Musings: Carl Mays And Ray Chapman, Ninety-Nine Years Ago

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author


Ninety-nine years ago, on August 16, 1920, the Cleveland Indians, leading the New York

Yankees by a mere half game in a tight American League penant race, squared off at the

Polo Grounds (Yankee Stadium was still a couple of years away from being built) against

their rivals in what everyone knew would be a big game. What no one knew is that it was

destined to be perhaps the most infamous game in baseball history.

In the top of the fifth inning, with Cleveland leading by score of 3-0, Ray Chapman of

the Indians led off against Carl Mays, the ace of the Yankees’ staff. Chapman, a right

handed hitter, crowded the plate in his crouched batting stance, with his head hanging out

almost over it. The pitcher, as was his habit, was determined to protect the inside corner.

With the count at 1 and 1, Mays, a right-handed submariner, let fly with a fastball, up and

in. Chapman never moved. The ball hit him square in the skull and dribbled out in front

of the plate. Mays, thinking Chapman somehow got his bat on the ball, fielded it and

threw to Wally Pipp, covering first. Pipp started to throw it around the infield, but froze

when he saw Chapman slowly sagging to the ground with catcher Muddy Ruel trying to

ease his fall.

Chappie, as everyone called him, was bleeding from the left ear. Homeplate umpire

Tommy Connolly, recognizing the potential seriousness of the situation, raced over to the

grandstand, calling for a doctor. Two physicians answered his plea and came onto the

field to treat the injured player, who had by then lost consciousness. While all that was

going on, Mays never once left the mound to check on Chappie’s condition.

After a while Chapman came to, got to his feet, and wobbled toward the clubhouse,

which in the Polo Grounds was located beyond centerfield, more than 500 feet away. As

he passed second base he collapsed and had to be carried by two teammates the rest of

the way. He was taken immediately to St. Lawrence Hospital, just a few blocks away.

Doctors there discovered that Chapman’s skull had been fractured and his brain injured

by the impact of the pitch. They decided to operate, beginning at about midnight. His

condition then seemed to stabilize and the Cleveland players who were at the hospital

keeping vigil, including his best friend, player/manager Tris Speaker, returned to their

hotel to get some sleep. During the night, though, his conditioned worsened, and at about

six A.M. he passed away, the only big league player in history to have died from an

injury suffered during a game.

Chapman’s wife, Kathleen, pregnant with their first child, had been called earlier by

Speaker to apprise her of the situation. She had taken the overnight train from Cleveland

but was still en route when he died.

Chapman had been a fixture with the Indians for nine years; he had an outgoing, sunny

personality that made him popular with both his teammates and opposing players. Mays,

on the other hand, had no close friends and was generally disliked. Added to that was his

reputation as a head hunter – he was always among the league leaders in hit batsmen. He

had a habit of berating his teammates in public when he thought they’d messed up a play.

That all came to a head when, playing for the Red Sox on July 13, 1919 (there’s always a

Red Sox connection, isn’t there?), his teammates made a couple of errors behind him and

then his catcher hit him in the head while trying to throw out a runner at second. Mays

stormed off the field, changed out of his uniform, and jumped the team, saying he’d never

play again unless the Red Sox traded him. A few weeks later the Red Sox did trade him,

to the Yankees.

Grief over Chapman’s death soon turned to furor at Mays. Several teams signed petitions

calling for him to be banned from baseball for life. One of those teams was the Boston

Red Sox. Even his old teammates, those who knew him best, wanted him thrown out of

the game.

However, whether wittingly or not, Mays had done a very smart thing; upon hearing of

Chapman’s death he went directly to the district attorney’s office and gave a statement

explaining his side of the story, saying there had been no bad blood between him and

Chapman and there was no reason for him to deliberately put a man on base in a close

game. He was backed up by Speaker, who also said it was his conviction it had been an

accident. He was soon exonerated of any wrongdoing.

There being no repercussions, Mays went on to pitch in the major leagues through the

1929 season.

That was not the end of controversy for him, though. The Yankees went on to win the

American League pennant in both 1921 and ’22, but Mays did not pitch well in either

World Series and stories began to circulate that he had conspired to throw them. This was

shortly after the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when everyone’s antennae about such

scullduggery was up. The Yankees themselves were apparently suspicious because they

tried without success to trade him in 1923. Failing to do so, they relegated him to baseball

purgatory, using him in only 23 games, just 7 as a starter, in ’23. They did find a buyer,

the Cincinnatti Reds, in 1924. He rewarded the Reds with a 20-9 record that year.

Personality and controversies aside, Mays was an excellent pitcher. He had a lifetime

record of 207 and 126 with a ERA of just 2.92. Those are borderline Hall of Fame

numbers, but the Chapman beaning of 1920 and the World Series suspicions of ’21 and

’22, coupled with the fact that nobody liked him, doomed his chances for enshrinement.

On August 30, 1918 Mays performed an amazing feat; he started and went he distance for

the Red Sox in both games of a doubeheader sweep against the Philadelphia Athletics ,

winning by scores on 12-0 and 4-1. Something else of importance happened that day –

Ted Williams was born. I told you there is always a Red Sox connection.