Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #88 Carl Mays

Library of Congress

The surly spitballer’s career was defined by one tragic pitch, but the ace of the Yankees’ first pennant-winner was too good of a pitcher for that to be his only legacy.

Name: Carl Mays
Position: Starting pitcher (LHP)
Born: November 12, 1891 (Liberty, KY)
Died: April 4, 1971 (El Cajon, CA)
Yankee Years: 1919-23
Primary number: N/A
Yankee statistics: 80-39, 3.25 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 164 G, 124 GS,  1090.0 IP, 273 K, 91 CG, 9 SHO, 82 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 16.3 rWAR, 13.7 fWAR

Biography

For all the controversy surrounding gambling and PED use that has plagued the game, one righthanded pitcher might stand alone in pure baseball infamy. After all, A-Rod and Barry Bonds' steroid use never led to anyone's death; neither did White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. One year after the Black Sox Scandal, Carl Mays entered baseball's record books in a horrible way by becoming the only person to ever accidentally kill a hitter with a pitch. It was a miserable day, as one player's life ended and another's was changed forever.

The brash young hurler

Mays was born in Kentucky to a Methodist minister named William Mays (ah, baseball coincidences), who died when Carl was just 12 years old. The family had moved to Missouri by then, but they packed up again after William's death, en route to Kingfisher, Oklahoma. It was a sad time for Mays's family, but he did get the opportunity to meet his cousin, John Long. He was a catcher, and he introduced Mays to the game. Pitching to Long, Mays developed the raw skills to attract the notice of traveling teams.

At the age of 20, Mays signed with the Class D Western Tri-State League's Boise Irrigators, who offered him $90 per month. Mays was certainly worth the deal, as he pitched to a 2.08 ERA, 0.930 WHIP, and a 22-9 record in 280 2/3 innings. He moved up to the Class B team in Portland and again had a fine season, though won/loss record (10-15) deceived his true performance (2.45 ERA, 1.024 WHIP in 250 innings), and it was enough to get a new contract for 1914 with the Providence Grays, a Rhode Island team owned by the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox purchased the Grays from the Tigers during the season, and Mays attracted Boston's interested with a fantastic season: 24-8 and a 2.57 ERA in 273 1/3 innings. Another young pitcher joined him down the stretch named Babe Ruth, and their pitching helped Providence win the pennant. By the beginning of next season, Mays was a major league pitcher.

The submariner worked mostly out of the bullpen in his rookie season, appearing in 38 games but 131 2/3 innings overall of 90 ERA- and 69 FIP- ball. He threw hard and was not at all afraid to throw high and inside to back hitters off the plate. Even as a rookie, he made an enemy of Ty Cobb, whose own nasty attitude clashed with Mays. On one occasion, Cobb was knocked down and then dragged a bunt up the first base line, where he spiked Mays with his sharp cleats and cut his leg. Boston and Detroit fought hard for the pennant in 1915; a 100-win season was not good enough to win the title for Detroit. Boston beat the Phillies in five games for the 1915 World Series title, but while he was a champion in his first season, Mays did not appear in any of the games.

The next couple seasons saw Mays slowly transition from splitting time more evenly between the ‘pen and rotation to becoming an established rotation presence and the ace of a championship staff. Although he was a bit of a loner, there was no denying his competitiveness on the mound. The Red Sox repeated as champions in 1916, and Mays had his best year in Boston in 1917, pitching to a 1.74 ERA (69 ERA-) in 289 innings while also unsurprisingly leading the league in hit by pitches. Only two pitchers in baseball had a better ERA than Mays that year and despite the HBPs, he had a 1.052 WHIP. His pitches simply sank, and many batters could not do any better than hitting it on the ground while hoping it found a hole in the infield:

Yankees infielder Roger Peckinpaugh said Mays threw " a very ‘heavy’ ball. It sinks and when you catch it, it feels heavy enough to almost go through your glove." Horace Ford, who batted against Mays in the National League, said that hitting Mays’s fastball "was like hitting a chuck of lead. It would go clunk and you’d beat it into the ground." - SABR

Boston finished nine games behind the White Sox for the AL pennant that year, but another fine season by Mays in 1918 brought them back on top. While his ERA and ERA- jumped a bit to 2.21 and 84, respectively, his WHIP was almost identical and he led the league in both shutouts (8) and complete games (30). Those marks were made more impressive by the fact tat the season ended early after 126 games on September 2nd due to World War I. The Red Sox played the Cubs in the World Series, and Mays received the ball in Game 3 with the series tied at one game apiece. He beat the Cubs 2-1, going the distance in a seven-hitter with just one walk. Boston and Chicago split the next two games, so Mays got the start in Game 6 to close out the Cubbies, and he did just that by spinning a three-hitter in another 2-1 victory. Mays was the last man to throw a pitch for a championship Red Sox team in the next 86 years.

Although his teammates were not fond of Mays for his somewhat antisocial personality and irritance on the mound when they committed errors, it seemed as though Boston and Mays had a fine relationship. It all came to a sudden halt in 1919. Boston struggled to give him much run support, and Mays became highly frustrated with the offense. In addition, his Missouri home burned down, and he grew so annoyed with the Philadelphia fans during one series that he hurled a baseball from the dugout at a fan. Finally, in a July 13th game against the White Sox, catcher Wally Schang clocked him in the head with a throw on a stolen base by Eddie Collins. Soon afterward, manager and future Yankees GM Ed Barrow removed him from the game, and he stormed off the field, chucking the ball against the backstop. Mays was suspended by the Red Sox and told sportswriters that he demanded a trade. Soon, owner Harry Frazee obliged, sending Mays to the Yankees on July 29th in exchange for two unremarkable pitchers and $40,000.

"Carl, this is [co-owner] Cap Huston of the Yankees. I called to find out if you would be interested in pitching for the Yankees. If you are, there's a good chance of my swinging a deal for you tonight, but I didn't want to get all tangled up in negotiations if you wouldn't pitch for us."
"Well, how about the money?"
"We'll have no problems there. Just pack your bag, and by the time you get here, we'll be ready to talk contract." - Pinstripe Empire
Controversy abound in early Yankees tenure

AL president Ban Johnson was furious about the trade since a suspended player was dealt and essentially controlled his own fate over the authority of the Red Sox owner. The reserve clause was supposed to bound a player to his team without much control over it, but Mays worked around the system. He demanded that the trade be void and that Mays be returned to Boston, but Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston flat-out refused and told Johnson that if necessary, they would go to court to keep Mays on the Yankees. New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner granted a temporary injunction allowing Mays to pitch for the Yankees.

Johnson's decision was rendered meaningless, and Mays made 13 starts for the Yankees down the stretch as the team bid to pass the infamous "Black Sox" for the AL pennant. Although the White Sox ended up running away with the pennant as the Yankees finished in third place with an 80-59 record, it was not Mays's fault by any means. He was outstanding, pitching to a 1.65 ERA and 51 ERA-, winning nine of his starts, completing all but one of them, and throwing a shutout as well. In just 13 starts, he was worth 2.6 rWAR and 2.2 fWAR for a rising Yankees team. They had their ace, and now they needed a hitting star. They enlisted Mays's former rotationmate Ruth, who was a pretty fair hitter.

With Mays and Ruth in tow, the Yankees had a superb team ready for the 1920 campaign. They finished the year with a then-franchise record 95 wins and a .617 winning percentage, though they ended up behind the pennant-winning Indians by two games. The pennant race between the two teams was sadly marred by tragedy in a game on August 16th at the Yankees' home Polo Grounds.

It was the most regrettable incident of my career, and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened. -Carl Mays

Mays in the midst of another fine season, wherein he led the league with six shutouts, pitched 312 innings, and ended with a 3.06 ERA (81 ERA-). The unpopular Mays faced perhaps his polar opposite at the plate leading off the fifth inning in beloved Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, a perennially fantastic player who had already amassed a 29.0 rWAR/28.9 fWAR career in just nine years and 1,051 games with the Indians. He was only 29, a potential Hall of Famer in the making. Even Cobb liked him. However, Chapman had a tendency to lean over the plate, and Mays threw an inside fastball toward him to start this at-bat. What happened next was unclear: either Chapman ducked unfortunately right into the ball's path attempting a drag bunt, or he never moved at all. Either way, it struck him square in the temple with a sickeningly loud crack.

It struck Chapman so hard that the ball caromed back toward the mound, and Mays's immediate action was to throw the ball to first base in case it hit Chapman's bat. Chapman's teammates helped him off the field, as he was still conscious. They brought him to St. Lawrence Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a fractured skull and died the next day, the only player to ever die as the result of a pitch in a MLB game. Mays called it "the most regrettable incident of my career, and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened."

The whole incident was a horrible experience for everyone involved; Mays did not handle it well, noting that there was scuff on the ball (which he always normally liked to do anyway), and that he didn't expect Chapman to duck into the ball. He insisted to his dying day that he did not throw at Chapman. Regardless, the tragedy only emphasized the reason why baseball banned the spitball at the beginning of the year, with only those who already threw it allowed to use it via grandfather clause. Strangely, it still took over 35 years before players started wearing helmets in the batter's box.

A career year and the aftermath

Mays became synonymous with Chapman's death, and while he pitched another nine years with the majors, most people only remember Mays for that tragic pitch. Mays's best season in New York actually occurred the very next year. He put the incident behind him and led the league with 27 wins, 49 games (38 starts), and a career-high 336 2/3 innings pitched. He was brilliant in a nearly-six win campaign by rWAR, and the Yankees outlasted the Indians to win their first pennant in franchise history. Mays completed nine of his ten starts down the stretch and even tossed in a relief appearance; the Yankees won all but one of those games.

In the first game of the unusual best-of-nine, all-Polo Grounds World Series against John McGraw's Giants, Mays put the Yankees ahead with a dominant five-hit shutout. He didn't walk anyone, and only two batters made it past first base. The teams split the next two games, and Mays had the chance to give the Yankees a 3-1 series lead in Game 4, but Phil Douglas outpitched him. Mays held a slim 1-0 lead into the top of the eighth, but an Irish Meusel triple, singles by Johnny Rawlings and Fred Snyder, and a two-run double by George Burns gave the Giants three runs. The Yankees lost 4-2 to even the series.

Manager Miller Huggins turned back to Mays on just two days' rest in Game 7 with the series even at 3-3. The only other starter pitching well was Waite Hoyt, so the Yankees were desperate. Mays did just about all he could do, allowing just six hits to the Giants, but a two-out double by Snyder in seventh scored Rawlings, who reached on an error by second baseman Aaron Ward. Again, the Yankees were unable to do much against Douglas, and they lost 2-1. The Giants finished off the series five games to three on the strength of a 1-0 four-hit shutout by Art Nehf against Hoyt. There was some talk that Mays fixed the game in the two losses, but that was never proven and seems highly risky and unlikely given the then-recent lifetime bans suffered by the "Black Sox" players who threw the 1919 World Series. The Giants were just a damn good team, and they beat one of the best pitchers in baseball during the tiring late innings of two games.

With almost 2,000 regular season and playoff innings on Mays's arm in seven seasons, he began to decline somewhat at age 30 in '22. He was still a solid pitcher with a 3.60 ERA and a 90 ERA- good for a 3.1 rWAR season, but he was never as dominant as he was in '21 ever again. The Yankees won their second straight pennant in '22 and again faced McGraw's Giants in the World Series. This time, it was not nearly as close, as the series returned to a best-of-seven. The Giants won Games 1 and 3, and the two teams ended Game 2 in a 3-3 tie called on account of darkness. Mays got the nod in Game 4, but despite getting staked to an early 2-0 lead, a four-run fifth led to a 4-3 loss. The Giants finished off their undefeated series with a 5-3 victory in Game 5, as Nehf finished off the Yankees for the second straight year.

The Yankees had grown weary of Mays by '23, and they reportedly sought to trade him before the season. Nothing happened though, so Huggins just barely used him throughout the Yankees' third straight pennant-winning campaign. Mays pitched poorly when he did appear, so it did not seem as though the Yankees were squandering a valuable asset. He did not appear in the Fall Classic of the Yankees' first championship, as they finally beat the Giants.

A career winds downs

The Cincinnati Reds bought Mays from the Yankees after the '23 season, and he managed to stick around with them for five more years, alternating between healthy and injury-plagued seasons. He had a comeback season at age 34 in '26, leading the NL with 24 complete games and pitching to a 3.14 ERA (85 ERA-) in 281 innings, a 4.7 fWAR season. The Reds finished just two games behind the Cardinals for the NL pennant. Exhausted, Mays pitched just 144 2/3 innings over his next two years with the Reds, and finished his MLB career with one mediocre season on McGraw's Giants in '29.

Mays pitched two years in the minor league American Association and Pacific Coast League, then officially ended his playing career at age 40. His baseball career did not enough though; he had made amends with the Indians organization and scouted for them and the Braves over the next 20 years. He lived until he was 79 years old, passing away in '71 with the game a whole lot different than it was when he began. Chapman was a crucial member of the first Yankee teams of any sustained success, and his contributions to those teams should not be forgotten.

Andrew's rank: 84
Tanya's rank: 90
Community's rank: 77.6
Avg. WAR rank: 87.5

Season Stats

Year

Age

Tm

W

L

ERA

FIP

G

GS

CG

SHO

SV

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

SO

HBP

BK

WP

ERA-

FIP-

rWAR

fWAR

1919

27

NYY

9

3

1.65

2.85

13

13

12

1

0

120

96

34

22

3

37

54

5

0

0

51

89

2.6

2.2

1920

28

NYY

26

11

3.06

3.58

45

37

26

6

2

312

310

127

106

13

84

92

7

0

2

81

99

5.8

4.5

1921

29

NYY

27

9

3.05

3.87

49

38

30

1

7

336.2

332

145

114

11

76

70

9

0

2

71

93

5.8

5.1

1922

30

NYY

13

14

3.60

4.03

34

29

21

1

2

240

257

111

96

12

50

41

7

0

1

90

99

3.1

2.5

1923

31

NYY

5

2

6.20

5.15

23

7

2

0

0

81.1

119

59

56

8

32

16

4

0

1

159

131

-0.9

-0.6

NYY (5 yrs)

80

39

3.25

3.80

164

124

91

9

11

1090

1114

476

394

47

279

273

32

0

6

82

98

16.4

13.7

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Deadball Era on Carl Mays

DeadBall Era on the Mays/Chapman incident

SABR

Other Top 100 Yankees

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