Friday, August 14, 2009
Sports NewsMayfield's Mutterings: A season of potential

Honoring career of man who delivered a fatal pitch

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[August 14, 2009]  MANSFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- Carl Mays peered in from the mound and noticed Ray Chapman shifting his back foot. The speedy Cleveland shortstop had a habit of fidgeting when he was about to drop down a bunt.

HardwareThe best way to stop a bunt is to bust 'em inside, Mays figured, so the Yankees pitcher threw a fastball, high and tight. It was Aug. 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds in New York.

The pitch struck Chapman in the temple. He died a day later, to this day the only major leaguer killed during a game. Mays claimed it was an accident, but to his death in 1971 he never lived it down.

"Nobody ever remembers anything about me except one thing," he once wrote. "That a pitch I threw caused a man to die."

Eighty-nine years later, a handful of people are trying to get him recognized for what was one of the best careers of his era, long overshadowed by baseball's only lethal pitch. Their goal is to have Mays enshrined in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.


"It's time he got recognized for his accomplishments, not just for this one accident," said Ann Duckworth of Mansfield, the tiny Ozarks town where Mays was raised and spent many offseasons.

Some fans say Mays is worthy of an even bigger honor -- the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won 207 games and posted a 2.92 ERA over 15 seasons with the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants. He won 20 or more games five times and pitched in four World Series.

The closest he got to Cooperstown was last year, when a special induction committee considered 10 players whose careers began before 1943, including Mays. He needed nine votes to get in. He got three.

Mays was born in Liberty, Ky., in 1891, and his family moved to Mansfield when he was 2. His father, a traveling Methodist minister, died when Mays was 10.

Often, the only meat for supper came from what young Carl could hunt. Problem was, the family was so poor they didn't have a gun. Paul Buchanan, 90, who was married to Mays' niece and met him several times, said Mays often recalled how he used his strong arm to help feed the family.

"He carried a pocketful of rocks, and he'd kill squirrels," Buchanan said. "He got so good he'd hit them in the head because he didn't want to bruise the meat."

Mays learned to play baseball in Oklahoma, where his family moved when he was 12. He signed a pro contract but struggled early. His fortunes changed when he took up an unorthodox pitching style -- an underhand motion in which he dipped so low his right hand scraped the dirt on the mound.


Called up by the Boston Red Sox at the same time as another rookie pitcher named Babe Ruth, Mays went 6-5 in 1915, then won 61 games over the next three seasons, helping the Red Sox to championships in 1916 and 1918.

Despite his success, Mays was unpopular with teammates. He could be aloof and surly -- one teammate said he was like "a man with a permanent toothache." A contract dispute made him equally unpopular with management, so Boston traded Mays to the Yankees in 1919. He became the ace of the New York staff.

On Aug. 16, 1920, Chapman came up in the top of the fifth with the Indians ahead. The 29-year-old Indians shortstop was the antithesis of Mays: outgoing, friendly, one of the league's most popular players. He was also perhaps baseball's best bunter. He led the AL in sacrifice bunts three times and stole 233 bases in nine years.

Mays had no intention of letting Chapman drop a bunt and leg out a hit. "If he did, no one could throw him out, he was so fast," Mays once wrote to a friend. "So we would bring the ball up, try to make him pop it up." It was decades before the major leagues adopted batting helmets, and Mays said later that the ball was wet and scuffed. It sailed high and inside, moving toward Chapman's head he crouched over the plate.

Some of Chapman's own teammates said the shortstop didn't flinch, almost seemed to duck into the ball, which struck his temple with such force and such a loud crack that Mays thought it hit the bat. The ball rolled back toward Mays, who fielded it and threw to first baseman Wally Pipp for what he thought was an out.

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Pipp was about to send the ball around the infield when he glanced toward home plate, where umpire Tom Connolly was calling out to the stands for a doctor. At the hospital, doctors removed an inch and a half of Chapman's skull and found blood clots had formed. He died before dawn.

The New York district attorney investigated but exonerated Mays. Several teams considered boycotting games if Mays pitched, though none ever did.

It didn't help that Mays had a reputation for throwing inside -- he had struck 44 hitters in the previous four seasons. Mays denied being a headhunter, and said he didn't throw at Chapman.

Despite the loss of their shortstop, the Indians went on to win the AL pennant and the World Series. Mays went 26-11 that year and pitched nine more seasons, but his legacy was tainted.

"It is the most regrettable incident of my baseball career," he told The New York Times after Chapman's death, "and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened."

In Mansfield, a scenic, remote town of 1,300 nestled among the rolling hills of southern Missouri, a small group of organizers is trying, if not to undo what happened, at least to do Mays justice.

The only remnant of his family's existence here is the foundation of a home a few miles outside of town that he built for his mother after making the big leagues. The home burned decades ago, the lot now overgrown with weeds and ivy.

Mays' supporters say few people know what a big heart he had. Kathy Short, a member of the Mansfield Area Historical Society, said Mays would return home and donate discarded Yankees uniforms to the local barnstorming team. He'd gather the town's children, take them to an apple orchard and play ball for hours.

So Duckworth and Short decided it was time to set the record straight. They organized a letter-writing campaign and petition drive to get Mays into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Hundreds wrote letters or signed the petitions.

"I thought, well, if Cooperstown isn't going to recognize him, my gosh, can't his home state give him some recognition?" Duckworth said.

Missouri Sports Hall of Fame spokeswoman Andrea Porter said the next class of inductees will likely be announced in November. She wouldn't speculate whether Mays will be among them. He would join St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial, golfer Tom Watson and basketball great and ex-Sen. Bill Bradley, among several hundred others.

Even if the Hall of Fame campaign fails, Mays is finally about to get some respect in his hometown. A local artist has agreed to fashion a monument bearing his likeness that will be placed in the town square. A dedication ceremony is planned for September.


On the Net:

Missouri Sports Hall of Fame:

[Associated Press; By JIM SALTER]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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