Monday, October 14, 2013

Christy Mathewson

Lewisburg, PA.  Visited August 2013

October is baseball month in the blog.  In this post it’s an honor to feature an original Hall of Famer, Christy Mathewson.  Even though he ended his pitching career almost a century ago he still ranks in the all-time top ten in most major pitching categories.  Nicknamed “Big Six” by fellow ball-players (because his stature) Christy Mathewson is generally considered to be one of the classiest players ever to play the game.  What is less known is the extraordinary service he rendered to his country as a soldier in World War I.  Read on. 

Christopher Mathewson was born August 12, 1880 in a small town above Scranton PA called Factoryville, PA.   Upon graduation from high school he enrolled at nearby Bucknell University where he played collegiate baseball and football, joined a fraternity and was elected senior class president.  He was named to the Walter Camp All American football team in 1900 as a drop-kicker.  This was not the typical route to a professional baseball career at the beginning of the 20th Century.  But he had begun playing semi-pro baseball at the age of 14 and played minor league ball throughout his college years, so he left college already eyeing a Major League career.

Big Six in action

Christy Mathewson pitched his first game as a major leaguer for the New York Giants at the age of 19 in 1900.  He won 20 games in 1901.  By 1902 he was also playing in the National Football League as a fullback for the Pittsburgh Stars.  He abruptly ended his football career when the baseball Giants apparently demanded he end his second sports career if he wanted to play with them.  The decision was apparently the right one because Mathewson quickly emerged as one of the dominating pitchers in the game.  He built a reputation as a student of hitters whose variety of pitches and pinpoint control could make him almost unhittable at times.  Connie Mack said of Big Six, "It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn’t pitching against you."

 Christy and Jane in 1918 right before shipping out
In 1903 Mathewson married his college sweetheart Jane and they had their only child, a son, later in the year.  Mathewson was a devout Christian and was dubbed ‘The Christian Gentlemen’ – a demonstration of respect by fellow players and others associated with the game  Throughout his career he refused to pitch on Sunday based on his Sabbath convictions. 

Here is some interesting footage of Mathewson and his Hall of Fame manager John McGraw

2011 T-205 Baseball Card -
lists for $100,000 in mint
Christy Mathewson’s 1905 season is one of the greatest pitching performances in the history of baseball.  He went 31 and 9 with a 1.28 ERA and 206 strikeouts.  He walked only 64 batters in 338 innings.   Mathewson led the Giants to the World Series where he threw three complete game shut-outs over the course of six days as the Giants defeated the Philadelphia A’s in five games.  In 1908 he won 37 games.  While never winning another World Series “Matty’ Mathewson (another affectionate nickname) retired age 36 at the end of the 1916 season after 17 years in the league.  He finished his career with 373 wins (third on the all-time list and tops in the National League) and a lifetime 2.13 ERA.   Following his retirement Mathewson managed the Cincinnati Reds during the 1917 season.

The Christian Gentleman and
the Georgia Peach (Ty Cobb)
in Europe
With the US entry into World War I in 1918 Christy Mathewson was looking for a way to serve his country.  Though 37 years old and a family man, he joined a special unit along with (Ty Cobb and Branch Rickey) known as the Chemical Warfare Service (aka, the Gas and Flame Division).  The unit had a singular purpose – to be on the front lines and attack into any chemical warfare assault and repel the threat with flamethrowers.  Seriously!    

Tragically during one of the extensive live gas training exercises at the front Matty was not able to get his gas mask secured.  Ty Cobb describes the scene this way in his autobiography, “My Life in Baseball”.
“I will never forget the day when some of the men, myself included, missed the signal (to snap their mask into position). Men screamed…when they got a whiff of the sweet death in the air, they went crazy with fear and I remember Mathewson telling me ‘Ty, I got a good dose of the stuff. I feel terrible’….I saw Christy Mathewson doomed to die.”

 A fuller account of Mathewson’s military service from Stars and Stripes can be read here.

Mathewson statue in his hometown
of Factoryville, PA
Following his recovery Big Six returned to coach for the Giants in 1919-21, but his health had been severely compromised in the accident.  He spent most of his time at Lake Saranac in upstate New York for his health.  However, he contracted tuberculosis as a result of his gas exposure and succumbed to it at his Saranac home at the age of 45 on October 7, 1925.  According to the Ken Burns' documentary series, Baseball, Mathewson's last words were to his wife: “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.”  His body was returned to his hometown and buried at Lewisburg Cemetery adjacent to Bucknell University.  The college football stadium has been named after him.

Original five clockwise from top left - Mathewson, Babe
Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb
In 1936 Christy Mathewson was one of the original five inductees (along with Babe Ruth, Ty CobbWalter Johnson , and Honus Wagner) into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The Christian Gentleman was the only posthumous inductee in the class.  His jersey, denoted as "NY" (because there were no player numbers at that time) has been retired by the San Francisco Giants and hangs in the left-field corner of AT&T Park. Legendary writer Grantland Rice eulogized Christy Mathewson with these words.

"Christy Mathewson brought something to baseball no one else had ever given the game. He handed the game a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains, and personality….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!”

Big Six plaque in the Hall of Fame

Mathewson stone with my Phillies cap and
baseball paraphernalia left by another visitor.
The marker is a war veteran's emblem.  
I grew up reading about Christy Mathewson and he fit the ideal of accomplishment and character I was always told to emulate.  So he’s been a prime candidate for this blog.  But Lewisburg, PA is really not on the way to anything so I always wondered how I’d get there.  I decided to take a little detour on the way to speak at our church Youth Camp – a beautiful drive to a nice little town.  Lewisburg Cemetery is adjacent to the campus.  There is a sign at the entrance with a little bit of history but no indication of where Mathewson’s grave is located.  So if you happen to be in the Lewisburg area (not likely) and want to visit Christy Mathewson’s grave (extremely not likely) then here’s a guide.  Turn into the main entrance and up the drive in front of you.  Before you get to a cross lane at the top of the hill you’ll pass a cement walkway on your right.  Park there.  Then walk up the driveway another couple of rows of graves and look to your right.  Mathewson’s tombstone is visible near the driveway on the right hand side. 

Your blogger in front of Christy Mathewson Stadium
at Bucknell University