May 9, 2012
The Chicago Bulls and their fans watched in horror as their star guard, Derrick 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 than 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.”
Mays had good control for a submariner, but he also was known as a “headhunter” who was not shy about brushing batters, especially right-handers, off the plate; he was consistently among the American League leaders in hit batsmen. His feud with Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb was particularly intense: In one game, he threw at the cantankerous “Georgia Peach” every time he came to bat, prompting Cobb to throw his bat at Mays, Mays to call Cobb a “yellow dog,” the umpires to separate the two as they tried to trade blows, and Mays to hit Cobb on the wrist with his next pitch. In another game, Cobb laid a bunt down the first-base line so he could spike Mays when the pitcher covered the base.