Christy Mathewson

views updated May 29 2018

Christy Mathewson

Christy Mathewson (1880-1925) was a much-admired American sports hero in the early part of the twentieth century. Educated and self-confident, he was a role model for the youth of his era and one of baseball's greatest pitchers. Mathewson won 373 games in 17 seasons and was among the "Immortal Five" players who were the first inductees into major league baseball's Hall of Fame.

The charismatic Mathewson was one of the smartest and most talented pitchers of any era. Except for a short stint with the Cincinnati Reds at the close of his career, Mathewson spent his entire career pitching for John McGraw's New York Giants, one of the best teams of base-ball's so-called "dead-ball era." He became a protege and friend of McGraw, one of baseball's greatest managers. Mathewson appeared in four World Series with the Giants. He finished third on the all-time list in victories and shutouts. When his career ended, he spent three seasons as manager of the Reds. Mathewson died at age 45 from tuberculosis, contracted from exposure to poison gas while serving in World War I.

Makings of a Star

Born in the small mill town of Factoryville, Pennsylvania, just north of Scranton, Mathewson was the oldest of five children. His Protestant parents were staunchly religious and wanted him to become a minister. He grew up into a handsome, blond, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, athletic, and intellectual young man-a paragon of the prized male attributes of his day.

Spurning the ministry, Mathewson enrolled at Bucknell University. There, he was president of his class while starring in baseball, basketball and football. In football he was an accomplished field goal kicker. In 1899 Mathewson turned professional, playing minor league baseball with Taunton. The next season, he went to Norfolk and compiled a 20-2 record, which earned him plenty of attention from major league scouts. The New York Giants signed him to a contract, offering him a $1,500 bonus. They brought him right to the majors during the 1900 season, but Mathewson won none of his five starts and was sent back to Norfolk.

In 1901 the Cincinnati Reds drafted Mathewson for $100. Before the season started the Reds traded him back to the Giants for pitcher Amos Rusie. It proved to be one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. Rusie eventually made it to baseball's Hall of Fame, but he was at the end of his long career, had not pitched in two years because of a sore arm, and would never win another game. Mathewson went on to win 372 games for the Giants before returning to the Reds for one final victory in 1916. The explanation for the deal was that Reds' owner John Bush was about to buy the Giants, and he wanted fresh young arms on his new team.

All-American Hero

In his first full season for the Giants, Mathewson won twenty games and lost seventeen. On Opening Day in 1902, he shut out Philadelphia but ended up that season with a losing record of fourteen wins and seventeen defeats. The next year, he began a twelve-year stretch of dominance in which he averaged 26 wins a season and compiled four thirty-win years. Mathewson won 317 games and lost only 133 games in that span. He was the dominant pitcher in the National League, leading his league in wins four times, in earned run average five times, and in strikeouts five times.

The renowned tactician John McGraw immediately took Mathewson under his wing after becoming Giants manager in 1903. That spring, Mathewson and his new wife, Jane, a Sunday school teacher, celebrated their honeymoon at the Giants' training camp. McGraw's wife Blanche became close friends with Jane Mathewson. When the team returned to New York, the McGraws and Mathewsons shared a ground-floor apartment near Central Park. They remained close throughout Mathewson's life.

Mathewson became a huge fan favorite in New York after he led the team to a National League championship in 1904 while compiling a record of thirty-three wins and twelve losses. McGraw refused to play in the World Series because he considered Boston, the champions of the upstart American League, too lowly to challenge. In 1905 the Giants easily won the pennant again. This time McGraw agreed to face the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Mathewson electrified the nation by pitching three shutouts in the five-game series. In the three games, he gave up fourteen hits and walked only one batter. His feats made him the new century's first modern sports icon.

Few major league ballplayers at the turn of the century were college graduates, and Mathewson stood out, both on and off the field. He projected a patrician air of pride and nobility, even though he could sometimes be brutally honest. "You must have an alibi to show why you lost," he once told a reporter. "If you haven't one, you must fake one. Your self-confidence must be maintained."

Mathewson was nicknamed "Big Six" by his team-mates because he measured six feet, quite tall for that era. Cut straight from the mold of the clean-cut fictional collegiate sport hero of the era, Frank Merriwell, Mathewson became "something of a paragon, really the first professional athlete to function as a role model for America's youth," according to baseball historian Charles Alexander. Sunday games were rarely played in those days because of blue laws, but when they were, Mathewson refused to suit up, because he said he had promised his mother that he never would work on the Sabbath. In an era when baseball was the undisputed national pastime, sportswriters constantly polished Mathewson's image. The legendary writer Grantland Rice called Mathewson "the knightliest of all the game's paladins."

In stark contrast, McGraw's Giants were a brawling, rowdy outfit, with the manager one of the fiercest competitors in the game. McGraw often baited and fought umpires, and his players bullied and intimidated other teams. Mathewson's own behavior did not always match his sterling reputation. He threw wicked brushback pitches at batters' heads, chewed out umpires, and occasionally threw punches during the Giants' many on-field brawls. Revealing his contempt for umpires, he once said: "Many baseball fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile." During one brawl in 1904, Mathewson reportedly knocked down a boy selling lemonade near the Giants' bench. Contradicting his clean-cut image, he occasionally drank beer, played poker and smoked cigars, but these habits were rarely reported in the popular press.

A Will to Win

Like his legendary manager, Mathewson hated to lose. He used all his wits in battle. His memory was so sharp that he would often take on eight teammates in checkers. On the field, he studied and memorized his opponents' weaknesses. He never made a mistake a second time against a batter. He had command of four pitches-a screwball, a wicked curveball, a chance of pace, and a respectable though not overpowering fastball. His screwball, then called a fadeaway, was his trademark pitch. "Anybody's best pitch is the one the batters aren't hitting that day," he said famously.

Despite his obvious talents, Mathewson's greatest weapons were his intelligence, his composure and his remarkable control. He issued only 1.3 walks per game in his career. In 1913 he pitched sixty-eight consecutive innings without giving up a walk. With his great control and intellectual approach to pitching, Mathewson might be compared to the Atlanta Braves' star of the 1990s, Greg Maddux.

In the spring of 1906, Mathewson came down with diphtheria. He never regained his full strength that season, yet still managed to win twenty-two games. Two years later, Mathewson had his finest year, winning an amazing thirty-seven of his forty-four starts and pitching thirty-four complete games and 390 innings. The thirty-seven victories set a post-1900 baseball record that has never been broken. His earned run average in that season of 1908 was a low 1.43, and the following year it was even better, a remarkable 1.14.

McGraw occasionally used Mathewson in relief. In one game in 1908, with the Giants leading 4-1 in the ninth, Mathewson had already showered and dressed in street clothes. But when the Giants' Joe McGinnity walked the bases loaded, McGraw called for Mathewson. Still dripping wet, he went to the mound hatless and in street shoes and speedily retired the side.

The 1908 race went down to the wire. To determine the National League winner, officials ordered a disputed tie game between the Giants and Cubs replayed at the end of the season. A rowdy, overflow crowd at the Polo Grounds in New York heaped abuse on the Cubs and adulation on Mathewson. As he entered the field in a long linen duster, the crowd roared, "Fadeaway, Matty!" But the Cubs won the game when the Giants' center fielder ignored Mathewson's pleas to back up, and Joe Tinker hit a triple over his head. "I never had less on the ball in my life," Mathewson later admitted.

World Series Thrills

The Giants returned to the World Series in 1911 against the Philadelphia Athletics. During the series, a New York Herald baseball reporter paid Mathewson $500 for the privilege of ghost writing a column under the pitcher's name. In the opening game, Mathewson won 2-1, throwing a complete game with only ninety-two pitches. In the second game, Giants' pitcher Rube Marquard gave up a game-winning homer to A's slugger Frank Baker. Mathewson's column the next morning criticized Marquard for throwing a pitch to Baker that McGraw had warned him not to throw. But in the ninth inning of the third game, with the Giants leading 1-0, Mathewson served up a home run ball to Baker. Mathewson eventually lost that game and another, and the Giants lost the series, four games to two.

In 1912 Mathewson started three more World Series games, but did not win any of them, and the Giants lost to the Boston Red Sox, four games to three. In the final game Mathewson had a 2-1 lead in the tenth inning when out-fielder Fred Snodgrass dropped a fly ball. Then Mathewson and first baseman Fred Merkle let a catchable foul ball drop, giving Tris Speaker a second chance, and Speaker delivered a game-winning hit.

In 1913 Mathewson finally won his fifth World Series game, a 3-0 win in ten innings. However, it was the Giants' only win of the Series, which would be Mathewson's last. Mathewson still holds the all-time World Series records of four shutouts and ten complete games. His World Series earned run average was a microscopic 1.15. All five of his Series losses were due to lack of run support from his team-mates.

Untimely End

After his dozen brilliant seasons, Mathewson faded quickly. In 1915, troubled by back and shoulder pain, he won only eight games. The next season the Cincinnati club wanted Mathewson to be their new manager, and McGraw obliged by trading his friend.

Mathewson managed the Reds for three seasons without getting them into contention. His most notable move as manager was suspending first baseman Hal Chase for "indifferent playing." Mathewson knew Chase was involved with gamblers and suspected him of throwing games. It was a bold move in an era when gambling encroached on the sport's integrity.

In 1918 Mathewson enlisted in the Army to fight in World War I. He was gassed by friendly forces in a training exercise. The poison gas caused tuberculosis. Mathewson returned to the Giants to coach for three more seasons under his old friend McGraw, and later served as a part-time owner and president of the Boston Braves. But his poor health eventually forced him into a tuberculosis sanitarium at Lake Saranac, New York. There he died, on the first day of the 1925 World Series, at the age of forty-five. Mathewson was buried at Bucknell College, and McGraw served as a pallbearer at the funeral.

Mathewson's 373 wins put him in a tie for third on the all-time list. His career earned run average of 2.13 ranks fifth. He is third with eighty career shutouts. He was honored posthumously for his sports achievements as one of the original five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.


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"Christy Mathewson," Baseball Almanac, □