The Mays Malaise

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.

Sources

(1) http://www.thedeadballera.com/prelude.html

(2) “1921: The Yankess, The Giants, & the Battle For Baseball Supremacy In New York:, Lyle Sptatz and Steve Steinberg

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS191805200.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/1918.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1921_WS.shtml

http://nationalpastime.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Mays

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Ruth’s Mysterious Gambit: The Final Out of the 1926 World Series

The 1927 Yankees are forever cemented in baseball lore and ingrained in the minds of devotee’s as being the best of all time. But often overlooked is the fact they were pretty good the previous year, too. That team however, had a controversial end to it’s season when the St. Louis Cardinals bested the Bronx Bombers in the 1926 World Series. The dramatic final out has been a head scratcher for 90 years.

On October 10, 1926 at Yankee Stadium, the Cardinals were hanging on to a precious 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven. The lead was stunningly preserved two innings earlier when veteran drunkard Grover Cleveland “Old Pete” Alexander, one day removed from a dazzling complete game victory in Game Six, came on in relief to strike out future hall of famer Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded. A truly pivotal moment.

Alexander remained in the game, chugging along to the ninth with the top of the Yanks’ powerful order coming up and 38,000-plus at Yankee Stadium hoping for some heroics. Old Pete forced both Earle Combs and Mark Koenig into groundouts, bringing up Babe Ruth with two outs and nobody on. On a 3-2 pitch, Ruth walked, which sent slugger Bob Muesel to the plate with the great Lou Gehrig on deck and Lazzeri in the hole, the perfect combination to tie or win the game. Suddenly, Ruth broke for second in an attempted two-out delayed steal, where upon a laser-perfect throw from catcher Bob O’Farrell (NL MVP in 1926) to Rogers Hornsby, ‘ol Jidge was tagged out, ending the game and series. The questions that this attempted steal raise, aside from the why, are many:

Was Ruth just being aggressive? He did steal on O’Farrell the day before after all, but why this particular two-out gamble with the heart of your order up? Was it a hit-and-run? Some accounts say it was, though neither Ruth, Muesel, or manager Miller Huggins ever fully confirmed this. Did Ruth not have confidence in Muesel to knock one in the gap or out of the park? This is possible, since Bob was known to have dips in confidence. On top of that his two costly misplays in the fourth inning, including a dropped routine fly, directly led to all three Cardinals runs in the game. These things, combined with his struggles at the plate no doubt put great strain on him in that situation. Knowing this, perhaps Ruth wanted to put the pressure on himself? If so, it was a very selfless, yet risky, ploy. Or was it something else?

Rogers Hornsby tags out Babe Ruth at second base for the final out of the 1926 World Series
No accusations are being made here, but one more thing needs to be considered in order to properly frame this situation. Rumors were rampant in those days, so it should be no surprise that it has been suggested that Muesel (and perhaps even Ruth?) had been approached by, or accepted payoffs from gamblers prior to the series. If he was in on the take, this could lend some credence to his uncharacteristic, and timely, defensive gaffes in the game. In addition, famous betting ringleader Sport Sullivan, a key player in the fixing of the 1919 World Series was in attendance that day. His presence roused further suspicions, and he was later removed by AL President Ban Johnson.

Gambling was, of course, all the talk of baseball in those days. Just five years removed from the infamous eight members of the White Sox being banned from the game, and amid a flurry of fresh accusations that superstars Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood had fixed games back in September 1919, it’s not unrealistic to imagine players were approached about not playing this particular game on the level. The evidence against Cobb and Speaker became so damning in fact, that just weeks after the ’26 series ended, they both retired at the urging of Johnson before the story really broke and destroyed two hall of fame careers. The Cobb/Speaker ultimatum was the design of both Johnson and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. As baseball itself was “on trial” for most of the 1920’s, it would’ve been crushing, perhaps even lethal for the game if two of it’s megastars were found to be fixing and betting on games. Landis knew this, and promptly backed off. Historian Glenn Stout compared Landis’ actions in this case to a seamstress pulling a single thread, only to discover she’s unraveling the whole garment. Both Cobb and Speaker would ultimately return the following year with the Athletics and Senators, respectively, in player-coach roles. They would be united in 1928 with the A’s before retiring permanently, but their presence for that one season helped shape a powerhouse team, as Connie Mack’s A’s would win the World Series in 1929 and 1930. 

Their situation, although having no direct involvement with the ’26 Series, is nonetheless important to consider because it was part of the baseball landscape of the time. If two of the game’s most heralded stars could be involved with betting activity, not to mention what happened with the Black Sox, then so could anyone, including Bob Muesel or even the great Babe Ruth.

Conclusions? There really are none that are concrete. Like so many great or tragic situations in baseball history, the further we delve into them the more questions arise. Was Ruth just trying to put the game on his shoulders?  Did Huggins employ a gutsy hit-and-run that failed? Was it just an unbeatable throw by O’Farrell? Were there outside factors that got to Muesel and possibly Ruth that affected the outcome of the game? We’ll sadly never fully know…

 

Sources: Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, Timothy Gay, 2007

By The Numbers: Judging Babe Ruth’s Attempted Steal In The 1926 World Series

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192610100.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1928.shtml

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/68/Ruth1926-3.jpg

Booze, Lightning and Death. The ’19-’20 Indians Redefine ‘Taking One For the Team’

Simply put, the Cleveland Indians of 1919-1920 had one of the most bizarre and both fortunate – and unfortunate – runs to a World Series championship in baseball history.

Led by the great player-manager Tris Speaker, the Indians benefited immediately from the Red Sox dismantling after the 1919 season, and later from the public unrest and inner turmoil from the 1919 World Series that plagued the White Sox down the stretch in the 1920 pennant race, before eight of their star players were suspended that September. After finishing a strong second in 1919, the Indians picked up in 1920 right where they left off. They captured the AL pennant, and then proceeded to beat the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers), to win their first World Series in franchise history.

Along the way, however, were two incredible incidents in August 1919 and August 1920 that were never seen before, or have been since. The first of which was where the Indians caught lightning, literally, with the signing of a pitcher.

In a late-season deal in 1919, the Indians acquired pitcher Ray “Slim” Caldwell from the Yankees. A solid pitcher, but unfortunately known more as an underachiever caused by his drinking, carousing and penchant for buggery than his accomplishments on the hill. Caldwell was always regarded as a player with extraordinary talent, but who loved the bottle more than the game. Speaker, though, felt he could get through to the 31-year old veteran and help the Indians win the pennant. To do so, Speaker had to put a special (and rather ridiculous), clause in Caldwell’s contract. It read:

“After each game he pitches, Ray Caldwell must get drunk. He is not to report to the clubhouse the next day. The second day he is to report to Manager Speaker and run around the ball park as many times as Manager Speaker stipulates. The third day he is to pitch batting practice, and the fourth day he is to pitch in a championship game.”

After confirming that there were no errors in this absurd clause, Caldwell shrugged and signed. What happened next was both figuratively and literally a sign from above.

On August 24, Caldwell made his first start with the Indians, against the Philadelphia Athletics at League Park in Cleveland. Leading 2-1 with two outs in the top of the ninth, a thunderstorm suddenly rolled in, throwing bolts of lightning all around the ballpark. One such bolt struck Caldwell square in the head, knocking him to the ground, unconscious. One account has the bolt striking the metal button on the top of his cap, then exiting through the metal cleats in his shoes. After several minutes, Caldwell got back up and demanded he finish the game, which he did. Amazing. So amazing was it in fact, that years later he later appeared on the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not radio show.

Speaker’s odd plan worked, as Caldwell won five of his six starts with the Indians, with a cool 1.71 ERA in that span. He would continue his strong, and focused, performance in 1920, going 20-10 and helping the Indians get their rings. Speaker’s plan, and a little electricity through the brain, apparently knocked something right for Caldwell.

One year later, almost to the day from Caldwell’s bout with the bolt, tragedy struck.

On August 16, 1920 in a key game against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds in New York, Cleveland’s star shortstop Ray Chapman came to bat in the fifth inning. Submarine-style Yankee pitcher Carl Mays uncorked a fastball that hit Chapman in the left temple, knocking him flat to the ground. He died 12 hours later in a New York hospital, becoming the first and only player to have died from an injury sustained in an MLB game.

Despite the terrifying ordeal, Speaker was able to rally his team down the stretch and slip past the collapsing White Sox by two games to take the pennant, and then the World Series 5-2 over Brooklyn.

It’s a strange, eerie, and sad game. For the two seasons of 1919 and 1920, the Indians experienced as much, or more, of all of that than anyone in baseball. Credit must be given to the great Tris Speaker here too. Regardless of certain gambling accusations that would later tarnish his Hall of Fame career, Speaker did an incredible job not just playing (he only hit .388 in 1920), but managing his club in the wake of strangeness and tragedy, and utilizing a then-new platoon system for most of the season which was key in keeping his players fresh. ‘Ol Spoke and the boys got it done.

Sources: Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, Timothy M. Gay, The Lyons Press, 2007.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CLE/1920.shtml

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/8311d756

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/caldwra02.shtml