I am writing this on yet another oppressive August afternoon. It is baseball weather, when all Americans should be surrounded by the comradely of strangers in shirtsleeves, with a penciled box score in hand and green pastures before them, a land upon which time dare not intrude. Baseball in August is an endless limitless existence, from which other realities retreat, and which may be savored patiently until the final out is called. And on such afternoons my mind floats back to one particular afternoon, almost a century before this August, the hot and humid afternoon of August 16, 1920. In my mind's heart I am at the Polo Grounds, a bathtub shaped ballpark along the Harlem River, at the very northern tip of Manhattan. It is home to the National League New York Giants, but since 1913 the American League Yankees have also leased time on the field. And as fans gather in the Coogans Bluff stands beyond right center field, we are witness to a battle of the two best teams in the league. For the Yankees are hosting the powerful Cleveland Indians. And time is about to pause, to catch its breath, to teeter, balanced for a micro-second between one era and another. And as the fifth inning begins, this is the instant of transition.
The Yankees are using their best pitcher, the crafty right hander Carl Mays. He once praised another pitcher, saying, “That fellow has no friends and doesn’t want any. That’s why he’s a great pitcher.” The friendless Carl Mays may be the greatest pitcher in baseball at this moment. He was part of the Boston Red Sox dynasty that dominated baseball in the first two decades of the 20th century. But in 1919 he demanded to be traded. The Yankees paid $40,000 and gave up two players to be named later to put Carl in Yankee pinstripes. They wanted his “submarine” (underhanded) pitch, his blazing sidearm delivery, his un-hitable spitball, and his reputation for brushing back batters who crowded the plate. He was on his way to a 26 win -11 loss record with six shutouts in 1920. Today, August 16th, he is pitching out of rotation because the game is so important and because Carl Mays is going for his 100th major league win.
The batter is the top of Cleveland's order, the veteran Indian speedster, short stop Ray Chapman. The cheerful songster is fondly known around the league as “Chappie”. After nine seasons in the majors he is at the very top of his game. So far this season he is batting .303, and he has a lifetime 93 runs scored and 671 runs batted in. Chappie also has 233 stolen bases and he wields one of the finest defensive gloves in the league. But he made his reputation laying down the bunt. He crouches down, huntched over the plate, at the very back of the batter's box, thus leaving the pitcher with almost no strike zone to aim for. It is this stance, and his blazing speed to first base - he once rounded the all four bases in 14 seconds - that have given Chappie an impressive on-base average of .358. But only a few close friends know that Chappie is planning on getting out while he is on top. He was married the year before, and has made plans to go into business with his new father-in-law. And some World Series earnings would certainly smooth his way to retirement.
As Chappie steps to the plate at the top of the fifth inning, it is a humid 82 degrees under a cloudless blue sky. The 24,000 fans lean forward in their seats. When Chapman is at the plate, things happen. In the first inning Chapman had laid down his 34th successful bunt of the season. Thanks in part to Ray's speed on the base path, Cleveland is now leading the game, 3 – 0. In the third inning Chapman had popped up. And now, as the fifth inning begins, Ray steps into the batters’ box and digs in.
On his very first pitch Carl Mays delivers a winding, rising, side armed fast ball bullet. With extraordinary velocity the spinning ball hurtles toward the plate, almost faster then the eye can register it. And in that second of time, between the ball leaving Carl's fingertips and it's arrival at the plate, baseball changes forever - an era ends and an era begins - what might have been becomes what once was, what used to be. It is the blink of an eye. It is the passing of a shadow through a life.
There is a loud ringing thud. As Mays steps out of his delivery he sees the ball is rolling quickly back toward the mound. Thinking Chapman has hit it with the handle of his bat, Mays adroitly retrieves the ball and throws a peg down the line to first base. And only then does Carl Mays realize that Ray Chapman is crumpled on the ground.
Meanwhile, on the field and with a new ball, the game resumes. Mays retires the next nine batters in a row and the Yankees fight back to tie the game at 3 - 3. It is a Yankee relief pitcher who gives up the winning Cleveland run; 4 – 3. Called in Cleveland, Ray’s wife, Katie, boards the next train for New York City.
That one pitch can stand as the unofficial end of the "Dead Ball Era", when the game was hit and run, steal and bunt, when the leather was mightier than the wood. It was a time when the game was more strategy than brute force, more brains than brawn, more spunk and more a team sport than it is today. It was a time when baseballs' greatest slugger was Cliford "Cactus" Gravath, who in 1915 hit a record 24 home runs, 11 more than his closest rival. It was not unusual for a league batting champion to have fewer than 10 home runs in a single season. It was a time when Owen "Chief" Wilson, playing for Pittsburgh, set a record of 35 triples in a single season - a record which still stands today, a century later.
And then, in 1920 the New York Yankees decided that their new $100,000 acquisition, Babe Ruth, who had earned fame as a pitcher, should stick to batting. In 1920, his first year as a Yankee, "The Sultan of Swat" hits a record 54 home runs, more than all but one of the other entire teams in baseball combined. He also batted for a .376 average, and his .847 slugging average (total bases earned divided by total at bats) was a Major League record until 2001. The game had changed in a fundamental way after 1920, and the tipping point had come at the moment between Carl Mays releasing the ball, and it impacting Ray Chapman's skull.
Wearing black arm bands in Chappies’ honor, The Cleveland Indians beat out the New York Yankees for the pennant that year, and went on to win the World Series. The Yankees finished a distant third. The Cleveland team voted Katie Chapman a full share of the winners’ purse, about $4,000 (worth $45,000 today). Six months after Chappie's death, Katie gave birth to his daughter and named her Rae. A few years later Katie remarried, to businessman J.F. McMahon and he moved them to California. But she still mourned Chappie. In 1926 Katie committed suicide by drinking cleaning fluid. Three years later little Rae contracted German measles and died as well. Both bodies were brought back to Cleveland, to be buried in Calvary Cemetery under the name “Chapman”. Ray is buried alone about five miles away in Lake View Cemetery, where fans still leave baseballs, bats and memorabilia against his tombstone. If you have a chance, you should do the same.
Carl Mays played for the Yankees for only one more season. In 1921 he won 27 games and lost only 9. And he batted .343, unheard of for a pitcher in any era of the game. Despite that achievement, part way through the 1922 season he was traded to the National League Cincinnati Reds, where he went 20 and 9, making him the first pitcher to win 20 games in both leagues.
Carl Mays spent 15 years in the majors, earning 208 wins and 31 saves against a mere 126 losses, with an amazing 862 strikeouts in 490 games. His lifetime batting average of .268 makes him one of the best hitting pitchers of all time. And yet, despite what are clearly Hall Of Fame statistics Carl Mays has received only 8 votes for that honor. Some may believe in the absurd story that he fixed a World Series game in 1922. But the facts deny that. No, what haunted Carl Mays until his death in 1971, what kept him out of the Hall of Fame, was that one pitch out of the thousands of pitches he threw over his career, the one pitch he threw in the August heat of the 1920 pennant race. It is something to ponder, as the dog days of summer approach once again, and the finality of September hints at the winter which shall soon to envelope us all.
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