“Christy Mathewson talks like a Harvard graduate, looks like an actor, acts like a businessman and impresses you as an all-around gentleman.”
If you are a regular reader at Mop Up Duty, you have no doubt come across a few of our player biographies. These bios are typically of lesser known players and baseball personalities with interesting stories. In this case, Christy Mathewson is one of the greatest baseball players of all time yet is somewhat forgotten since his career spanned from 1900 to 1916. Many are familiar with the iconic photo above: a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, handsome old time ball player with his hands on his hips, sporting the baggy flannels of the New York Giants and a twinkle in his eye. It is a similar photo to many we’ve seen of Roy Halladay, and as you will find out, the similarities do not end there.
Relying on an above average fastball, pinpoint control (as well as being one of the first to throw a screwball – the “fadeaway“), Mathewson went 373-188 for an outstanding Halladay-esque .665 winning percentage over his 17-year career. Mathewson recorded 2,502 career strikeouts and only 844 walks, a ratio of almost 3:1. His 373 wins tie him with Grover Cleveland Alexander for most all-time in the National League. Although he played in the “dead ball era,” his career ERA of 2.13 and 79 career shutouts are among the best all-time for pitchers. Casual fans may not know that he was one of the first players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as part of the “inaugural five.”
Like Roy Halladay, Mathewson was intelligent, soft spoken and was dedicated to his craft. This meant taking care of his body and avoiding smoking, drinking and cussing. Writer Grantland Rice called Mathewson “the knightliest of all the game’s paladins.” Fans adored him, the press loved him and teammates idolized him. He was one of the first All-American boys and a true gentleman. In the early 1900’s baseball was full of hard living ballplayers: heavy drinkers and tough talkers. One could argue that Mathewson brought respectability to baseball with his sportsmanship and clean living at a time when it was rowdy, raucous and of ill-repute.
“In time Mathewson would become exactly what the image-conscious National League most needed: a stellar athelete of impeccable personal behaviour, an example to be put before the adults and children of the nation” – Author Noel Hynd
“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.’” – Grantland Rice
Born August 12, 1880 in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, to English immigrant parents, Mathewson began playing baseball professionally at age 14. He attended Bucknell University and was class president while playing minor league baseball at the same time. At age 19, the New York Giants took notice and purchased his contract for $1500.
In 1901, his rookie season, Mathewson won 20 games with a 2.41 ERA for the Giants. This was the first of his 13 twenty-win seasons. Legendary manager John McGraw arrived in mid-1902 to manage the Giants and formed a lifelong friendship with Christy Mathewson. From 1903 to 1914 Mathewson never won fewer than 22 games.
Christy Mathewson had many nicknames: “The Christian Gentleman,” “Matty,” and most notably”Big Six.” In fact, many fans would address their fan mail to “No. 6.” The “Big Six” nickname was derived from Mathewson’s height, which was quite tall for the time
In 1904 the Giants won the pennant but no World Series was played. The reason for this is that manager John McGraw refused to play Boston, the champions of the upstart American League, because he deemed them too lowly and unworthy to challenge.
In 1905 the Giants won the pennant yet again and actually played in the World Series. Mathewson turned in one of baseball’s best postseason performances, shutting out the Philadelphia Athletics in Games One, Three, and Five, allowing only 14 total hits over the 3 games he pitched in. The Giants took the Series 4-1. ESPN selected his pitching performance in the 1905 World Series as the greatest playoff performance of all time.
The following season Mathewson contracted diptheria and never regained his full strength. Regardless, he still managed to win 22 games. Two years later, Mathewson had his finest year, winning a record 37 of his 44 starts. Of those 44 starts a remarkable 34 of them were complete games! He pitched just shy of 400 innings, totalling an unbelievable 390 innings pitched. The 37 wins set a post-1900 baseball record that has never been broken. His earned run average in that season of 1908 was a miniscule 1.43. He managed to best that mark the following season with a miserly 1.14 ERA.
Like Roy Halladay, Christy Mathewson was a cerebral pitcher. He studied and memorized his opponents’ weaknesses and never made a mistake a second time against a batter.
“I always tried to learn about the hitters. Anytime someone got a hit off me, I made a mental note of the pitch. He’d never see that one again.” – Christy Mathewson
Again, like Halladay, despite his obvious talents, Mathewson’s greatest weapons were his intelligence, his composure and his remarkable control. He issued only 1.3 walks per game in his career. In 1913 he pitched sixty-eight consecutive innings without giving up a walk. Mathewson’s oft-talked about screwball was thrown with an extremely unnatural twist of the arm. He rarely threw more than a dozen a game, but the threat and the thought in the hitter’s head was always there. Asked what his best pitch was, Big Six said famously “Anybody’s best pitch is the one the batters aren’t hitting that day.” He could breeze through a game on 75 or 80 pitches, often holding something back for what he called “pitching in a pinch.” With his great control, intellectual approach, and pitch efficiency, the comparison to Halladay is apt.
M is for Matty,
Who carried a charm
In the form of an extra
brain in his arm.
— Ogden Nash, Sport magazine (January 1949)
Mathewson’s intelligence was also put on display in his legendary chess & checker games. He was known to take on more than one opponent at a time. In fact, he once played 12 opponents simultaneously in chess at the Pittsburgh Athletic Club and beat them all.
Enlisting as an Army captain in 1918, he served overseas and was exposed to poisonous gas in a training exercise. As a result he began to suffer from tuberculosis. Matty coached with the Giants in 1919 and 1920, but spent much of his time upstate, fighting the aforementioned TB. He served as part-time president of the Boston Braves in 1923, and passed away two years later at the age of 45 due to complications from Tuberculosis. Mathewson was buried at Bucknell College, and lifelong friend John McGraw served as a pallbearer at the funeral.
“A boy cannot begin playing ball too early. I might almost say that while he is still creeping on all fours, he should have a bouncing rubber ball.”
— Christy Mathewson
“A young ballplayer looks on his first spring training trip as a stage struck young woman regards the theatre.”
— Christy Mathewson