One of the most tragic events to ever take place on a baseball diamond was the 1920 death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, who was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch in a game against the New York Yankees. Some thought that the right-hander never showed the kind of remorse or visceral reaction he should have in light of the circumstances, which helped create a reputation that follows him to this day (nearly 50 years after his death). However, he did go public shortly after fateful pitch to talk about what had happened and the aftermath that ensued.
Mays did not speak about the Chapman incident often but there is a written record of his thoughts about his role and the ensuing reaction. Below, excerpts are in italics along with my reactions. These quotes come from an interview he did in the November, 1920 issue of Baseball Magazine (which was reproduced by didthetribewin.com).
Although Chapman’s death was an accident, Mays became a scapegoat as a bad guy in the aftermath: “A ball player is not often called upon to discuss his own faults. Usually those failings are played up behind his back, a certain courtesy forbidding their mention to his face. It would be foolish, however, for me to ignore the widespread criticism of which I have been the unwilling butt. For there have been weeks at a time when I could hardly pick up a newspaper without finding my own name assailed by writers, players or owners indiscriminately.”
With Chapman’s death being a first, it was likely a natural reaction to find someone or something to blame. Mays, who was known to be taciturn and willing to let his fists speak for him, was an easy target. Obviously, he threw the fatal pitch but there has never been anything to suggest an iota of intention behind it, and making him shoulder the blame was unfair.
Mays was painfully aware that he was not a popular person: “It was long ago made very apparent to me that I was not one of those individuals who were not fated to be popular. It used to bother me some, for I suppose there are none of us who wouldn’t prefer to be well-thought of. But I was naturally independent and if I found that a fellow held aloof from me, I was not likely to run after him. Evidently I didn’t impress people favorably at first sight. After they knew me better, I was generally able to be on friendly terms with them.”
“When I first broke into baseball, I discovered that there seemed to be a feeling against me, even from the players on my own team. When I was with Boise, Idaho, I didn’t have a pal on the Club until the season was half over. Then the fellows seemed to warm up a bit and we were on very good terms for the balance of the season.”
With 207 career major league victories (and another 75 in the minors) and a 2.92 ERA, Mays had a career that should have put him in the conversation for the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the six votes he received on the 1958 ballot has been the extent of his support for inclusion.
Mays used perceived slights against him to help fuel his success on the field: “My fellow players on the Providence team didn’t seem to like me and I wondered why. I always have wondered why I have encountered this antipathy from so many people wherever I have been. And I have never been able to explain it even to myself, though I have one or two theories on the subject. I did get genuinely discouraged at Providence and, of course, feeling as I did, was unable to do good work. In fact I lost all interest in my work. I wrote to my Uncle telling him I had about decided to give up baseball. He is no doubt responsible for my being identified with the game at present, for he replied with a mighty stiff letter in which he handled things straight from the shoulder and without gloves. In brief, he told me if I failed to make good, he would consider me a quitter and that is a word I never liked to take from any man. So I decided to brace up and see what could be done.”
Even Mays’ playing style set him apart from other players. He was renowned for his extreme submarine pitching delivery and thought nothing of standing up for himself when it came to his contract. He was also quick to temper, and was once fined for throwing a ball into the stands and striking a fan in the head during a game.
In an eerie premonition, Mays once joked he would have to get in trouble to get any true recognition in baseball: “I remember a conversation I had with my wife about this time in which I told her my baseball career had been singularly free from trouble. I said to her in a joking way that perhaps it would be necessary for me to do something out of the ordinary to get my name in the papers. But I needn’t have been impatient. For could I have looked into the future, I would have seen trouble enough headed in my direction to satisfy the most ambitious trouble seeker who ever lived.”
Mays was right on the money with this. Even though he had a career adjusted ERA+ of 119, which matches Hall of Famers like Warren Spahn and Bob Lemon, his accomplishments as a player are largely forgotten and overshadowed by his role in Chapman’s death.
Just because he didn’t like to discuss it didn’t mean Mays wasn’t sorry about Chapman’s death: “The unfortunate death of Ray Chapman is a thing that I do not like to discuss. It is a recollection of the most unpleasant kind which I shall carry with me as long as I live. It is an episode which I shall always regret more than anything that has ever happened to me, and yet I can look into my own conscience and feel absolved from all personal guilt in this affair. The most amazing thing about it was the fact that some people seem to think I did this thing deliberately. If you wish to believe that a man is a premeditated murderer, there is nothing to prevent it. Every man is the master of his own thoughts. I cannot prevent it, however much I may regret it, if people entertain any such idea of me. And yet, I believe that I am entitled to point out some of the many reasons why such a view is illogical.”
“I am a pitcher and I know some of the things a pitcher can do as well as some of the things he can’t do. I know that a pitcher can’t stand on the slab sixty feet away from the plate and throw a baseball so as to hit a batter in the head once in a hundred tries. That is, of course, assuming that the pitcher actually wanted to hit the batter in the head, a thing which is absurd on the face of it.”
The bean ball is an unfortunate tradition in baseball, especially during the time of Mays and Chapman. However, there has never been any evidence that the pitch was thrown on purpose. In an age before video and instant replay, people across the country formed their opinion on this event based on past biases and imagination instead of facts.
Even if Mays had been trying to hurt or maim Chapman, such an outcome would have been highly unlikely: “But to actually kill a man it is by no means sufficient to hit him on the head. Walter Johnson with all his terrific speed has hit batters on the head and yet they have not died. Fairly often a batter gets hit on the head and seldom is he even seriously injured. There is only one spot on a player’s skull where a pitched baseball would do him serious injury and that is a spot about his temple which is hardly half as big as the palm of my hand. Suppose, to meet some of these malicious slanders that have been directed against me, we assume that a pitcher is enough of a moral monster to deliberately murder a batter at the plate, a batter with whom he can have no particular quarrel and from whose death he could not possibly benefit. What chance would he have of perpetrating such a crime? He would have to hit that batter, and what is more, hit him on a particular part of the skull of very limited area.”
It’s interesting to note that while Mays was subjected to the blame game, Chapman’s death did nothing to change the culture of pitching inside or even hitting batters on purpose. Batting helmets were still decades away, so the fact that such a sobering result came from this one play is indicative that most people likely knew in their heart of hearts that this was an accident.
In the aftermath, Mays didn’t know what to do and took the counsel of others. This probably helped make things worse for him: “Almost everything I have done or haven’t done since that time has been criticized. I have read newspaper comments which blamed me for not going to the Club House to see how seriously Chapman was injured. The fact that I was a pitcher on the mound and had no opportunity to go to the Club House means nothing to these people. When I was finally taken out of the game, Chapman had already been removed in an ambulance and it was then too late for me to see him.”
“I did not go to see Mrs. Chapman when she was in town. I could not, under the circumstances, bring myself to undergo this ordeal, though I would have done so if any good would have come of it. I did suggest doing so, moreover, to Colonel Huston, and he advised strongly against it on the grounds that it would be a trying experience for Mrs. Chapman. I was guided by his advice in the matter. I wrote to her, however. I did not go to see Chapman after his death. I knew that the sight of his silent form would haunt me as long as I live, and since no good would be accomplished from my going, I decided not to do so. It is possible I was mistaken in this attitude, but it was certainly through no lack of respect for Chapman or his friends. I have been bitterly criticized for pitching again so soon after this terrible tragedy. I can assure anyone who has made such a criticism that it was no easy task for me to take up my work where I had left off.”
This was pretty clearly a damned if he did, damned if he didn’t situation. That being said, his decision to hold back and not reach out to Chapman or his family only strengthened preconceived notions that he was an uncaring jerk who may have thrown the bean ball on purpose.
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