Smithsonian: A death at home plate

From Gilbert King at on May 9, 2012, with mention of SABR member Allan Wood:

The Chicago Bulls and their fans watched in horror as their star guard, Derek Rose collapsed on the floor toward the end of a recent playoff game against the Philadelphia  76ers. Just days later, the New York Yankees and their fans watched Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, fall to the ground while shagging fly balls before the start of a game in Kansas City. Both athletes suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments in their knees, putting their futures and their teams’ prospects in doubt. Sportswriters called the injuries “tragic.”

Of course, both injuries were shocking, but “tragic” might be better reserved for matters of life and death and athletic contests gone awry—such as a confrontation that took place more then 90 years ago in New York, in the heat of a pennant race, when a scrappy Cleveland Indians shortstop stepped into the batter’s box against a no-nonsense Yankees pitcher.

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.”

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Originally published: May 9, 2012. Last Updated: May 9, 2012.