Christy Mathewson: The Christian Gentleman
Mathewson was born on August 12th, 1880, in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, a town in the northeastern part of the State. He was the oldest of six children who all attended Keystone Academy, a private school founded by his grandmother. Mathewson was a good student and became well-educated while also playing football and baseball. The Mathewsons were very religious and regularly attended church.
The All-AmericanMathewson grew to 6′ 1 1/2″ and 195 pounds and was a gifted athlete. He was a natural leader, mostly by example. He was tall, very handsome, courteous and fair-minded. While at Bucknell University, he was elected Class president, and starred on the football and baseball teams. He was named to Walter Camp’s All-America Football Team in 1900. He also played with the Pittsburgh Stars, an early professional football club, as a running back and a place-kicker (called a “drop-kicker” then).
All during his highschool and college days, he had played semi-pro, and then minor league, baseball (there were no restrictions on playing college and pro ball simultaneously back then). His favorite activity was baseball so he signed a pro contract to pitch for the Cincinnati Reds. However, the New York Giants had a star pitcher, Amos Rusie, who was trying to rehab an arm injury. Rusie was the biggest pitching star in baseball, but the Giants were leery of various predictions that he would recover. So, they traded him to the Reds for the new signee, Mathewson. That started (in 1900) a sixteen year run of excellence for Mathewson and the Giants.
Some of Matty’s (“Matty” was a long-time nickname of Mathewson, together with “Big Six”, a nickname based on his height) teammates while with the Giants included pitchers Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity, Doc Crandall, Hooks Wiltse and Rube Marquard, the slick-fielding shortstop Bill Dahlen, first basemen Dan McGann, Fred Tenney and Fred Merkle, outfielders Mike Donlin and Cy Seymour, and catchers Chief Meyers and Roger “The Duke of Tralee” Bresnahan. It is apparent that the Giants were one of baseball’s perennial play-off clubs during the first fifteen years of the 20th century. They were led by the feisty John “The Little Napoleon” McGraw, one of the most successful managers in the history of baseball.Of course, the New Yorkers were anchored by the incomparable Christy Mathewson–the man after whom it was widely rumored the fictional Frank Merriwell had been modeled. It was like Matty was right out of “central casting”–tall, handsome, gallant, and fair to one and all. And, he was a winner–373 wins against only 188 losses for his career. He is tied (with Grover Cleveland Alexander) for most wins in National League history, and 3rd all time behind only Cy Young and Walter “The Big Train” Johnson. In 1908, he set the NL record (since 1893) for wins in a season, 37. He is also (since 1893) the top winner in a season for a pitcher who did not throw the “spitball”. All this, and he played no games on Sundays, due to a promise he made to his mother that he would “always honor the Sabbath”.
One of the favorite anecdotes about Mathewson originates from 1908’s pre-season…when the Army Military Academy’s baseball coach, Dennis Houle, asked Giants’ Manager John McGraw if he had anyone on staff who could help his cadet pitchers. “I’ve got just the man,” responded McGraw. He sent Mathewson. (U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel James Flowers was introduced to me at Fort Worth’s Mira Vista Golf Club, and I shared this story with him. He was helping gather research for Mike Huber’s excellent history of West Point baseball. Huber, in his book, “West Point’s Field of Dreams”, Vermont Heritage Press, Quechee, VT. 2004, cited this writer as a source for the story on Mathewson and the cadet pitchers.) Mathewson gave the cadets a strong talk on “control”, whereby they challenged him to throw 25 pitches to “the same spot” behind the plate. Mathewson smiled, and proceeded to hit the stationary glove 25 straight times (including 5 “fadeaways”). He then turned to the cadet pitchers and advised, “That is all you really need to know about pitching.”
Hall of Fame CareerMathewson won 2 Pitching Triple Crowns (1905 and 1908), fashioned 2 No-hitters (1901 and 1905), won 5 Strikeout Crowns and 5 ERA Titles. He had 7 seasons of fewest walks-per-9 innings, and finished 8th all time for career ERA with a minuscule figure of 2.13. His post-season ERA was a ridiculous 0.97, and his career WHIP is 5th all time with an incredible average of 1.06. Also, his post-season WHIP is just 0.84! Matty’s career strikeout total is 2,507, and he tossed 435 complete games (14th all time). Mathewson also recorded 79 shutouts, good for 3rd all time (behind only Johnson and Alexander). In 1908, he chalked up 11 of those shutouts. He also had 4 30-win seasons, and 13 20-win seasons–12 of which were consecutive. Five seasons saw ERAs of under 2.00. He also won 9 crowns for Ks:BBs ratio, and had a post-season ratio of an amazing 4.8 (per 9 innings). Mathewson’s best pitch was a well-controlled fast ball, but he was known for his “out pitch”, a “fadeaway” (or, “screw-ball”, as it is now called). He was the first Major Leaguer to truly master this offering.
In 1905, Mathewson performed what ESPN called “the greatest World Series feat of all time”. He pitched 3 complete game shutouts in the World Series against the highly-touted Philadelphia Athletics, including victories over Eddie Plank and Chief Bender (2 future Hall of Famers). This feat has never been matched.
Some of Mathewson’s greatest pitching duels were with another future Hall of Famer, the Cubs’ Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. The Cubs may have been the best team in baseball during the 1900-1908 time frame, and Matty and Brown matched up several times. The record shows that Brown won 13 games between them and Mathewson won 11. Experts agree that either could have won most of the games. At the end of Matty’s career, in 1916, he was traded to the Reds, where on September 4th he faced Brown and the Cubs one last time. This time neither pitcher did well, but Mathewson prevailed with a victory. The next day, “Big Six” retired from the game.
In 1903, Matty had married the love of his life, Jane Stoughton, his college sweetheart at Bucknell University. They were blessed with a son, Christy, Jr., and now in retirement as a player, he brought them to Cincinnati where Matty took over managing the Reds. He built them into a winning club–a team that would go on to win the World Series in 1919. Yet, Matty would not be at the Reds’ helm in 1919.
The Tragic EndIn 1918, the U. S. got drawn into “The Great War” (World War I) in 1918, and Matty resigned as Reds’ Manager, and enlisted in the U. S. Army. He was appointed a Captain and assigned to the 128th Pennsylvania Division, in charge of a “Chemical Warfare Service” group. (Incidentally, Ty Cobb also served in the “Chemical Warfare Service”.) While recovering from a bout with pneumonia, Matty was accidentally “gassed” during a training exercise. He was never the same again.
Upon his return from active duty, Matty and Jane spent time at their summer home in Saranac Lake, New York. Matty, still suffering from debilitating headaches, also spent considerable time in a sanitarium, while doctors tried to treat his symptoms. In the meantime, he tried to help with coaching duties for the Giants. Even though Matty was in pain for much of those six years, no one ever heard him complain.
Eventually, in his weakened state, he contracted tuberculosis. He passed away on October 7th, 1925. He was 45 years of age. Minutes before he died, he counseled Jane, “Now Jane, I want you to go outside and have yourself a good cry. Don’t make it a long one–this can’t be helped.”
The LegacySo widespread was the admiration for Mathewson, the 1925 World Series participants, the Pirates and Senators, each wore black armbands to express grief for their fallen friend.
The Bucknell University football stadium is named after Christy Mathewson, and his birthday is still a holiday in Factoryville. Keystone Academy’s (now a college) baseball field and Factoryville’s Little League field are both named after Mathewson. Many other baseball facilities are named after “The Christian Gentleman”. His name has also appeared in numerous songs and poems. Ogden Nash’s “Line-up For Yesterday” is a good example. Mathewson’s uniform was long ago retired by the Giants. Even a WWII Liberty ship was christened the “SS Christy Mathewson”.
The Sporting News named Mathewson as the 7th greatest player of all time. John Thorn’s “Total Baseball” includes Mathewson as one of its 5 greatest pitchers. Ultimate Baseball The Game (UBTG) ranks Mathewson as one of its 3 greatest pitchers of all time. Matty was also a good hitter, and UBTG also ranks him as one of the top 5 fielding pitchers ever.
Mathewson was one of baseball’s “First Five” inductees to the Hall of Fame in 1936. His Hall of Fame plaque simply says, “Matty was master of them all.” The legendary Grantland Rice explained, “He gripped the imagination of a country that held a hundred million people, and held the grip with a firmer hold than any man of his day or time!”
Christy Mathewson: The Christian Gentleman.