He was arguably one of the best pitchers of all time, but he never made the Hall of Fame. He had a higher lifetime winning percentage than 15 pitchers who did, including Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Warren Spahn. His name was Carl Mays, and he pitched phenomenallly for Boise in 1912, going 24-9 — best in the Western Tri-state League.
Among his statistics that year, and in the 15 years he pitched in the major leagues, is one that accounts for a lifetime of unpopularity with opponents and the press — he hit lots of batters. And the one that undoubtedly kept Mays from ever being elected to the Hall came in August 1920, while he was pitching for the New York Yankees. One of his submarine fastballs hit young Cleveland star Ray Chapman in the temple. Chapman died the next day — the only major leaguer ever killed by a pitched ball. Several big league players had their careers shortened after being beaned — Mickey Cochrane, Ducky Medwick, Tony Conigliaro and Dickie Thon, for instance — but only Ray Chapman died. The use of batting helmets and shin guards was still years away.
My father, Albert Arthur Hart, a lifelong baseball fan, believed to his dying day, as did many of his contemporaries, that Mays was “a dirty pitcher” who threw the “beanball” far too often to maintain an edge over hitters, although many successful pitchers have used a brushback pitch as an accepted tactic to keep batters from getting too comfortable at the plate.
It must be remembered that not until Mays’ fatal beaning of Chapman were umpires required to keep a clean ball in play. The one that killed Ray Chapman was dirty and grass-stained and therefore hard to see. The fatal pitch rose from an odd angle and broke in on a right-handed batter. The perception continued among a large part of the public that Mays threw at Chapman deliberately and that he didn’t seem sorry for what he had done. Chapman was a likable young player and Mays was not.
In 1921, the season following the tragedy, Mays appeared in 45 games for the Yankees and led the American League with a record of 27-9. He led the National League with 24 complete games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1926. His lifetime winning percentage of .622 equals that of Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell and surpasses that of 15 other pitchers so honored.
In his 15 years in the majors, Mays pitched for the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees, the Reds and the New York Giants. He compiled a 207-126 record with 29 shutouts, 862 strikeouts and 2.92 earned run average (the league average was 3.48). He won 20 or more games five times. As a member of the Red Sox he pitched and won two complete nine-inning games on the same day — a remarkable feat of endurance as well as skill. Nowadays, even one complete game by a pitcher is noteworthy.
Mays was not the only star player who never made the Baseball Hall of Fame, of course. All-time hits leader Pete Rose was given a lifetime suspension in 1989 by Bart Giamatti, commissioner of baseball, for betting on games, both while he was a player and a manager. These were not penny-ante bets, either — Rose bet at least $2,000 every game on his team to win. He has been considered ineligible for admission to the Hall since that time, despite his truly spectacular accomplishments as a player: He holds the all-time record of 4,256 base hits, achieved in a 24-year career with the Reds, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos — 67 more than second-place Ty Cobb.
Rose, whose nickname was “Charlie Hustle,” was a 17-time All-Star, three-time World Series champion, three-time batting champion and a National League Most Valuable Player. During one stretch, he batted over .300 in nine straight seasons.
The Baseball Hall of Fame released this statement this year explaining its decision to turn down Rose yet again: “After extensive discussion, a vote was taken in which the Board ratified the resolution that was passed on Feb. 4, 1991, in the election rules. As such, anyone deemed permanently ineligible by Major League Baseball, including Pete Rose, may not be considered for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.