Coincidences happen, of course. But on occasion, some situations can foretell what’s to come. Baseball analysts and sabermetricians have been on the hunt for the Holy Grail metric; that figure which can predict what a player will, or at least very likely do, for years. Where Carl Mays was concerned, predictability was nearly impossible. Actually, it was scary.
The submariner had something of a tumultuous career, and a personality that wasn’t quite favorable among players and coaches in the majors. Moreover, he was a spitballer, and combined with his unique delivery and blazing fastball it made him a formidable, if not dangerous pitcher.
This stigma was strengthened in 1915 during a fiery encounter with Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers. Mays, pitching for the Red Sox, repeatedly threw at Cobb each at-bat during a game, prompting Cobb to throw his bat at Mays in the eighth inning. Once things calmed down, Mays responded by plunking Cobb on the wrist (1). For whatever malice he may or may not have pitched with, he appeared to have no fear or shame.
Still with the Red Sox in 1918, Mays and his team were enjoying a fantastic season, one that would end with a World Series Championship over the Chicago Cubs. Mays was the ace of the staff that season, going 21-13 with a 2.21 ERA, tossing 30 complete games and tacking on eight shutouts over 293 innings pitched. Earlier in the season on May 20, an incident occurred which, unbeknownst at the time, would portend an eerie and deadly second act. In the third inning of an 11-1 rout of the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park, Mays let loose a pitch that drilled the great Tris Speaker right on the head. The extreme nature of this beaning only firmed up the already deplorable M.O. that Mays garnered. Nobody could’ve seen what would happen two years later.
In keeping pace with the high-high’s and low-low’s of his career, later in the 1918 season on August 30, Mays became the only pitcher in Red Sox history to throw two complete game wins in the same day. Both wins were integral in keeping the Red Sox atop the pennant hunt.
The frightening beanball Mays laid on Speaker’s noggin was, in hindsight at least, notoriously prophetic. In 1920, Mays, then pitching for the Yankees, would be the instigator of tragedy. In one of the most infamous moments in baseball history, Mays hit Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman on the skull, killing him. Mays always vehemently denied throwing at Chapman intentionally, and even went so far as to attempt blame on Chapman for crowding the plate. Two years, two Indians players hit on the head, and one sparkling young player killed. This incident would haunt Mays for the rest of his life.
Chapman’s death ignited a series of rules changes that are still in use today. Beginning shortly after the tragedy, umpires began to insert new baseballs into the game when the one in play became scuffed or too dirty. The spitball and other doctored-up pitches were outlawed, and although it took over thirty years to be fully integrated, batting helmets began to be used.
Mays’s career continued with success, despite a permanently damaged reputation after the Chapman beaning. In 1921, Mays had the best season of his career when he led the league with 27 wins and 336 innings pitched. He helped lead the Yankees into the World Series against the New York Giants but his sterling season was marred amid accusations that he was offered a bribe from gamblers to throw Game 4 of the World Series. As the alleged story goes, Mays’ wife Marjorie signaled her husband that she had received the bribe money and the pitcher was now in the bag. Mays, who had been dominant up until then, started crossing up his pitch signals and became lackadaisical, allowing the Giants to clobber him and take a lead they would not relinquish (2.) The Giants went on to win that game and eventually the best-of-nine-series, five games to three. Though cleared of any wrongdoing, the rumors of conspiring with gamblers felt like salt in the wound of baseball, with the Black Sox scandal of 1919 being so fresh in everyone’s minds.
Mays would pitch until 1929, ending a 15-year career and all told, his numbers were excellent. He compiled a record of 206-127, with 29 shutouts and a 2.92 ERA. He won 20-plus games five times. Still, he has been left out of the Hall of Fame, despite having career statistics that would make him worthy of the accolade. His ugly reputation, combined with suspicion of throwing a World Series game and Chapman’s death are the likely scapegoats of Mays not being enshrined.
(2) “1921: The Yankess, The Giants, & the Battle For Baseball Supremacy In New York:, Lyle Sptatz and Steve Steinberg