June 27th, 2014

Picture Portfolio No. 6: Christy Mathewson

Frank Merriwell, the “All-American Boy” of the dime novels, was not modeled on Christy Mathewson, although many believe this is the case (Merriwell was a national sensation in 1896, when Matty was still in high school). On the contrary, the future star twirler of the New York Giants, he of the disdainful glance at the opposing batsman before tossing up his inscrutable fadeaway, might well have modeled himself on Merriwell.

No matter–chicken or egg, Matty was the real-life embodiment of all the dime-novel improbabilities. He had indefatigable verve, nerve, pluck … even, for a while, luck. An early nickname for him was “Big Six,” conferring upon him the combination of power and reliability of New York’s most famous fire engine, the Americus No. 6, a double-deck steamer that was a true New York Giant, tipping the scale at over two tons. (Forget that stuff you often read about Matty being named “Big Six” on account of his six-foot height.) In an era when most ballplayers were rough-and-tumble characters from the wrong side of the tracks who believed that fists were the best way to settle any dispute, Mathewson stood out as “the Christian Gentleman.” Tall, blond, aristocratic in looks and bearing, and college-educated, he earned a reputation for fairness and honesty that made him one of the game’s first role models for boys of whom middle-class parents could approve. This was no King Kelly or Rube Waddell, no flouter of convention and target of the law, no saloon crawler or base-path brawler.

He was “no goody-goody,” his wife Jane hastened to add whenever someone would expound upon his virtues, and that was probably true, but his press clippings declared him a paragon of virtue. He was known to cuss a bit, liked to gamble mostly on  checkers, at which he was a whiz, and poker, at which he was not, and there are a few recorded instances of his being involved in a scuffle. Some folks found him standoffish, even aloof, and accused him of having “a swelled head.” But his teammates, his manager, and even those most skeptical of creatures, the writers who traveled with the team, simply adored “the Christian Gentleman.” Like Kelly and Waddell, who had courted death through drink, Matty died not long after his playing days were over, though in his case from the lingering effects of poison gas inhaled during a wartime training exercise.

Mathewson began his professional career with Taunton of the New England League, in the summer after his sophomore year at Bucknell College, where he drew All-America attention as a fullback and drop kicker. During the following season, 1900, he went 20-2 for Norfolk in the Virginia League and in midseason was purchased conditionally by the Giants, who were unimpressed by his pitching and tried to convert him to first base. After the season, they returned him to Norfolk, whence he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. (Isn’t it amazing how a talent of this magnitude can escape the gaze of professional baseball people? It gives hope to every struggling rookie at every level of play.)

Fortunately for the Giants, Cincinnati proved to be no smarter than they had been. The Reds allowed themselves to be hoodwinked into an exchange of worn-out superstar Amos Rusie, whose career total of 246 major-league wins were all behind him, for Mathewson, whose 373 wins were all ahead.

These photographs recall Mathewson and his peculiar blend of piety and perspicacity. Action photos of him were bound into a flip book in 1907 by the Winston Film Company (“See Christy Mathewson Pitch!”) and issued commercially. The ingenious Matty used them to augment his own pitches to prospective clients for his off-season insurance business. Now that’s a calling card!

He was never without his Bible and his checkers. When traveling with the team, he would typically go to the local YMCA to play checkers in the evening, sometimes against a gaggle of opponents, whom he would play simultaneously, moving around the room from board to board. He was a Christian in upbringing and demeanor, but unlike Branch Rickey and other devout youths who had made promises to their mothers before embarking upon careers in professional baseball, he was not above playing exhibition baseball games on Sundays (baseball was not permitted on the Sabbath in New York until 1919). He was one of the guys, and he liked his extra money just as the other Giants did.

As a pitcher he was at his best when the going was tough; his three shutouts in the 1905 World Series have never been equaled. His ghosted autobiography, Pitching in a Pinch, explained how he would take it easy unless the situation was tight, i.e., “the pinch.” (Of course, that strategy was fine for the deadball era when weak batters were unlikely to drive the ball for an extra-base hit; today the six-inning “quality start” followed by two or three relievers is the preferred modus operandi.)

Interestingly, the great Mathewson took some of the toughest losses in history. In 1908 he would have been the winning pitcher on September 23, when Fred Merkle failed to touch second and turned a Giant victory into a tie game. When that tie forced a one-game playoff for the pennant, he lost to “Three-Finger” Brown. In the 1912 World Series he lost the final game in the last of the tenth inning when Fred Snodgrass muffed a fly ball and Merkle and the catcher, Chief Meyers, couldn’t agree on who should catch Tris Speaker’s foul pop.

The first of his ghostwritten books was Won in the Ninth. Ring Lardner declared that it ruined the literary tastes of an entire generation, but its readers certainly loved baseball all the more for sharing Mathewson’s thrilling adventures and imagining themselves in his shoes. This 1910 book was the first of a series to be known as the “Matty books”; later exemplars of Matty’s stilted prose are First Base Faulkner, Second Base Sloan, Catcher Craig, and Pitcher Pollock. Subtlety was lost on boys avid for detail and for echoes of the big leagues, so the ballplayers in Won in the Ninth included such barely camouflaged characters as awkward-looking shortstop Hans Hagner, slick-fielding double-play specialist Johnny Everson, and nimble first sacker Hal Case. Newspaperman John Wheeler, who covered the Giants on a daily basis, was Matty’s ghost for the series.