What he did: More than 80 years after his last game, Carl Mays remains one of baseball’s most notorious figures. Mays threw the pitch that resulted in the only death of a player in baseball history. He also might have intentionally lost games in the 1921 and 1922 World Series, and he wore out his welcome in New York shortly thereafter. Yankee manager Miller Huggins told longtime sportswriter Fred Lieb, “Any ballplayers that played for me on either the Cardinals or Yankees could come to me if he were in need and I would give him a helping hand. I made only two exceptions, Carl Mays and Joe Bush. If they were in the gutter, I’d kick them.”
It’s a strong statement, and it might be one of the reasons Mays never got serious consideration for the Hall of Fame despite boasting a 208-126 lifetime record and 2.92 ERA, not to mention five 20-win seasons and success in both the Deadball and Live Ball eras. Mays might have made some poor choices that curtailed an otherwise bright career and given him a sordid reputation almost a century later. That being said, pitching in the modern era, Mays might have 100 more wins and a whole different legacy.
Era: We’re sticking Mays in the majors of today, and since he won 20 games in two leagues, the idea here is that Mays would be fine in either current circuit. He did his best work with powerhouse franchises, the Boston Red Sox of the 1910s and the Yankees of the early ’20s, so it’s conceivable he could thrive on a large stage once more. And the issues that hampered his career wouldn’t exist today.
Why: A lot’s changed in baseball in nine decades. Perhaps most importantly for Mays’ sake, batters wear helmets and salaries are exponentially higher. Mays might have the same penchant for throwing the kind of inside pitch that killed Ray Chapman, the same greed to sell out his teammates for a quick payoff, but it’s unlikely the harm would be as great. There simply wouldn’t be the same opportunity.
Would Mays be a saint in the modern big leagues? Maybe not, though that’s never been a requirement f0r baseball stardom. It’d definitely be interesting to see if Mays could stick with one team. Upon waiving Mays out to Cincinnati in 1923, Huggins wrote to Reds president Garry Herrmann, “I may be sending you the best pitcher I have, but I warn you that Carl is a troublemaker and always will be a hard man to sign.” Perhaps in the modern era with free agency, Mays could have a better chance to pick the right organization for himself. He’d also have more incentive to behave. Whatever the case, it seems unlikely he’d wind up as much a pariah.
Lieb wrote, “Mays felt he never lived down the Chapman incident. Late in his life I heard him say, ‘I won over two hundred big league games, but no one remembers that. When they think of me, I’m the guy who killed Chapman with a fastball.'” The modern era could offer Mays so much more.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays