Mays Addresses Criminal Charges, Future in Baseball

After Ray Chapman’s death, reaction was swift and merciless toward Carl Mays, the pitcher who had thrown the fatal beanball.

“Mays should be strung up,” Doc Johnston said.

Mays was given the news by a Yankees secretary around 10 a.m. Aug. 17 – just as Katy Chapman’s train was arriving from Cleveland. Shortly after that, Mays’ apartment in Coogan’s Bluff had a pair of police officers and a lawyer on retainer from the Yankees. Chapman would have to make a statement.

He was taken to the district attorney’s office. Although this was the first – and to date, only – fatal beaning in the major leagues, it had happened in the minor leagues before, and charges were not filed in any previous incident.

An assistant district attorney asked Mays some questions, and seeming satisfied with the answers, declined to call any more witnesses. No criminal charges would be filed. Mays returned home to be with his family – his wife had already received phone calls threatening the pitcher’s life – and gave his first press interviews. Mays told reporters, like he told the assistant district attorney, that the fatal beaning was an accident. He recalled the exhibition beaning of Chick Fewster, and how it had affected him, saying he couldn’t pitch inside for a couple months after the beaning.

Mays also said the ball was disfigured – a common complaint in those days.  In addition to pitchers and other players being allowed to scuff, spit on or otherwise doctor the ball, umpires were under no obligation to take a doctored or disfigured ball out of play. In fact, at that point, fans were still asked to return home run balls. His remarks indicating that umpire Tom Connolly was derelict in removing the ball from the game were met with swift opposition from other umpires, who said that team owners complained to American League President Ban Johnson that umpires were removing too many balls from play. In fact, Billy Evans and Bill Dineen said that Johnson himself had sent out a communiqué that umpires should keep balls in the game whenever possible.

Mays would not face any criminal charges, but the question remained: What would be his fate in Major League Baseball? Mays was as unlikeable as Chapman was likeable, and some other players – particularly his former teammates on the Red Sox, who felt he left them high and dry before being traded to the Yankees – were more than willing to use the fatal beaning as an excuse to get the pitcher kicked out of the game.

The Red Sox and Tigers were scheduled to play at Fenway Park the afternoon Chapman died, and the two teams met before the game. The consensus would be that they would ask for a boycott of Mays. At Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., a similar meeting was being held between the Senators and Browns. A Sporting News report said, “If the news had come over the wire that a ball player had been killed by a pitched ball, without naming who pitched the ball, the Browns to a man would have guessed who did the pitching.” Nobody seemed willing to say that Mays deliberately threw at Chapman’s head, but he had acquired a reputation as a headhunter, with more than 40 hit batsmen since 1917.

“It is unfortunate for Mays that he has not been as popular as the dead player,” said W.O. McGeehan of the New York Tribune, “But he must not be sacrificed because of his unpopularity.”

Johnson finally commented the day after Chapman died. He also had no reason to believe it was anything but an accident, and would not discipline the pitcher. “But it is my honest belief that Mr. Mays will never pitch again,” Johnson said.

Mays’ next scheduled start was the following Monday, Aug. 23, against the Tigers. There was no shortage of bad blood between Mays and the Tigers, specifically their star player, Ty Cobb. Mays had thrown at Cobb previously, and Cobb, reacting with the restraint and maturity we all expect from him, threw a bat at Mays. Tigers third baseman Babe Pinelli, on a separate occasion, had told Mays to meet him under the stands after a game for a fight (Mays declined).

Rumors had taken root of a potential boycott against Mays, which could force the league’s hand, since despite Johnson’s statement, Mays had demonstrated no desire or intention to retire after the beaning.

In “The Pitch That Killed,” Mike Sowell recounts that when Mays got to the Polo Grounds, he was handed a note ostensibly from Cobb, saying, “If it was within my power, I would have inscribed on Ray Chapman’s tombstone these words: ‘Here lies a victim of arrogance, viciousness and greed.’” Mays ripped up the paper and took the mound to start the game.

Tigers leadoff batter Ralph Young stepped into the batter’s box without a second thought. There would be no boycott. Mays scattered 10 hits, but the Yankees scored 10 runs in a shutout. Fans jumped over the walls onto the field and mobbed Mays, who broke into a smile and shook hands all the way to the clubhouse.

The Yankees were now three back of the league-leading White Sox – and just a game back of the Indians, who had dropped three of four to the Red Sox. The last month of the season was shaping up to be a wild one.

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