by Philip Seib is a book about Christy Mathewson (1880 – 1925) who is regarded as baseball’s first superstar. This turn of the century player was among the initial group of five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. The others were Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. He played over ninety years ago but there are sports historians who still write about him. They called him "Big Six (six feet tall was unusual at that time), Matty and Marvelous Matty."
He was a handsome six foot one inch one hundred ninety five pound right handed pitcher who played for the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds. He had played football and baseball for Bucknell University and was one of the first college educated players to enter the major leagues. He had been born in a small mill town in Pennsylvania as the oldest of five children. His Protestant parents were staunchly religious and wanted him to become a minister, but this blond, blue eyed, broad shouldered athlete was headed for another life. Mathewson was a like a fictional character as the clean cut collegiate sport hero who became a national big league hero. He was a role model for the youth of that era. Because of blue laws, baseball was rarely played on Sunday, but when it was, Mathewson refused to play because he said he had promised his mother he would never work on the Sabbath.
Playing for the New York Giants from 1900 to 1916 (they signed him for a $1500 bonus) he won more then twenty games in the thirteen seasons and more then thirty in four of those years. He ranks third in all time wins and shutouts. In a seventeen year career, Mathewson won 373 games as a right handed pitcher and lost 188 for a .665 winning percentage. His ERA of 3.13 and 79 career shutouts are among the all time best for a pitcher. He recorded 2,5002 strikeouts against only 844 walks. His career statistics in baseball are nothing short of miraculous. He also played for and managed the Cincinnati Reds from 1916 to 1918 and later was president of the Boston Braves.He once said "you can learn a little from victory, but you can learn everything from defeat."
Mathewson hated to lose and he brought his intelligence to the game. He was able to player eight players at once in checkers and on the field he studied his opponents. He remembered their playing characteristics and used it against them. It’s said he never made a mistake about a player a second time. He used what he called a "fadeaway" but is today known as a "screwball." He also threw a curveball, a change of pace and a fastball, but the fadeaway was his trademark pitch.
Grantland Rice said of him: "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."
In 1918 he joined the Arm to fight in World War I. He was accidentally gassed during training exercises which lead to tuberculosis. That caused his later death at age forty five.
An equally intriguing character, baseball manager John McGraw played a huge role in making Mathewson the star he was. He took Mathewson under his wing and brought him to the best of his game. McGraw’s Giants were a rowdy group and McGraw led them in being rowdy. He baited umpires and his players tried to bully other players. While McGraw was a great manager he was also a character. In one game McGraw go so angry at umpire Bill Byron’s calls, he stormed out onto the field, grabbed the umpire’s pocket watch chain and jerked it out, tossing it to the ground and stomping on it. He was ejected, but his players were so inspired they won the game. The next day McGraw made sure to buy Byron another watch that was better then the one he destroyed.
Christy had a son, Christy Jr., who didn’t play baseball. He joined the air corps and in 1932 he was in China serving as an instructor at an American base. He married a woman from Philadelphia in China on Christmas Eve, 1932. Two weeks later while the two were on a flight with Christy as pilot, the plane crashed and she was killed. His leg had to be amputated and then returned to the United States. He later remarried and retired from the military. He was installing an electric dishwasher in 1950 that touched off a gas explosion. He died from the injuries at forty three years of age.