By all accounts, Carl Mays was a fantastic ballplayer. According to the the Bill Shannon Biographical Dictionary of New York Sports, he won “53 games in his first two full seasons with the Yankees.” However, his career was marred by a tragic incident that occurred August 16, 1920 (92 years ago today), when his pitch hit Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman in the head, and Chapman died of his injuries. The New York Times wrote:
Mays is greatly shocked over the accident. He said he threw a high fast ball at a time when Chapman was crouched over the plate. He thought the ball hit the handle of Chapman’s bat, for he fielded the ball and tossed it to first base. It wasn’t until after that, when he saw Umpire Connelly calling to the stands for a physician, that he realized he had hit Chapman in the head. Manager Miller Huggins of the Yankees believes Chapman’s left foot may have caught in the ground in some manner which prevented him from stepping out of the ball’s way.
Batting helmets were uncommon at the time, and would not gain popularity in professional baseball until the late 1930s, and Major League Baseball didn’t make the use of a helmet mandatory until 1971.
The use of helmets has probably saved numerous ballplayers from Chapman’s fate. Though it was an accident, Mays’ career never recovered. The Shannon Dictionary writes, “The death touched off a furor in which many writers, fans, and players (including Ty Cobb) demanded Mays’ banishment, even though the death was clearly an accident.” He eventually retired in 1929, an “excellent pitcher unfairly tainted by a tragic accident.”
Learn more about New York sports history at the Bill Shannon Biographical Dictionary of New York Sports!