Happy Birthday, Matty

Streetcar placard; Matty for Tuxedo Tobacco

Streetcar placard; Matty for Tuxedo Tobacco

On this day in 1880, Christy Mathewson was born in Factoryville, PA. This seems like a good opportunity to share a story I wrote for Narratively last year of which I am particularly proud. It has not run at Our Game before. http://narrative.ly/the-very-respectable-adventures-of-gentleman-matty-and-dime-novel-frank/


Thank you for a most eloquent meditation on the hero in pop culture, Mr. Thorn. And thank you too for introducing us to Jack Hendricks who, it seems, was one-in-a-million, the sole iconoclast who ever dared speak ill of Christy Mathewson.

Having first learned about Big Six in Douglas Wallop’s delightful _Baseball: An Informal History_ and Lawrence Ritter’s landmark _The Glory of Their Times_, I confess I found myself occasionally wondering if Matty had indeed been a Merriwell-like character created by a fawning New York press. Collecting pieces here and there these past fifty years to complete my mental mosaic of the man, I did come across an unsavory bit once in a while: there was the encounter with the lemonade vendor you mentioned, another incident in which Mathewson was purported to have deliberately tripped a batboy in a fit of pique, causing the lad to chip one of his teeth and the occasional allusion to arrogance (“‘I can still see Christy Mathewson making his lordly entrance,’ recalled Three Finger Brown many years later” [“Mordecai Brown” by Jack Ryan in _My Greatest Day in Baseball_]) Usually, however Mathewson was described as a paradigm both on and off the field.

I confess this unceasing adulation roused the skeptic in me, so much so that when I had the good fortune to interview Lawrence Ritter, I gently suggested that he (and others) might have been guilty of “godding up” the players (to use Stanley Woodward’s pet phrase for sports desk hyperbole). His answer could not have been more emphatic:

“And I deny any myth-making in the cases of McGraw and Mathewson. These were strictly the players’ points of view. Mathewson’s legend was no doubt enhanced by his death as a result of World War I, but he was, by all accounts, a stellar individual. Rube Marquard said the worst thing anybody had to say about him. Now, I put in the book that Matty was a champion checker player. Marquard said Matty was also quite a gambler—cards and dice, but mainly cards—and he was terrific at that, too. They were all just ga-ga about him.” [“Lawrence S. Ritter—The Last New York Giant”]

So now, thanks to Jack Hendricks, we know the unvarnished truth about Mathewson: as a twenty-one-year-old, he was occasionally bitter in defeat and somewhat less solicitous of his teammates’ feelings than, say, Walter Johnson, another saint of the slab.

The Elizabethans were right: it is the dullest foil that best sets off the brightest gem and the greatest beauty is only revealed by slight imperfection.

When I was a young man and goggled at accomplishments like the pitching of three consecutive shutouts in a World Series, I believed everyone possessed the necessary wherewithal to be a good person. I know better now. Most of us try, but many of us fail, circumstance and human frailty combining to do us in. Matty, on the other hand, seems to have been much more than “the master of them all,” the coda of his Hall of Fame plaque inscription. More impressive yet, when all is said and done, he appears to have been the master of himself.

Well said, David. Thanks.

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