fenway Park in 1915 when Mays twice threw at the Tigers' Hall of Fame outfielder's head. After the second pitch, Cobb threw his bat at Mays and the two had to be separated by policemen. When order was restored, Mays threw at Cobb again, this time hitting him on the wrist. Again the police had to intervene to restore order.

In 1919, an arrest warrant was issued for Mays in Philadelphia when he stepped out of the dugout during a game and fired a baseball into the stands, striking a fan. Mays left town before the arrest could be made but was later fined $100, and for a time, he had to avoid going to Philadelphia.

He pitched for the Red Sox from 1915-19. But in the middle of the 1919 season, Mays started complaining about his lack of support for his teammates and demanded to be traded. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold him to the Yankees for $40,000 and two players, a transaction that AL president Ban Johnson tried to stop.

Johnson wanted Mays suspended, but the Yankees went to court and obtained a temporary injunction, which was later made permanent by the New York Supreme Court.

2007 Hall of Fame Inductions
  2007 Candidates  
The 2007 Veterans Committee ballot features 27 candidates on the player ballot, 15 on the composite ballot.
Players ballot
Dick Allen
Bobby Bonds
Ken Boyer
Rocky Colavito
Wes Ferrell
Curt Flood
Joe Gordon
Gil Hodges
Jim Kaat
Mickey Lolich
Sparky Lyle
Marty Marion
Roger Maris
Carl Mays
Minnie Minoso
Thurman Munson
Don Newcombe
Lefty O'Doul
Tony Oliva
Al Oliver
Vada Pinson
Ron Santo
Luis Tiant
Joe Torre
Cecil Travis
Mickey Vernon
Maury Wills
 
Composite ballot
Buzzie Bavasi
August Busch Jr.
Harry Dalton
Charlie Finley
Doug Harvey
Whitey Herzog
Bowie Kuhn
Billy Martin
Marvin Miller
Walter O'Malley
Gabe Paul
Paul Richards
Bill White
Dick Williams
Phil Wrigley

Mays' own attitude is revealing. The son of a poor Missouri Baptist preacher from the Ozark Mountains, he once said about another pitcher, "That fellow has no friends and doesn't want any. That's why he's a great pitcher."

He might as well have been talking about himself and there is no doubt that Mays has Hall of Fame credentials.

He joined the Red Sox in 1915 and was 6-5 with a 2.60 ERA in 38 games, including 32 in relief. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies although Mays did not pitch.

The following season, he was 18-13 with a 2.39 ERA while making 24 starts and 20 relief appearances. The Red Sox won the pennant again and this time beat Brooklyn in five games. Mays pitched twice with a save and a loss.

"Carl Mays wasn't very popular but when nobody else could win, he could," Red Sox outfielder Duffy Lewis once said. "He was a great stopper."

Mays went 22-9 with a 1.74 ERA in 1917 but the Red Sox finished second to the Chicago White Sox. They returned to the top in 1918, as Mays went 21-13 with a 2.28 ERA. On one memorable afternoon, he pitched two complete games in a doubleheader sweep.

He also pitched two complete-game victories in the World Series as the Red Sox took the Chicago Cubs in six games. It would be 86 years before the Red Sox won another World Series. Selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees is what's remembered most, but giving them Mays as well didn't help.

His best years were with the Yankees after the controversial trade. He was 26-11 with a 3.06 ERA in 1920, the year he hit Chapman with the fatal pitch. He followed that up by going 29-9 with a 3.05 ERA in 1921, and the Yankees won the pennant for the first time ever. Mays was 1-2 with a 1.73 ERA and three complete games in the World Series against the New York Giants.

He beat the Giants in Game 1 with a five-hit shutout and reportedly did not go to two balls in the count on any batter. He threw all fastballs in the game and Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Plank called it the greatest exhibition of control he had ever seen.

Said Yankees shortstop Everett Scott, "Whatever criticism you may make about Mays, he has more guts than any pitcher I ever saw."

Mays was 12-14 with a 3.60 ERA in 1922 and lost again to the Giants in the World Series. A sore arm limited him to 23 games, including seven starts, in 1923, and he was 5-2 with a 6.20 ERA.

He was 32 when the Yankees sold him to the Cincinnati Reds in the offseason, but he was far from finished. Showing there was still something left, Mays went 20-9 with a 3.15 ERA in 1924, the fifth 20-win season of his career.

He also won 19 games for the Reds in 1926, but that was his last big season and he was done after pitching 38 games for the New York Giants in 1929.

His lifetime record was 207-126 with a 2.92 ERA and Bill James, in his "Historical Baseball Abstract," ranks him as the 38th-greatest pitcher of all-time. But it has not been good enough to get him in the Hall of Fame.

Mays has certainly still left quite a legacy. Johnson's dispute with the Yankees ultimately led to the AL president's downfall and a restructuring of how the game was governed.

Chapman's death also led to two changes. Mays was a known spitball pitcher and that pitch was finally outlawed after the 1920 season. Also new baseballs were put into play with far more frequency than before.

Prior to the beaning, a baseball was used until it was lost and some became quite scuffed and discolored. Often baseballs were deliberately rubbed with brown dirt to make them more difficult for the batter to see and some speculated that Chapman got hit because he couldn't see the baseball that Mays had thrown.

Whatever the reason, one pitch has more than likely kept Mays out of the Hall of Fame to this point.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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