A Death at Home Plate

Carl Mays, pitcher for the 1920 New York Yankees
Carl Mays, pitcher for the 1920 New York Yankees Wikimedia Commons

The Chicago Bulls and their fans watched in horror as their star guard, Derek Rose collapsed on the floor toward the end of a recent playoff game against the Philadelphia  76ers. Just days later, the New York Yankees and their fans watched Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, fall to the ground while shagging fly balls before the start of a game in Kansas City. Both athletes suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments in their knees, putting their futures and their teams’ prospects in doubt. Sportswriters called the injuries “tragic.”

Of course, both injuries were shocking, but “tragic” might be better reserved for matters of life and death and athletic contests gone awry—such as a confrontation that took place more than 90 years ago in New York, in the heat of a pennant race, when a scrappy Cleveland Indians shortstop stepped into the batter’s box against a no-nonsense Yankees pitcher.

The Indians were in first place, a half-game ahead of the Yankees on August 16, 1920, when they arrived at the Polo Grounds, the home the Yankees shared with the New York Giants until Yankee Stadium was built three years later. It was the start of a three-game series on a dark and drizzly Monday afternoon in Harlem. On the mound for the Yankees was right-hander Carl Mays, the ace of the staff, hoping to notch his 100th career win. Mays, a spitballer (legal at the time), threw with an awkward submarine motion, bending his torso to the right and releasing the ball close to the ground—he sometimes scraped his knuckles in the dirt. Right-handed submariners tend to give right-handed batters the most trouble because their pitches will curve in toward the batter, jamming him at the last moment. Mays, one baseball magazine noted, looked “like a cross between an octopus and a bowler” on the mound. “He shoots the ball in at the batter at such unexpected angles that his delivery is hard to find, generally until along about 5 o’clock, when the hitters get accustomed to it—and when the game is about over.”

Mays had good control for a submariner, but he also was known as a “headhunter” who was not shy about brushing batters, especially right-handers, off the plate; he was consistently among the American League leaders in hit batsmen. His feud with Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb was particularly intense: In one game, he threw at the cantankerous “Georgia Peach” every time he came to bat, prompting Cobb to throw his bat at Mays, Mays to call Cobb a “yellow dog,” the umpires to separate the two as they tried to trade blows, and Mays to hit Cobb on the wrist with his next pitch. In another game, Cobb laid a bunt down the first-base line so he could spike Mays when the pitcher covered the base.

Ray Chapman of the 1920 Cleveland Indians
Ray Chapman of the 1920 Cleveland Indians Wikipedia

Mays went unloved even by his teammates, since he had a habit of berating them if they made errors while he was pitching. And he once buried a fastball in the stomach of a heckling fan.

So when Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman stepped to the plate in the top of the fifth inning before more than 20,000 New York fans, Mays could not have been in the best of moods. The Yankees were trailing, 3-0, after he gave up a homer and his fielders committed errors worth two more runs.

Chapman was popular among both fans and players—even Ty Cobb considered him a friend. Married before the start of the season to Kathleen Daly, the daughter of a prominent businessman in Cleveland, the 29-year-old shortstop had hinted to teammates that if the Indians made the World Series, he might retire from baseball to start a family (his wife was already pregnant) and work in his father-in-law’s business.

He was a solid hitter, but had never had much luck at bat against Mays. Chapman took his usual stance, crouching and crowding the plate. A fog had settled over the field, making the afternoon even darker. Mays wound up and let loose with one of his high and tight pitches, and Chapman didn’t move an inch. In a split second, a loud crack echoed around the Polo Grounds.  The ball trickled toward the mound, and Mays quickly fielded it, tossing it to first for what he thought was the first out of the inning. But Chapman had sunk to a knee in the batter’s box, his eyes closed and his mouth open.

Yankee catcher Muddy Ruel quickly seized Chapman before he collapsed, helping him down softly onto the grass. Home-plate umpire Tommy Connolly, sensing trouble, called to the stands for a doctor. Chapman lost consciousness; players and a doctor tried to revive him. After a few minutes, they got the shortstop to his feet, and Chapman took several steps toward the clubhouse before his legs buckled beneath him. He was carried off the field.

Mays, who never left the mound while Chapman was being attended to, asked for a new ball to face the next batter. The ball that struck Chapman was tossed out of play. The game continued, and despite a Yankee rally in the bottom of the ninth, the Indians won.

Chapman was taken to St. Lawrence Hospital, where doctors took X-rays and recognized that he was in critical condition. Before the game he had given a diamond ring, a present from his wife, to Indian trainer Percy Smallwood for safekeeping. Now, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, he told Smallwood he wanted it back—unable to speak, he pointed to his finger.

The blow to Chapman’s head had caused a depressed fracture more than three inches long on the left side of his skull. The doctors determined that he needed immediate surgery. In an operation that began just after midnight and lasted more than an hour, they removed a piece of Chapman’s skull, observing that he had been “so severely jarred” that his brain was lacerated on both sides from hitting the bone.

On the news that his pulse had improved and that he was breathing more easily, Indians who had gathered at the hospital headed back to their hotel. Their player-manager, Tris Speaker, notified Kathleen Chapman of her husband’s injury and she quickly boarded a train for New York. But when Speaker and his teammates woke up the next morning, they got word that Ray Chapman had died just before sunrise.

A Philadelphia priest who had been a friend of Chapman’s arrived in New York to meet Kathleen Chapman as she stepped off the train and take her to a hotel. The widow fainted at the news.

Carl Mays, according to friends, “broke down completely” when he heard of Chapman’s fate and determined to “give himself up to the district attorney at once.” He gave a tearful statement to the district attorney, saying he had thrown a fastball—a “sailer” that came “a little too close.” He added, “It was the most regrettable incident of my career and I would give anything to undo what has happened.”

Chapman’s death was quickly ruled accidental, and Mays was not charged. But players in Detroit and Boston drew up a petition demanding that he be barred from baseball, and they discussed refusing to play in any game in which Mays took part. Two umpires released a statement saying, “No pitcher in the American League resorted to trickery more than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball in order to get a break on it which would make it more difficult to hit.”

Owners had complained that “hundreds” of balls were being thrown out of play every year because of this act, and umpires were urged to keep balls in play as much as possible. The darkened baseballs were more difficult to see. It was widely reported that Chapman never even saw the ball that hit him.

Umpires were soon urged to take any balls out of play that were not bright white. Stricter “bean ball” rules were called for, and the next season, new pitchers would be banned throwing spitballs. (Despite calls for protective headgear, batting helmets would not become common until the 1940s.)

“It is my honest belief that Mr. Mays never will pitch again” because of the bitterness against him, said Ban Johnson, the American League president. Johnson was wrong about that; Mays kept at it until 1929. His record of 207-126 (including 27 wins  in 1921, his best season) was comparable to those of pitchers in the Hall of Fame, but he was never elected. “Nobody ever remembers anything about me except one thing,” Mays later wrote. “That a pitch I threw caused a man to die.”

The Cleveland Indians went on to win the 1920 World Series, beating the Brooklyn Robins. Chapman, of course, never got to choose whether to retire.


Articles: “Carl Mays,” by Allan Wood, SABR Baseball Biography Project, Society for American Baseball Research, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/99ca7c89. “Ray Chapman Seriously Hurt in N.Y.,” Atlanta Constitution, August 17, 1920. “McNutt Tells of Big Game,” Atlanta Constitution, August 17, 1920. “Player Hit in Head May Die,” Boston Daily Globe, August 18, 1920. “Chapman Suffers Skull Fracture,” New York Times, August 18, 1920. “Chapman Dead; Nation’s Fans Pay Him Tribute,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1920. “Ray Chapman Dies; Mays Exonerated,” New York Times, August 19, 1920. “Sox Blame Chapman Death on Failure to Penalize Bean Ball,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1920.  “New York Solemn Renewing Series,” Boston Daily Globe, August 19, 1920. “Players May Bar C. Mays,” Atlanta Constitution, August 19, 1920. “Discuss Plan to Bar Mays,” New York Times, August 19, 1920. “Headgear for Players,” New York Times,  August 19, 1920.  “Speaker Breaks Down in Grief,” Boston Daily Globe, August 21, 1920.  “Mays May Not Pitch Again, Says Johnson,” New York Times, August 21, 1920.  “Overshadowed: The 1920 Cleveland Indians,” by Will Carroll,  http://www.netshrine.com/willcarroll.html.

Books: Mike Sowell, The Pitch that Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920, Ivan R. Dee, 2003.

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