Every now and again, Twitter provides a question that’s interesting food for thought.
This tweet was sent out Sunday morning:
If you could erase one player from the history of MLB, who would it be and why?— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) November 22, 2020
There are a lot of potential interesting answers to this question, and you can see some of them and the reasons in the replies.
I had a long discussion Sunday morning with some of my SB Nation colleagues about this, and certain names kept coming up, so I’ll put them in this article and then let you make your own choices.
Cap Anson, who was the longtime captain (thus the nickname) of the Chicago N.L. franchise (before it was called the “Cubs”), was a name frequently mentioned. Anson, though a great player, was an avowed racist. He was one of the key men behind having the unofficial color line drawn in baseball in the 1880s, and it took more than 60 years to have it removed.
John Rocker, Lenny Dykstra, Aubrey Huff, Curt Schilling and Josh Lueke (and if you don’t know what the latter did, google it) were also mentioned by some of my colleagues.
I’m going to choose the player pictured at the top of this post, Carl Mays.
If you’re not familiar with him, here’s why I made that choice.
Mays had a reputation as a head-hunter. In those days, throwing baseballs at players’ heads was an accepted part of the game. His SABR biography says:
Mays refused to apologize for how he pitched. “Any pitcher who permits a hitter to dig in on him is asking for trouble,” he once said. “I never deliberately tried to hit anyone in my life. I throw close just to keep the hitters loose up there.” One teammate said Mays had the disposition of a man with a permanent toothache. Throughout his professional career, Mays had trouble making friends — even on his own teams.
On August 16, 1920, just over 100 years ago, Mays was pitching against the Cleveland Indians in New York. In the fifth inning, Mays threw an inside pitch that hit Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the head. Chapman fell to the ground, was taken to a hospital, but died the following day. It is the only on-field death of a player in MLB history.
Of this, Mays said:
A few hours after Mays was informed of Chapman’s death, he told a Manhattan District Attorney: “It was a little too close, and I saw Chapman duck his head in an effort to get out of the path of the ball. He was too late, however, and a second later he fell to the grounds. It was the most regrettable incident of my career, and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened.” Almost all other witnesses to the incident, however, reported that Chapman never moved an inch and probably never saw the ball.
Mays pitched for a few more years, but not quite at the same level as previously. He died in 1971, never really taking responsibility for what he did, per Chapman’s SABR bio:
Miller Huggins left Carl Mays at home during the Yankees’ September road trip to Cleveland. “It is an episode which I shall always regret more than anything that has ever happened to me,” Mays said, “and yet I can look into my own conscience and feel absolved of all personal guilt. I have long ceased to care what most people think about me. I have a few good friends I can depend on and that is all I need and all I want. In the meantime I have a wife and a family to support.”
Chapman was a legitimately great player and was just 29 when he died, leaving a pregnant wife, who had a daughter the following spring. There’s an outside chance Chapman could have been a Hall of Famer had he lived. Interestingly, this incident did not promote any move toward players wearing helmets. A helmet would likely have saved Chapman’s life, but the wearing of helmets didn’t begin until the 1950s and it wasn’t mandated until the 1970s.
And the Indians franchise suffered, too, though they did win the 1920 A.L. pennant. They would not win the pennant again until 1948, when they won their most recent World Series.
There’s a very good book about this called “The Pitch That Killed,” written in 1989, that describes the incident and what led up to it. I’d recommend reading that book to learn about this dark time in baseball history.
For these reasons, Carl Mays is the answer to my question. His actions killed a man and might have significantly altered the history of a team and possibly a league. Baseball would have been better off without him.
Who would be your answer to the question posed in the tweet? And remember, the question calls for a player to be removed, not another baseball personality.