May 17, 2012


A Death at Home Plate (Gilbert King, 5/09/12, Smithsonian)

The Indians were in first place, a half-game ahead of the Yankees on August 16, 1920, when they arrived at the Polo Grounds, the home the Yankees shared with the New York Giants until Yankee Stadium was built three years later. It was the start of a three-game series on a dark and drizzly Monday afternoon in Harlem. On the mound for the Yankees was right-hander Carl Mays, the ace of the staff, hoping to notch his 100th career win. Mays, a spitballer (legal at the time), threw with an awkward submarine motion, bending his torso to the right and releasing the ball close to the ground--he sometimes scraped his knuckles in the dirt. Right-handed submariners tend to give right-handed batters the most trouble because their pitches will curve in toward the batter, jamming him at the last moment. Mays, one baseball magazine noted, looked "like a cross between an octopus and a bowler" on the mound. "He shoots the ball in at the batter at such unexpected angles that his delivery is hard to find, generally until along about 5 o'clock, when the hitters get accustomed to it--and when the game is about over."

Mays had good control for a submariner, but he also was known as a "headhunter" who was not shy about brushing batters, especially right-handers, off the plate; he was consistently among the American League leaders in hit batsmen. His feud with Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb was particularly intense: In one game, he threw at the cantankerous "Georgia Peach" every time he came to bat, prompting Cobb to throw his bat at Mays, Mays to call Cobb a "yellow dog," the umpires to separate the two as they tried to trade blows, and Mays to hit Cobb on the wrist with his next pitch. In another game, Cobb laid a bunt down the first-base line so he could spike Mays when the pitcher covered the base.

Mays went unloved even by his teammates, since he had a habit of berating them if they made errors while he was pitching. And he once buried a fastball in the stomach of a heckling fan.

So when Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman stepped to the plate in the top of the fifth inning before more than 20,000 New York fans, Mays could not have been in the best of moods. The Yankees were trailing, 3-0, after he gave up a homer and his fielders committed errors worth two more runs.

Chapman was popular among both fans and players--even Ty Cobb considered him a friend. 

Posted by at May 17, 2012 6:01 AM

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