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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 643

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This is the grave of Carl Mays.

Born in 1891 in Atterson, Kentucky, Mays grew a very strict Methodist. His father was a minister and imposed in the boy an extremely religious upbringing, to the point that many years, when he was a major league pitcher, he refused to pitch on Sundays. He was actually not the only player who did this–Christy Mathewson was another. When Mays was 12, his father died and his mother moved to the family to Oklahoma. He grew up to be an extremely difficult man with few friends. Some have speculated that he was internalizing his grief, but it’s hard to know. In any case, his unpleasant personality would come back to haunt him through his baseball career.

Mays was an extremely skilled baseball player and chose to drop out of high school and focus on the game in the semipro world of the deep minor leagues. So he traveled around, starting with a Class D team in Boise in 1912. He then was on a Class A team in Portland in 1913 and a AAA team, the Providence Grays, in 1914. Providence was a Tigers affiliate and they sold him to the Red Sox after the 1914 season. At some point in the minor leagues, Mays completely redid his pitching motion to be a submariner, one of very few of this breed who was successful as a starting pitcher. He was brought to the majors by Boston in 1915, where he was pretty useful in relief. Mays also brought his personality to the mound. He would throw at you if you hugged the plate. His rookie season, he and Ty Cobb nearly got into a fight on the field over this, with these two not great people screaming at each other. When the fracas was broken up, Mays proceeded to hit him on the arm with the next pitch.

By 1916, Mays was a starter and a pretty good one. He led the league in complete games in 1918, with a mere 30, along with a league-leading 8 shutouts. After the season, he volunteered for the military and was inducted on November 6, meaning that the war ended five days later, so he was back on the mound in 1919. That year, the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees in midseason. He would play with the Yankees through the 1923 season. In 1920, he was pitching against the Cleveland Indians. Ray Chapman was at the plate. He was crowding said plate. Mays threw at him. And he hit in the head and killed him, the only on-field fatality in professional baseball history. It hit him in the head so hard that it bounced back into the field. Mays claimed he thought it was a strike and had hit the bat, so he threw to first base, thinking he needed to get him out. But Chapman took a couple of steps toward the base to take it and fell to the dirt, never to get up. As the players from both teams gathered around Chapman, Mays stayed on the mound. Chapman was taken to the hospital, where he would die from the skull fracture. Mays stayed in the game. After Chapman’s death, Ty Cobb basically called for pitchers to throw at Mays’ head until he also died. As for Mays himself, he never felt any regret, saying publicly that he did not mean to hit him and that Chapman shouldn’t have crowded the plate. Let’s just say that Carl Mays did not have a lot of friends in baseball.

After this horrible incident, Mays continued to have success. In fact, he had a great year in 1921, leading the AL with both 27 wins and 7 saves, while also leading with 336 2/3 innings. The Yankees lost the World Series that year and there were rumors that Mays did a Shoeless Joe Jackson and threw the series. There was no real evidence of this and no one has even proven it, but the rumor was out there, probably reflecting that everyone hated the guy anyway. He threw a shutout in Game 1 and had two other good games that ended in losses, so it’s not like he obviously was throwing meatballs over the plate. Things slipped a little bit after that, with an OK 1922 and a pretty bad 1923. After that, the Yankees trading him to Cincinnati. He revived his career somewhat and had five pretty solid seasons. In 1926, he lead the league in complete games again, with 24. After one last year with the Giants in 1929, he retired, with 207 wins. He was also a quite fair hitting pitcher, with a .268 career average and 5 home runs.

After his career, Mays moved to Portland and ran a baseball school. He discovered Johnny Pesky at his school, among other quality players. He worked as a scout for several teams and, later in life when his stepson was a high school varsity coach at a San Diego high school, would come down every spring to be his assistant. He died in 1971. In 2009, he was considered by the Veterans Committee for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but did not win it. And honestly, even outside of killing Chapman, he’s more a Hall of Very Good player.

Carl Mays is buried in River View Cemetery, Portland, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit more pitchers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS statistic, Mays is the 103rd best starting pitcher of all time, which in current context places him right around people such as Roy Oswalt and Felix Hernandez. Billy Pierce, who was a good pitcher mostly for the White Sox in the 1950s and early 1960s and who is 101th on the list, is in Oak Lawn, Illinois and Dizzy Dean, who is 105th on the list and probably is one of the worst pitchers in the Hall of Fame as he only had a few stellar years for the Cardinals in the 1930s, is in Bond, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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