Carl Mays: My Attitude Toward the Unfortunate Chapman Matter
Staff Special | On 18, Aug 2020
We continue our look back on the death of Ray Chapman on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. This supplemental interview appeared in the November 1920 issue of “Baseball Magazine” and tells more a little more of the story. – BT
Carl Mays is unpopular. And his big league career has been stormy beyond all precedent. But a fair minded public knows there are always two sides to a story. The case against Mays has been thoroughly aired. We thought it but fair to allow Mays to state his side of the case. And this he has done with unusual frankness in the following remarkable interview with the Editor of the Baseball Magazine.
A ball player is not often called upon to discuss his own faults. Usually those failings are played up behind his back, a certain courtesy forbidding their mention to his face. It would be foolish, however, for me to ignore the widespread criticism of which I have been the unwilling butt. For there have been weeks at a time when I could hardly pick up a newspaper without finding my own name assailed by writers, players or owners indiscriminately.
A ball player cannot afford to be thin skinned. His work is done so much in the public eye, that he himself becomes in a sense a public personage. To that extent, therefore, he must expect to hear himself and his work commented upon. And since comment can never be one hundred per cent favorable, he must be braced for criticism. All this is a part of the game and just as natural as strike outs or base hits. But I must confess that in the past two years I have been pretty well fed up on criticism.
People that I never even heard of seem to entertain a bitter enmity for me which is surprising to say the least. While a good many persons with whom I am obliged to come in contact and with whom I should prefer to feel on a friendly basis, have let me see all too plainly that they are no friends of mine.
Now, I ask for no man’s friendship, if he does not choose to give it voluntarily. Friendship is a thing which can not be had for the asking. Friendship is a thing which can not be explained on a scientific basis. If a man with whom I am continually thrown in contact does not view me as a friend, it means that there is no mutual attraction between us. But it means nothing else. It is no fault of his. Neither is it necessarily any fault of mine.
There is such a thing as popularity. We all know people who are popular without being able to explain why they should be. We also know people who are not popular, and yet they may be even more deserving of respect. Popularity does not necessarily rest on merit. Nor is unpopularity necessarily deserved. Both are merely the reaction of a man’s fellow associates to his own personality. If that reaction is favorable, he is popular; if not, the reverse is true. Where does the fault lie? With the man himself, or with his associates, or with both, or with neither? Personally, I am inclined to the latter view. I don’t think it is the fault of either party. It is just one of those things that exist and that you can’t explain on any tangible grounds.
It was long ago made very apparent to me that I was not one of those individuals who were not fated to be popular. It used to bother me some, for I suppose there are none of us who wouldn’t prefer to be well-thought of. But I was naturally independent and if I found that a fellow held aloof from me, I was not likely to run after him. Evidently I didn’t impress people favorably at first sight. After they knew me better, I was generally able to be on friendly terms with them.
When I first broke into baseball, I discovered that there seemed to be a feeling against me, even from the players on my own team. When I was with Boise, Idaho, I didn’t have a pal on the Club until the season was half over. Then the fellows seemed to warm up a bit and we were on very good terms for the balance of the season. When I went to Portland, Oregon, I got the same cold shoulder until the fellows understood me better and then we hadn’t a bit of trouble.
When I came East and joined the Providence Club, I got a still bigger dose of the same unpleasant medicine and that began to get on my nerves. I had about concluded that if baseball was a game where you had to swim continually against the current, I had perhaps better get out and see what I could do in some other profession where the waters weren’t quite so deep. My fellow players on the Providence team didn’t seem to like me and I wondered why. I always have wondered why I have encountered this antipathy from so many people wherever I have been. And I have never been able to explain it even to myself, though I have one or two theories on the subject. I did get genuinely discouraged at Providence and, of course, feeling as I did, was unable to do good work. In fact I lost all interest in my work. I wrote to my Uncle telling him I had about decided to give up baseball. He is no doubt responsible for my being identified with the game at present, for he replied with a mighty stiff letter in which he handled things straight from the shoulder and without gloves. In brief, he told me if I failed to make good, he would consider me a quitter and that is a word I never liked to take from any man. So I decided to brace up and see what could be done. About that time we played an exhibition game with Washington. I was called upon to pitch and for once that season I really worked. I held Washington to three hits, which was considered quite an accomplishment for a Minor Leaguer, and easily won my game. After that the fellows seemed to think more of me and I proceeded to have a good season for the balance of the year.
But the unpopularity which had come to be as natural as my own shadow still continued to follow me. I know when I had won 12 straight games and lost my 13, after an extra inning struggle, one of the local newspapermen, who knew me well and hated me cordially, came out with a story in which he panned me for what he called my poor work.
When I went to the Red Sox my experience was much the same, but I had grown somewhat accustomed to that reception and besides I realized that a Minor Leaguer had to fight for recognition on a Major Circuit. Slowly, however, I won my way and when I left the Club, although there were several men who disliked me, there were others with whom I was on good, if not intimate terms.
Up to two years ago I had no just complaint to offer against my experience as a professional ball player. It is true, I had never been popular, but this had ceased to bother me. And if I was not popular, I was at least rated as a successful pitcher. In other words, I had made good in my chosen profession.
I remember a conversation I had with my wife about this time in which I told her my baseball career had been singularly free from trouble. I said to her in a joking way that perhaps it would be necessary for me to do something out of the ordinary to get my name in the papers. But I needn’t have been impatient. For could I have looked into the future, I would have seen trouble enough headed in my direction to satisfy the most ambitious trouble seeker who ever lived.
About that time things commenced to happen to me. I had a very nice home, of which I was extremely fond and not a little proud. We fitted it up in a manner which was pleasing to us both and I put into that home most of my earnings as a base ball player. Furthermore, I stored in that home all the little mementos and souvenirs that I wished to preserve, and my wife did also. But about the time we had everything settled to suit us, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. Everything in it was totally destroyed and as it was insured for but a fraction of its true value, I found myself practically wiped out. Later in the season I became involved in a disagreement with the Boston Club which culminated in my transfer to New York. I am not going to enter into a discussion of that particular episode. It was not a pleasant experience for me, but I have never regretted my part in it. And I am willing now to state openly that if I ever faced a similar situation again I should do exactly the same.
I came to New York in a display of brilliant fireworks. There were Court proceedings and more Court proceedings. There was talk of a disruption of the entire League. The whole thing looked to me like a tempest in a teapot. Perhaps if I had been inclined to be swell-headed, I would have got all puffed up about the desperate struggle that was taking place over my own unimportant self. But I have never been criticised for undue egotism. That is one fault, at least, which has not been laid to my charge.
This season I made a slow and disappointing start, but I finally rounded into shape and felt that I was in a position to do good work for at least the balance of the year. But this is merely another illustration of how little any of us can see into the future.
The unfortunate death of Ray Chapman is a thing that I do not like to discuss. It is a recollection of the most unpleasant kind which I shall carry with me as long as I live. It is an episode which I shall always regret more than anything that has ever happened to me, and yet I can look into my own conscience and feel absolved from all personal guilt in this affair. The most amazing thing about it was the fact that some people seem to think I did this thing deliberately. If you wish to believe that a man is a premeditated murderer, there is nothing to prevent it. Every man is the master of his own thoughts. I cannot prevent it, however much I may regret it, if people entertain any such idea of me. And yet, I believe that I am entitled to point out some of the many reasons why such a view is illogical.
I am a pitcher and I know some of the things a pitcher can do as well as some of the things he can’t do. I know that a pitcher can’t stand on the slab sixty feet away from the plate and throw a baseball so as to hit a batter in the head once in a hundred tries. That is, of course, assuming that the pitcher actually wanted to hit the batter in the head, a thing which is absurd on the face of it.
But to actually kill a man it is by no means sufficient to hit him on the head. Walter Johnson with all his terrific speed has hit batters on the head and yet they have not died. Fairly often a batter gets hit on the head and seldom is he even seriously injured. There is only one spot on a player’s skull where a pitched baseball would do him serious injury and that is a spot about his temple which is hardly half as big as the palm of my hand. Suppose, to meet some of these malicious slanders that have been directed against me, we assume that a pitcher is enough of a moral monster to deliberately murder a batter at the plate, a batter with whom he can have no particular quarrel and from whose death he could not possibly benefit. What chance would he have of perpetrating such a crime? He would have to hit that batter, and what is more, hit him on a particular part of the skull of very limited area.
There isn’t a pitcher who ever lived with control enough to do that thing once in a thousand times. Christy Mathewson, in the days when he was considered the absolute master of control couldn’t have done it. I myself would stand at the plate and let any pitcher in the world throw a baseball at my head in the firm assurance that I was at least in no danger of being killed. One reason for assuming that I am innocent of such a foul crime is the fact that it would be absolutely impossible for me to be anything else.
Chapman had a crouching position at the plate. On this particular occasion, at least, he stood motionless with his head nearly, if not quite, over the plate. The ball which struck him was high, but it is a question if it was not a true strike. It certainly was not far out of the way. I can explain this unfortunate accident on only two grounds. First, that for some unknown reason Chapman failed to see the ball at all. Second, that he saw it but fell into that curious state of mind which a ball player sometimes encounters in which he is said to be hypnotized by the ball. It is true that it was a fairly dark day, but my speed is not of the Walter Johnson variety and I think it very improbable that Chapman failed to see the ball. – It is conceivable that he misjudged it, but I think it more likely that he was momentarily hypnotized. Chick Fewster, one of our own men, was hit on the head this spring by Jeff Pfeffer of the Brooklyn Club and very seriously injured. Chick has explained his unfortunate experience by saying that he saw the ball very clearly, but couldn’t seem to get out of the way. Frank Chance, I have heard, used to suffer from the same mental pecularity, in which he was hypnotized by the approaching baseball and was hit on the head several times in consequence. Of course, this is idle speculation for just what happened in Chapman’s mind will never be known.
One thing I am sure of. Nobody who saw that accident was more surprised than I. At first I thought the ball had struck the bat and fielded it to first base. When I looked and saw that Chapman had been hit instead, you could have knocked me down with a feather.
Almost everything I have done or haven’t done since that time has been criticized. I have read newspaper comments which blamed me for not going to the Club House to see how seriously Chapman was injured. The fact that I was a pitcher on the mound and had no opportunity to go to the Club House means nothing to these people. When I was finally taken out of the game, Chapman had already been removed in an ambulance and it was then too late for me to see him.
I did not go to see Mrs. Chapman when she was in town. I could not, under the circumstances, bring myself to undergo this ordeal, though I would have done so if any good would have come of it. I did suggest doing so, moreover, to Colonel Huston, and he advised strongly against it on the grounds that it would be a trying experience for Mrs. Chapman. I was guided by his advice in the matter. I wrote to her, however. I did not go to see Chapman after his death. I knew that the sight of his silent form would haunt me as long as I live, and since no good would be accomplished from my going, I decided not to do so. It is possible I was mistaken in this attitude, but it was certainly through no lack of respect for Chapman or his friends. I have been bitterly criticized for pitching again so soon after this terrible tragedy. I can assure anyone who has made such a criticism that it was no easy task for me to take up my work where I had left off.
Photo: AP Photo/National Baseball Hall of Fame