“It was wonderful to watch him pitch… when he wasn’t pitching against you.” ~ Connie Mack
He was the first great pitching star of the modern era and is still the standard by which greatness is measured.
Christy Mathewson changed the way people perceived baseball players by his actions on and off the field. His combination of power and poise – his tenacity and temperance – remains baseball’s ideal.
Christy Mathewson was a college man, with a range of interests, who mowed down opposing hitters in his spare time. While at Bucknell University, Mathewson sang in the glee club, belonged to a literary society, played football and served as a model of clean living. On top of all these achievements, Mathewson also wrote a series of children’s books. In a time when baseball was known for hard-living, hard-drinking baseball players, there was Christy Mathewson to prove that there was another way for athletes to live. He was the role model after whom every parent wanted their children to shape their lives. He was called “the Christian Gentleman.”
On the mound, Mathewson was a fierce competitor who became one of the most dominating pitchers of all time. In fact, I would put Matty up there with Satchel Paige and Walter Johnson and Cy Young as the four greatest.
“You can learn little from victory. You can learn everything from defeat.” ~Christy Mathewson
Mathewson had impeccable control and an easy motion and has been called the greatest pitcher of the Deadball Era, setting modern National League records for wins in a season (37), wins in a career (373), and consecutive 20-win seasons (12).
Using his famous “fadeaway” pitch – what today would be called a screwball – the 6-foot-1, 195-pound right-hander baffled batters with pinpoint control. He won 20 games in his first full big-league season in 1901, posted at least 30 wins a season from 1903-05. In the 1905 postseason, Mathewson pitched three shutouts in three starts in the 1905 World Series. He also led the National League in strikeouts five times between 1903 and 1908.
He set a modern era record for wins by an NL pitcher with 37 in 1908, a year when he completed 34 of his 44 starts on his way to more than 390 innings pitched. From 1903-14, Mathewson never won fewer than 22 games in a season and led the NL in ERA five times.
Mathewson’s biggest year came in 1908, when he set career highs in wins (37), games (56), innings (390 2/3), and shutouts (11). His control was never better, averaging less than one walk per nine innings. Matty’s season ended in disappointment, however, when he took a no-decision in the “Merkle Game” and lost to Mordecai Brown, 4-2, in the one-game playoff.
If you don’t know about the Merkle Boner, it deserves some discussion. While it doesn’t have anything to do with Matty’s pitching, it is a big deal in baseball lore. Besides, I’d love to be the one to tell you about.
In 1908, the Cubs and Giants were in a fight for the NL Pennant. On September 23, 1908, the Cubs were at the Polo Grounds, playing the third game of a four-game series. Fred Tenney, the Giants regular first baseman, had sprained his ankle and was not going to be in the lineup. John McGraw, manager of the Giants, had to make a decision. Who would he start at first for Tenney? The answer for McGraw was easy. Fred Merkle.
Merkle was going into his second season with the Giants. He was young, talented, and considered the next in line for the position when Tenney decided to hang up his spikes. So, Merkle was going to get the start. Just another day at the park.
The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Giants pinch hitter Moose McCormick was hugging third and Merkle was on first. Just a base hit was all that was needed to bring the winning run across the plate. Al Bridwell, the Giants shortstop, was at the plate. Base hit. McCormick scored from third!
The Giants’ fans poured onto the field in celebration and Merkle, afraid of the human crush, took off for the clubhouse…without ever touching second base. The was the mistake (the boner). Merkle never touched second base which meant the play was still live. Remember: there were two outs and, regardless of McCormick crossing the plate, if Merkle were put out, it would end the inning without the run counting.
Who would have noticed in the middle of that hubbub? Cubs’ second baseman Johnny Evers (of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame) had noticed but he needed to find the ball!
Some say that Giants’ third base coach Joe McGinnity threw the ball into the stands. The ball was grabbed by Cubs’ fans and thrown back onto the field, making its way to Evers.
Others say that Evers simply grabbed a ball, pretended it was the live ball, and got the attention of the umpire. He then stepped on second base and the umpire called Merkle out. It should have gone into extra innings but the players had left for their clubhouses and fans were all over the field. If it had been a regular season game, fine. No decision. But this was game three of a four game series in a pennant battle. League president Harry C. Pulliam called it a tie and the game would be replayed at the end of the season, if the teams were tied.
Sure enough, the teams were tied and the Cubs won the playoff game, as I said, 4-2. If not for Fred Merkle, Matty would have pitched in the 1908 World Series. Matty nor any his Giants teammates ever blamed Merkle.
During his illustrious 17-year career, he led the league in wins four times, won five strikeout titles, won 30 or more games four times, pitched four shutouts and ten complete games in World Series competition, and won 373 games in his career.
“He could pitch into a tin cup,” said Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers.
"Mathewson pitched against Cincinnati yesterday. Another way of putting it is that Cincinnati lost a game of baseball. The first statement means the same as the second. " ~writer Damon Runyon
As his career wound down, Mathewson was traded back to the Reds in 1916, finishing his career on Sept. 4 of that year in a match-up against longtime rival Three Finger Brown. In 17 seasons, Mathewson finished with 373 wins against just 188 losses, a winning percentage of .665 and an ERA of just 2.13 with 79 career shutouts.
In 1918, Mathewson enlisted in the Army during World War I. While serving as a captain in France, he was accidentally gassed during a training exercise. He spent the next seven years battling tuberculosis and passed away on October 7, 1925.
In 1936, he joined Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson as the first class of baseball Hall of Famers.
Sentinel Rural News is the leading source of news for Central Wisconsin. We utilize local writers as our content creators while including contributors of expertise from across the country.