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  • Mike Whiteman

Carl Mays: The Complicated Yankee

By Mike Whiteman January 14, 2024 Quick trivia question: How many pitchers in Yankees franchise history have won fifty games over two consecutive seasons? Answer: There are two. One answer is pretty easy. Jack Chesbro won 62 games in 1903-1904, primarily on the strength of his epic 41-win season in 1904. The other? Carl Mays. When most of us hear the name Carl Mays, we immediately think of the pitcher who fatally beaned Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920, the only such event in the history of the game. That day, to his frustration and regret, overshadowed what was an accomplished career, perhaps even Hall-of Fame worthy.



Mays was a right-handed pitcher who pitched in an “underhanded” style. He released the baseball at knee level – or even lower - and it had plenty of movement and zip as it approached the batter. The combination of the delivery angle and action of the ball made Mays just miserable to hit against. Prior to joining the Yankees, he had established himself as a frontline pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, with 72 wins and a 2.21 ERA over four-plus seasons. He had two complete game wins for the Sox in the 1918 World Series. He had also established a reputation as one who didn’t hesitate to throw high and inside to keep a batter off balance in the box. He wasn’t very popular with teammates either, and was an intense figure on the mound, driven so much to win that he had no problems berating a teammate who would make an error in the field. In 1919 Mays became frustrated with the lack of run support provided by the Boston offense and basically forced a trade in July after a 5-11, 2.47 start. The Yankees, in the midst of their best season in years, dealt pitchers Allen Russell and Bob McGraw, along with $40,000 cash, for Mays. Russell was basically an average pitcher over four years with the Red Sox, and McGraw actually came right back to the Yanks as a waiver claim after the 1919 season. Mays went on to be a Yankee ace. This deal became one of the first of many between New York and Boston, with most transactions including cash from Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert to help the cash-strapped Sox. After finishing strong for the Yanks in 1919 – 9-3, 1.65 – Mays came out of the gate slowly in 1920. He was struggling with a mediocre 7-7, 3.97 record in late June, but then won ten games in a row. He finished with a 26-11, 3.09 record as the Yankees hung in the American League race until deep in September. Central to the story of the 1920 season was when a Mays pitch hit Chapman in the head on August 16th. The baseball impacted with such force that it sounded like a loud crack - not unlike that of a ball off a bat - and Mays actually fielded it as it bounced into play. Chapman was helped off the field and taken to the hospital, where just after midnight he underwent surgery to relieve pressure to his brain. He died about three hours after coming out of the operation. Mays was deeply shaken by Chapman’s death, saying “it was the most regrettable incident of my career, and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened”. Sadness about the popular Chapman's passing soon turned to anger throughout the American League towards the already unpopular pitcher. Multiple teams considered refusing to take the field against Mays, and many called for his banishment from the game. He pressed on however, saying “If I were not absolutely true in my own heart that it was an accident pure and simple I do not think I could stand for it.” He passed blame to the umpires for allowing a rough and disfigured ball to be in play, that a baseball such as that couldn’t be controlled, enraging umpires throughout the AL. Mays took the mound next in New York on August 23 and shut out the Detroit Tigers. Incredibly, he pitched his best baseball of the season after the beaning, going 8-2, 2.07 with four shutouts. In 1921, Mays added another win to his 1920 total to pace the Yankee staff, as his 27 wins led the American League. He was also a reliable relief pitcher between starts, with a 2.40 ERA from the pen and a league-leading seven saves (awarded retroactively). Mays was second only to Babe Ruth in team WAR, and the Yankees took home their first American League pennant.  The Yanks lost to the New York Giants in the first World Series including both New York teams, but Mays and his 1.73 ERA certainly couldn’t be blamed for the loss, though there were rumblings he could have been in on a “fix” by easing up in the later innings of his two losses. Commissioner Judge Landis initiated an investigation of Mays’ conduct, but nothing was found connecting him to the allegation. For the 1920-1921 seasons, Mays had a 53-20 record with a 3.05 ERA. His ERA+ was a solid 133. Both seasons he was a true ace, throwing over 300 innings each year. He wasn’t only an asset on the mound, he could also handle a bat, hitting .298 combined over 1920 and 1921. He slashed a robust .343/.365/.434 in 1921. Mays struggled to a 13-14, 3.61 ERA record in 1922, and sunk to 5-2, 6.20 ERA in limited work in 1923 as manager Miller Huggins chose to keep his onetime ace on the bench much of the year, likely out of personal dislike. Mays was then dealt to Cincinnati where he won 20 games in 1924, and 19 in 1926. His playing career ended when he came back to New York – the Giants – in 1929 where he pitched primarily from the bullpen.


After his career ended, Mays sought to stay connected to the game. He served as a scout for many teams – including Cleveland. He enjoyed coaching young players as well. Baseball also disappointed Mays, as he often spoke of not being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, saying “I think I belong. I know I earned it.” He may have had a point. Mays finished his career with a 207- 126, 2.92 record, certainly worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. His statistics compare favorably to many Cooperstown inductees, including Stan Coveleski, Rube Marquard, Jesse Haines, and Lefty Gomez. He was on the BBWAA ballot in 1958, when he received 2.3% of the vote and was subsequently dropped from future voting. Mays was considered by the Veteran’s Committee in 2008 but fell well shy of the votes needed for enshrinement. After he passed away in 1971, Mays was remembered fondly by friends and family, and was later honored with induction to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. While not always the most popular player of his time, Carl Mays was one of the most skilled pitchers of his day. His complicated legacy in baseball history is one of a fiercely intense, competitive player who cared for the game, but struggled to escape the stain of a pitch that got away one afternoon in 1920. ***** One of my sources for this article was Mike Sowell’s great book “The Pitch that Killed”. I recommend it to any baseball fan.

8 Comments


fuster
Jan 14

blaming it on the bad ball


makes me think of my student days and reading Pollock & Maitland and learning of the term deodand

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fuster
Jan 15
Replying to

"sure, i threw the ball at him.

who could foresee that he would allow it to bust his head?

clear case of suicide-by-pitcher."


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Gomer Pyle
Gomer Pyle
Jan 14

Great read. Thank you for citing one of your sources. I just ordered the Sowell book.

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Mike Whiteman
Jan 15
Replying to

Thanks! You'll enjoy the book.

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Paul Semendinger
Paul Semendinger
Jan 14

OUTSTANDING!


I love when I read articles that enlighten and teach me - and this did!


Well done Mike!

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Mike Whiteman
Jan 15
Replying to

Thanks! That's high praise coming from someone whose writing does a lot of enlightening and teaching.

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