Carl Mays’s death pitch

I’m a fan of old-time baseball: the 1919 Black Sox, Murderer’s Row, the Gashouse Gang, Dizzy Dean. I can name more dead ballplayers than I can living, active ones.

And while I thought that would be a good segue into this post, it’s not working out that way. I’m kind of stuck. So I’ll just come out and type it: in 1920, a pitcher named Carl Mays killed a Cleveland Indians shortstop during a game, and this is how it happened.

Mays played for the New York Yankees, and on August 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds, he was facing Ray Chapman, a right-handed batter. Mays specialized in the submarine pitch, basically an underhanded pitch. The game was in the top of the 5th inning, during twilight, when Mays made his fateful throw. According to witnesses, Chapman never moved out of the way of the ball, which was heading right for his head. It’s been speculated that he never saw it; back then, pitchers dirtied up the balls with chewing tobacco, dirt, anything to make the ball hard to see. In the failing light, the brown-colored ball might have blended right in.

mays going into his submarine pitch delivery

Players didn’t wear helmets back then, and the ball smashed into Chapman’s skull. The ensuing crack was so loud that Mays later said he thought that Chapman’s bat had hit the ball, so he fielded it and threw it to first base.

He needn’t have bothered. Chapman’s knees buckled and he sank to the ground still at home plate. Blood poured out of his left ear. Chapman did get to his feet a short time later, but collapsed again while walking off the field. He was taken to a hospital, where he died of a fractured skull about twelve hours later.

In the wake of his death, the MLB required that a ball be replaced when it became dirty, but requiring batters to wear helmets wouldn’t happen until thirty or so years later.

ray chapman.

<more info: The Pitch that Killed, by Mike Sowell>

5 thoughts on “Carl Mays’s death pitch

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    1. Yup . . . and there was a guy in the early years of the game, the late 1800s, who ruptured his bladder during a game . . . supposedly because he swung the heavy bats they used back then too hard.

      Ty Cobb liked to sharpen the metal spikes on his shoes and slide in to a base feet-first, so the spikes would cut the opposing baseman.

      Nowadays, except for the juicing scandals, baseball’s pretty dull.

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