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Mathewson, Christopher ("Christy")

MATHEWSON, Christopher ("Christy")

(b. 12 August 1880 in Factoryville, Pennsylvania; d. 7 October 1925 in Saranac Lake, New York), baseball pitcher who was, in the days before radio, television, and other mass media, one of America's first national sports heroes.

Growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, Mathewson was better off than most boys in rural areas. He was the third of five children of Gilbert Bailey Mathewson, a landowner and developer who isolated his family from the heavy anthracite coal industry that flourished in and around the nottoo-distant city of Scranton, and Minerva J. Capwell.

From the time he was four, Mathewson pleaded with his older brothers to be included in their games. With guidance from an older cousin, Mathewson became adept at making tossed stones change their trajectory by manipulating his grip on them. When he was about eight, he declared that one day he would be a major league pitcher—an unusual ambition in that, at the time, professional baseball was only about a decade old.

After completing grammar school, Mathewson entered nearby Keystone Academy in 1894, where he had a chance to do with a baseball what his cousin had taught him to do with stones. Mathewson could make a ball dart in several different directions by use of a different grip. His two most baffling pitches were his "fade away," or curve, and a "drop," which broke down from a batter as it approached home plate. In his mid-teens, "Husk," as he was also called, was offered a dollar a game to pitch for Mill City, a neighboring town, after the Factoryville team folded in mid-season.

In June 1898 Mathewson graduated from Keystone. On a trip to Scranton, he attended a game between a local YMCA team and the Pittston Reds. The start of the game was delayed, and Mathewson was told that the "Y" team's manager wanted to see him. Mathewson was asked to pitch. He related that the request hit him "like a bomb." "All I could manage to say was 'Yes.'" Mathewson pitched several games for Scranton, but his real "summer job" was throwing for the Honesdale Eagles in a town thirty miles away. He earned $25 a month, plus room and board at a local hotel. Mathewson won three straight games: his first, a 16–7 victory; his second, a rare—for the time—shutout; and his third, an even rarer no-hitter.

That fall, Mathewson used some of his pitching money toward tuition on enrolling at Bucknell University. Mathewson's family, staunch Baptists, approved of his matriculation at the small, church-related school. Having played football, basketball, and baseball at Keystone, Mathewson made the Bucknell varsity football team. He was a hard-charging fullback and accurate drop-kicker. He was also nearly fully matured, at six feet, one inch and 195 pounds. College football at that time was described as "eleven prize-fights going on at once." Nevertheless, the fair-minded Mathewson excelled.

In 1899 Bucknell University football coach George Hoskins offered a new raincoat to the first Bucknell player to score against the University of Pennsylvania, and a pair of shoes to the second player to score. Although Bucknell lost to Penn, 47–10, Mathewson's two five-point field goals allowed him to augment his collegiate wardrobe. In fact, at Bucknell, Mathewson's football skills actually overshadowed his pitching. A true student-athlete, he was also freshman class historian, a member of the band and glee club, cast in class plays, a member of the Latin and philosophy clubs, and a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.

In 1899, during the summer after his freshman year, Mathewson returned to play again for Honesdale and met Dave Williams, a left-handed pitcher, who worked on a pitch he called his "freak ball." Williams never had the control to use the pitch in a game, but he showed Mathewson the grip and technique. The pitch broke toward a right-handed batter, a fine complement to Mathewson's curve that broke away from the hitter.

Before reporting to the Taunton, Massachusetts, team, which offered him better pay, Mathewson stopped off in Boston to see his first major league game, in which two of the prime pitchers of the day, future Hall of Famers Cy Young and Kid Nichols, opposed each other. It is doubtful that young Mathewson could have imagined that within two years he would occupy the same Boston pitcher's mound, throwing against Nichols.

In spite of Taunton's success in garnering a 5–2 record, its team members were seldom paid the promised wage of $90 a month, and the team disbanded by late summer. Mathewson had, however, impressed a manager of another New England League team, who signed him to play the 1900 season at Norfolk, Virginia. In the spring of that year, a nervous nineteen-year-old Mathewson took the mound in Norfolk. The pinpoint control that he would be famous for later had not yet developed. However, Mathewson settled down to win the first game and compiled a 20–2 record that included a no-hitter. This earned him a promotion to the New York Giants, where, not ready for the majors, Mathewson recorded an 0–3 mark and was returned to Norfolk. Mathewson played a final season of football for Bucknell—eligibility rules were not enforced or were nonexistent—and was elected class president before his early departure from the university to pursue baseball. He was also drafted by the Cincinnati Reds, but quickly dealt to the Giants again.

While the Giants were not the dynasty they would become under manager John McGraw, Mathewson did have a respectable first year as a fulltime pitcher, scoring 20–17. His religious convictions prevented him from pitching on Sundays, something he observed all during his storied career.

Mathewson was becoming the toast of New York. In the rough-and-tumble sport of professional baseball, Mathewson stood apart. He had attended college and projected a clean-cut "Christian gentleman" image, in marked contrast to that of most of his teammates and other major league players of his time. His outstanding character set him even further apart from the average players who were not held up as role models and some of whom were referred to as "rounders," the term of the day used to describe crude characters.

At about this time Mathewson picked up the nickname "Big Six." There are several versions of its origin. One has to do with his height—a six-footer was not a common sight in those days, when the average player was a half-foot shorter than Mathewson. Another credits the No. 6 Fire Company. A new, sleek fire-fighting apparatus was in use, and Mathewson as a pitcher could surely "put out the fire." So popular was "Matty," or "Big Six," that it was reported that a large "6" cut out of a newspaper headline by a Chicago man, who had affixed it with the proper postage to an envelope and deposited it in a mailbox, had been delivered directly to Mathewson.

In 1902 Mathewson had a 14–17 record for the last-place Giants, despite throwing eight shutouts. It would be his last sub-.500 season until 1915, his last full year as a pitcher. Mathewson followed the advice of an early manager, George Davis, and pitched economically. He seldom threw more than 100 pitches in a complete, nine-inning game, and once completed a game throwing only sixty-seven pitches. He got a raise to $3,000 and two new suits in 1903. In that year the Giants got a new manager, John "Muggsy" McGraw, a hard-bitten, rough-edged man. As Norman Macht wrote, "Most baseball men thought Matty and McGraw would go together like ketchup and corn flakes." But the two divergent personalities meshed, and Mathewson flourished. From 1903 to 1905, Mathewson had a record of 94–33, winning at least thirty games each year. On 4 March 1903 Mathewson married Jane Stoughton; the couple had a son, John Christopher, known as Christy, Jr.

It was the 1905 World Series versus Connie Mack's seemingly invincible Philadelphia Athletics that sealed Mathewson's reputation. In a five-game series (the Giants won, 4–1) every game was a shutout. Mathewson authored three of them. Mathewson was a twenty-plus game-winner for the next nine seasons after his three-year run of thirty-win seasons. He truly dominated major league pitching in this period, peaking with thirty-seven victories in 1908. While Mathewson continued to set high standards personally, enabling the Giants to win numerous National League pennants, he would never again match the success he had in 1905. Mathewson suffered a shoulder injury in 1914 and was essentially finished as an effective pitcher.

In the middle of the 1916 season, Mathewson persuaded McGraw to let him join the Cincinnati Reds as its manager. The Reds finished in last place, but jumped to fourth in 1917, and third in 1918—Mathewson's last season before he joined the Army's Chemical Warfare Service at the advanced age of thirty-eight, as World War I was winding down. Captain Mathewson was assigned to a "gas and flame division." While training young doughboys near the Belgian border, Mathewson was exposed to chlorine gas, and later the residue of German mustard gas. When he then contracted tuberculosis, its cause was wrongly attributed to the "gassing," according to biographer Ray Robinson. Mathewson spent much of the next three years at a sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York, being treated for tuberculosis. He won the battle, it seemed, and returned to New York for the 1922 World Series, in which his old Giants team defeated the Yankees. In December, he again returned to New York to kick off the annual Christmas Seal campaign to fight tuberculosis. He was held up as the "Saranac Miracle." Sadly, the miracle was not enduring. Mathewson was named president of the Boston Braves in 1925, becoming one of the few to rise from player to team executive, but he succumbed to tuberculosis in the fall of that year. He was buried with full military honors in the Lewisburg Cemetery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1936, when the Baseball Hall of Fame was conceived, Mathewson was one of five members of the charter class, and he continues to be regarded by some as the best righthander to have ever played the game.

So revered was Matty by organized baseball that funds were raised for the construction and dedication in 1927 of the Christy Mathewson Memorial Gateway on the Bucknell University campus, which stands as an entrance to the Bison athletic fields. The top award given to a graduating Bucknell senior student-athlete, the Christy Mathewson Award, was established in the 1960s. In 1989 a renovated Memorial Stadium at Bucknell (a football and track and field facility) was rededicated as the Christy Mathewson Memorial Stadium, in a tribute to Mathewson's former prowess on the gridiron.

Through a combination of his outstanding record—(378–188); an earned run average of 2.13; 2,502 strikeouts; and 80 shutouts—and his gentlemanly example, Mathewson did as much as anyone to move baseball from a sport of ruffians and toughs to America's national pastime.

With John N. Wheeler, Mathewson wrote Pitching in a Pinch (1912), which was well received. Ray Robinson's full-length biography is Matty: An American Hero (1993). Mathewson's life and career are discussed in Donald Honig, Baseball America (1985); Milton Shapiro, Baseball's Greatest Pitchers (1969); Gene Schoor, Christy Mathewson, Baseball's Greatest Pitcher (1953); and John J. McGraw, My Thirty Years in Baseball (1923). Since 1985, Actor Eddie Frierson has performed Matty, An Evening with Christy Mathewson, a one-man show in which he assumes the persona of Mathewson.

Jim Campbell

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