Carl Mays is best known for being the pitcher that hit Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman with a pitch, resulting in the only hit by pitch death of a Major League player. In fifteen seasons he posted a 208-126 record with a 2.92 ERA.
Five years before he became infamous for Chapman’s death, Mays became embroiled in a strange feud with former National League manager John James McCloskey; the dispute was over hair color.
In December of 1914, McCloskey was a well-respected figure in baseball, credited with being the “father” of the original Texas League in 1888, McCloskey had spent five seasons as manager of the Louisville Colonels and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League, and another 23 as a minor league manager and owner.
Mays was coming off a 24-8 season for the Providence Grays in the international League, and while called up to the Red Sox in the closing weeks of the season had not yet appeared in a big league game.
The controversy originated when Charles “Toby” Fullerton, a pitcher for the Seattle Giants in the Northwestern League was quoted in an article that appeared in The Pittsburgh Press and several other newspapers about pitcher “Seattle Bill” James, who had just led the Boston Braves to a World Championship. Fullerton said when he and James were teammates in Seattle in 1912, manager Shad Barry had “condemned the youngster for being a blond,” then was quoted saying McCloskey also “has no use in the world for blonde ball players.”
The strange, silly, throwaway quote should have been the end of it, but it was apparently serious enough for McCloskey to issue a long denial from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. The full-page letter McCloskey wrote appeared in more newspapers than the original story, and read in part:
“Let me say, I have been accused of every crime in the calendar, but this is too much.”
McCloskey claimed the “rumor” originated when he was managing the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association in 1910. Outfielder Rube DeGroff played for McCloskey (incidentally, Shad Barry was also a member of the team), and according to McCloskey:
“We were playing in Kansas City, we were behind…and made a big rally that came near giving us the game. The bases were full in the last inning, with two men out, when the big, blonde and good-natured Rube DeGroff, who was a splendid all-around player and life of the club, came to bat with the bases full and struck out. I was sore over losing the game and made the remark that I never saw a cotton-top who ever made good in a pinch.”
McCloskey said he also believed anything Barry might have said to or about James was certainly a joke, and closed with a final defense:
“In fact, in my humble opinion, I think the blonde has a shade over the brunette. But why the color of a man’s hair should have anything to do with his ability as a ball player is a mystery to me, and I hope this explanation will put an end to these silly rumors.”
Within days Carl Mays weighed in, claiming that he had twice been rejected for an opportunity to pitch for McCloskey’s Ogden Canners in the Union Association because he was blond.
“McCloskey is a liar pure and simple…In 1912, when I was on my way to Boise to try out for the Boise team; I stopped off at Ogden, thinking possibly owner McCloskey might give me a trial. I met him downtown in a billiard parlor and went up and introduced myself.
“McCloskey looked me over carefully, like a horse-trader examining a piece of horseflesh, and then suddenly espied my blond hair. ‘No,’ said he coolly, ‘I don’t want you. In fact I wouldn’t have you around the ranch. I don’t want any blonds in my camp.’”
Mays also claimed that later in 1912 while compiling a 22-9 record for the Boise Irrigators in the Western Tri-State League; he was nearly sold to McCloskey’s pitching-strapped Ogden Canners until:
“One of the Ogden players happened to mention the fact that he was the same blond-haired fellow who had asked for a job earlier.”
According to Mays, McCloskey said:
“’Deal is off. Send that white-haired guy over here and I’ll kill him.’”
The story stuck with McCloskey for more than 20 years. A 1916 story in The Providence Tribune said:
“Scouts all over the country know McCloskey and never did one in his employ recommend a light-haired ballplayer…His peculiarity was well-known, and he knew that no one would have the temerity to recommend to him a blond or light-haired ballplayer. “
In 1934, The Milwaukee Journal called McCloskey “one grizzled veteran who frowned on blond athletes.” The article quoted E. Lee Keyser, a long-time minor league executive, who said when McCloskey managed Butte “One of (McCloskey’s) players was an Indian outfielder whose hair was black,” the player struck out in a critical situation. According to Keyser, when the unnamed player returned to the clubhouse later, McCloskey grabbed his hair and said: “I just want to know if you’re wearing a wig. You hit like a blond.”
McCloskey managed in the minor leagues until he was 70-years-old, he died eight years later in 1940.