Carl Mays: The unpleasant man with the unpleasant pitch
Most casual baseball fans have heard of Carl Mays, the man who threw the ball that killed a man on the field. There’s a photograph of him at the end of his career that is always used to illustrate articles about him – he’s hunched over, standing on one leg, his torso coiled around so that his back is showing, his face partially hidden from view with just his eyes peering towards the viewer. It’s a striking pose and if not for his being in a baseball uniform you might be partial to thinking that this was some evil character trying to hide something particularly dangerous which he will unleash on you in short order. In a sense, that photograph sums up Carl Mays.
He had a lousy childhood. His father died when he was 12. His mother was stuck with the family farm trying to provide for him and his 7 other siblings. He learned to throw accurately out of necessity – the family owned no rifle so he had to kill game with rocks. A good ballplayer, in 1911 he and a buddy hopped a freight train and headed to California to live their dream of playing pro ball. The made it as far as Price, Utah where the two were thrown in jail for vagrancy. When the sheriff discovered that the two hobos were ballplayers they were paroled on the condition they play on the town ball team. Virtually held hostage, Mays beat the town’s big rival and spent the winter in Price. Come spring he high-tailed it out of there and began his professional career with the Boise Irrigators. The next year he went to the Portland Beavers and he adapted the city as his home for the rest of his life. While toiling in the minors Mays injured his arm. To lessen the pain he tried a variety of ways to throw the ball and discovered that when he pitched underhanded the pain went away.
It’s called a “submarine” pitch and when it’s thrown right it’s a formidable weapon. Mays would contort himself on the mound, rocking back on his right leg, twisting his torso behind him as his gloved hand loosely dangled straight down while his pitching arm with the ball swung back behind him, almost out of sight to the batter. As the arm whipped forward Mays dropped it so low to the ground his knuckles sometimes scraped the dirt. To an opposing batter the ball looked like it was being thrown at him from under the third base bag. As the ball came at the hitter it rose from the field instead of gradually dropping as when thrown by a conventional pitcher. It angled upwards at the batter and when it reached the plate mysteriously dropped down sharply. If a batter didn’t know what to expect when he faced Mays, it was a frightful and disorienting experience. Opposing players disliked facing him and many thought the underhanded pitch should be banned all together. It was too hard to see and that was dangerous.
As Mays worked his way up to the majors he left behind him a wake of discontent. Though a brilliant pitcher, the submariner was angry, unpleasant and just plain mean. His own teammates disliked him. When he played for the Providence Grays in 1914 his teammates sawed of the handle of his bat then glued it back together. The next time he connected with the ball the bat fell apart, robbing him of a hit and leaving him humiliated. When he bought a new home for his wife and mother someone burned it down to the ground. I’m not sure how much Mays brought on himself or if perhaps he just had one of those disagreeable dispositions and unknowingly rubbed people the wrong way. For sure Mays had a couple of close friends. He married and was a loving husband and father so he couldn’t have been that bad.
But to most, especially other ballplayers, Carl Mays was hated. Not to disappoint his detractors, Mays became known right from the start of his major league career as a headhunter. He led the league in hit batsmen in 1917. He had a running battle with Ty Cobb which culminated in Cobb spiking the hell out of the pitcher, leaving a terrifying wound that required many stitches to close. To the end of his life Mays showed it off, almost as a badge of honor, perhaps to prove he could take as good as he could give. He yelled at his own teammates when he thought they messed up a play and backed it up with his fists. When he thought his teammates on the Red Sox weren’t trying hard enough he walked off the mound, out of the ballpark and refused to come back unless he was traded.
Carl Mays was the ace of the New York Yankees when he hit Cleveland’s popular star Ray Chapman in the head with the ball. Mays insisted he didn’t mean to hit Chapman and even fellow ballplayers remarked at how Chapman would typically crowd the plate. The way Mays pitched was hard for some batters to follow and the ball Mays was using that afternoon was supposedly filthy and darkened from being used for too many innings. The odds are the submariner wasn’t trying to hit Chapman, let alone kill him. Any other pitcher would have been exonerated for the incident but because Mays was such a disagreeable person he was flayed alive. A few teams threatened to strike if he pitched against them and because of the death, major league umpires were instructed to replace misshapen and dirty balls with new ones.
The season after the death of Chapman, Mays was spectacular, winning 27 games as the Yankees captured their first American League pennant. As a nod to his place as the best pitcher on his staff, Miller Huggins tapped Mays to start the opening game against the Giants. True to form he tossed a 3-0 shut-out. The Yanks took the second game as well and after losing a game to the Giants, Huggins sent Mays to the mound again in game four.
Mays was cruising along after 7 innings giving up only two hits to the Giants and leading 1-0 when he fell apart. Irish Meusel stepped up to face Mays. From the dugout Miller Huggins signaled Mays to throw a fastball. Instead he threw a slow breaking curve and Meusel bounced it off the outfield wall and had himself a triple. After the game Mays told reporters he had disregarded Huggins’ instructions because he’d gotten Meusel out earlier with the same slow curve. A single by Johnny Rawlings scored Meusel and the score was tied. Frank Snyder bunted back to Mays and instead of an easy out Mays fell down and the runners were safe. Phil Douglas tried another bunt but this time Mays fielded the ball flawlessly and got him at first. But now he had 2 runners in scoring position with the score tied and one out. George Burns smashed a double scoring both runners and just like that the Giants were up 3-1. Mays got out of the inning but the Giants scored another run off him in the ninth and the game ended 4-2. It was an unfortunate turn of events and a tough loss for Mays who had pitched 7 stellar innings.
Enter Fred Lieb. The veteran New York Telegram reporter was president of the Baseball Writers Association and one of the most respected writers in the country. After the game he was approached by a “well-known Broadway actor” and told an intriguing tale. The actor, who was also a gambling man, had been tipped off that the Yankees ace had been approached by gamblers to throw any close game he was involved in. The way it was to go down was that a man would approach Mays’ wife Freddie and slip her a packet of cash. Payoff in hand, she was then supposed to signal her husband that the fix was in. The actor claimed that Freddie Mays had waved her handkerchief at her husband as he took the mound in the 8th inning that afternoon. A few minutes later Meusel was standing on third with a triple.
These accusations were truly serious. The stain of the Black Sox scandal was still all over the sport and the future of the game was still precarious. Another World Series scandal could be the knock-out blow that would forever damage the way fans followed the sport. Lieb took the actor to see the Yankees owner Colonel Huston and Commissioner Landis. The new czar of baseball took the charges seriously enough to open a full investigation and he instructed Lieb to keep a lid on the story until he finished looking into it.
Meanwhile the Yankees won game 5 to take the lead but then the Giants came roaring back in game 6. The series was shaping up to be an exciting slug fest. With the series knotted up at 3 games apiece Carl Mays took the mound for the Yankees.
Again the Yankees’ ace turned in a masterpiece – at least for the first 7 innings. With the score tied at 1 each in the seventh Mays fell apart again. With two out, a double by Frank Snyder scored Johnny Rawlings who had reached first on an error by Yankee second baseman Aaron Ward. That was all the Giants needed as they held the Yankees off to win 2-1.
According to Lieb, the commissioner’s investigation of Mays did not turn up anything questionable, but still, rumors swirled around the unpopular pitcher. The following season was one of Mays’ worst. He uncharacteristically went 13-14 for the pennant winning Yanks and after the World Series was put on waivers. Despite being one of the top hurlers in the league, the Yankees didn’t want him anymore and neither did any other major league team.
When 1923 rolled around Carl Mays was still a Yankee. Miller Huggins basically refused to pitch the submariner and he only got into 23 games that year. Mays, never shy, complained loudly to the press about his lack of use. Despite pressure from the newspapers Huggins let Mays sit on the bench. The manager’s dislike of Mays was clearly visible, especially when he finally started him in a game against Cleveland in July. The under worked pitcher got pounded 13-0 and Huggins left him in the entire game. After the drubbing was finally over sportswriters asked Huggins why he left Mays in instead of inserting a reliever. Huggins wryly quipped “he told me he needed lots of work, so I gave it to him.”
The next season Mays was shipped off to Cincinnati. In the new surroundings he went 19-12 but it was downhill from there. He retired after the 1929 season and went home to Portland. When the stock market crashed he lost his hard-won nest egg and was forced to go back to baseball to make a living. At the age of 38 he rejoined the Portland Beavers, the club he played for 17 years earlier.
Mays didn’t have any luck making friends on his way down as he had on his way up. Right from the start his new teammates disliked him for “big leaguing” them. According to one: “Mays has been a trouble maker all season. He tried that old big league racket on all the gang. Carl couldn’t forget he wasn’t in the big show and the Coast League was tougher than he figured.” Since Mays was still a big name he attracted a good deal of press and sportswriters speculated was that he would be the next manager of the Beavers. This was far from the reality but Mays believed his own write-ups and began acting the part. His teammates decided amongst themselves that they would refuse to play for a guy like Mays. There was talk of a strike if he was named skipper.
Despite all his bluster Mays was getting hit hard by Pacific Coast League batters. By mid-season he was 5-9 with a 4.75 ERA. So much for trying to “big league” his teammates. Instead of humbling the submariner, Mays’ disappointment and embarrassment over his record manifested into outright belligerence. He took out his frustration on Portland ace, Junk Walters and the two came to blows at the end of July. In the locker room before a night game, the two men went at each other as the rest of the team watched. Walters received a black eye but Mays got the shit kicked out of him. Walters broke his nose, cracked one of his ribs and left the rest of him covered in bruises. The Pacific Coast League quickly suspended him indefinitely. The Portland management had had enough of the troublesome pitcher and on August 4th the Beavers handed Mays his release and transferred his contract to the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association.
Mays spent the rest of 1930 and beginning of 1931 with Toledo and then was shipped out to Louisville to finish up his career as a ballplayer. Things didn’t get any smoother for Mays – his mother died, followed afterwards by his wife Freddie in 1934. To make a living he scouted for the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Braves and Kansas City Royals. As if to totally go against his surly and solitary reputation he operated his own baseball school for over ten years. Red Sox star shortstop Johnny Pesky was one of his students. Though he couldn’t be bothered with his teammates, Mays seemed to genuinely love being around kids and none complained of him having a nasty disposition towards them.
As he grew old Mays became even more bitter. Besides the notoriety he received from his part in Chapman’s death, Mays was angry about not being considered for the Hall of Fame. Not one to shy away from speaking his mind, Mays railed against contemporaries he considered of lesser talent than he. He was right. Teammate Waite Hoyt got the nod to the Hall and his winning percentage was a mediocre .566. Other contemporaries were ushered in with similar stats: Dazzy Vance’s percentage was .585, Herb Pennock’s was .598, Burleigh Grimes posted .560 and the final slap in the face: Eppa Rixley had a truly unremarkable .515 winning percentage and even he was considered Hall of Fame worthy. Carl Mays’ was .623. The old submariner was convinced that it was the Chapman incident that kept him out, and that may have been true, but there may have been a darker reason for his exclusion.
The rumors of the 1921 series fix continued to swirl around, just out of sight of baseball fans. Fred Lieb related that sometime in 1928 Colonel Huston got drunk and told Lieb that Yankee pitchers had thrown world series games in 1921 and 1922. Lieb asked if Carl Mays was one of them to which Huston said yes. Miller Huggins, who wasn’t the kind of manager to hold grudges, absolutely hated Mays. Telling Fred Lieb that he’d lend a financial hand to any of his former players, he paused and said anyone except Carl Mays and Joe Bush. Bush was on the Yankees with Mays and had also been accused of not playing on the level in the world series. Huggins got up out of his chair and said “if they were in the gutter, I’d kick them!” as his leg sliced through the air before the startled writer. As for his exclusion from Cooperstown, Lieb, who was on the voting committee, stated that the Chapman incident never came up when the vote was discussed. That he might have helped throw the world series did, and that’s what stood between him and the Hall.
While time soothed the animosity some players held for one another, time did nothing to abate Mays’ contemporaries dislike of him. As an old man, former teammate Bob Shawkey called him “a stinker.” Ty Cobb, one player whose reputation among his contemporaries mellowed with the passing of time, still despised Mays. He still believed he hit Chapman deliberately.
Mays remarried and retired, and spent his leisure time helping kids learn the game. Each year he would travel from Oregon to San Diego to help his foster son Jerry coach high school baseball. “I love working with kids, especially the pitchers,” Mays said. “I try to teach them everything. But the big thing I do is teach them safety in baseball.” The old submariner passed away on April 4, 1972.