SABR

Eddie Mathews

This article was written by David Fleitz.

Eddie Mathews played in only 31 games for the Tigers in 1968, batting .212 with three home runs, but his contribution to that championship season far outweighed his statistics. Mathews, who arrived in Detroit in 1967 after a long and illustrious career in the National League, had led the Milwaukee Braves to two pennants and the 1957 World Series title. This respected veteran provided a much-needed dose of leadership to the Tigers, only a handful of whom had ever played in a Series. When Mathews retired as a player after the 1968 World Series, he stood in sixth place on baseball’s career home run list with 512 and held the all-time record for games played by a third baseman. Ten years later, he became the first member of the 1968 championship team to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Edwin Lee Mathews Jr. was born in Texarkana, Texas, on October 13, 1931. His parents moved the family to Santa Barbara, California, four years later. Eddie inherited a passion for baseball from his father, a Western Union telegraph operator and former semipro athlete, though his mother participated as well. “My mother used to pitch to me, and my father would shag balls,” he recalled many years later. “If I hit one up the middle close to my mother, I’d have some extra chores to do. My mother was instrumental in making me a pull hitter.”

He excelled in football and baseball at Santa Barbara High and received college scholarship offers in football, but his prowess as a third baseman and a left-handed hitter stamped him as one of the most sought-after baseball prospects in the nation. Eddie and his parents weighed offers from several major league teams during his senior year. Mathews’ autobiography explains how the rules then stated a player could not be signed until he graduated from high school. To be safe, Eddie and Boston Braves scout Johnny Moore waited until midnight on the night of his graduation in June 1949 and signed the contract a few minutes after midnight. Mathews got a $6,000 bonus. Several other teams had offered more money, but Eddie and his father had studied major league rosters and determined that the Braves, with aging third baseman Bob Elliott, would likely have an opening at that position a few years down the road.

The Braves sent Mathews to High Point-Thomasville of the North Carolina State League, where he hit .363 and belted 17 homers during the last half of the 1949 campaign. Promoted to Atlanta in 1950, the 18-year-old Mathews led the Crackers to the pennant with 32 homers, 106 RBI, and a .272 average. He was considered the best hitting prospect in baseball, and even Hall of Famer Ty Cobb marveled at the youngster’s ability. “I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time,” said Cobb. “This lad has one of them.”

Eddie’s career was interrupted by the Korean War, but after a few months in the Navy he received a hardship discharge due to his father’s illness and his status as sole support of his family in Santa Barbara. He returned to the Braves organization and played for three teams during the 1951 season, ending the year with the Braves’ top farm club, the Milwaukee Brewers. Invited to spring training with the parent team in 1952, Eddie won the third base job, beating out Bob Elliott, just as he and his father had foreseen.

Still only 20 years old, Mathews belted 25 homers as a rookie for the Boston Braves that year. Though he struck out 115 times, batted .242, and drove in only 58 runs, Eddie impressed onlookers with his potential and finished tied for third in the Rookie of the Year balloting. He capped the season on a high note with a three-homer game against the Brooklyn Dodgers on September 27, showing promise for the future. However, his future would not unfold in Boston. After years of declining attendance, the team’s owners moved the team to Milwaukee for the 1953 season.

The Milwaukee fans were excited about the arrival of major league baseball, and in Eddie Mathews they found their first hero. Eddie grew into his own as a hitter in 1953, walloping 47 homers and driving in 135 runs while boosting his average to .302. He continued his hard hitting with 40 homers in 1954 and 41 in 1955, raising expectations that he could someday pass Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 round-trippers. On August 16, 1954, the premiere issue of Sports Illustrated, with Eddie Mathews on the cover, appeared on the nation’s newsstands.

Mathews was a hard-working, determined ballplayer who took pride in his fielding as well as his hitting. “Eddie was a below-average fielder when he came up, but he made himself into a good third baseman,” longtime teammate Johnny Logan said. “Connie Ryan, one of our coaches, would hit 50 to 100 groundballs to Eddie every day in spring training. He’d knock them down with his chest and pick them up. He broke his nose three times fielding balls.” By 1954, Mathews had established himself as a perennial All-Star and the top third baseman in the league, a distinction he held for the next decade.

He was one of the toughest men in the National League and drew almost as much attention for his fighting prowess as for his hitting. On August 1, 1954, after Brooklyn pitcher Clem Labine hit Milwaukee’s Joe Adcock in the head with a fastball, the Braves’ Gene Conley retaliated by knocking down Jackie Robinson. Later that inning, Robinson slid into third with his spikes high and found himself in a fistfight with Mathews. In August of 1960, Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds slammed into Eddie at third and received the same response. “Eddie hit him with three punches that not even Muhammad Ali could have stopped,” recalled teammate Warren Spahn years later. “Eddie was a tough competitor and a tough guy. He didn’t back down from anybody.” Another beanball war against the Dodgers in 1956 ended with Eddie pummeling rookie pitcher Don Drysdale.

“With Eddie, you never worried about anything,” said former Braves teammate Lew Burdette. “If somebody charged the mound when you were pitching, you knew he was going to be there. Eddie used to tell me, ‘Let the son of a gun charge you and get the hell out of the way.’” Mathews’ tenacity, as well as his willingness to protect his teammates at all times, made him one of the most respected players in the National League during the 1950s.

Aside from his fights, however, Eddie rarely showed emotion on the field. “I’m not the type to make a big production out of everything I do,” he said. “I think it’s a joke when a guy strikes out and throws his bat. If I have to do that to show the fans I’m mad, to heck with it. I shouldn’t have to fling bats or kick water coolers. Hustling to me means taking the extra base, beating out the slow roller, breaking up a double play, knocking the ball out of the catcher’s glove, backing up throws and keeping my mind on the game at all times.”

The steadily improving Braves finished in third place in 1954 and climbed to second in 1955, largely due to the hitting of another powerful slugger who joined Mathews in the Milwaukee lineup. Hank Aaron, a 20-year-old outfielder from Mobile, Alabama, made his debut with the Braves in 1954 and quickly adapted to major league pitching. By 1956 Aaron was the National League batting champion and formed a potent left-right hitting combination with Mathews, who hit 37 homers and drove in 95 runs that season. The Braves led the league by 3.5 games on Labor Day but faded in the stretch, losing the National League pennant by one game to Brooklyn.

The Dodgers, with their aging roster, had won their last pennant in Brooklyn, and the Braves were ready to take charge. In 1957 Aaron, the Milwaukee cleanup hitter, announced his arrival as a power threat with 44 home runs, while Mathews, batting in the third spot, chipped in with 32 homers of his own. Mathews and Aaron were now the best one-two power punch in baseball, and the hard-hitting Milwaukee club, buoyed by the pitching of Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl, won its first pennant, taking the flag by eight games over the second-place Cardinals. The Braves entered the World Series as underdogs against the perennial American League champions, the New York Yankees.

All the Braves, except for Aaron, had been hitting poorly during the Series, but the team refused to collapse. The Yankees won two of the first three games and had a 5–4 lead in the 10th inning of Game 4 at Milwaukee. In the bottom of the 10th, Milwaukee’s Nippy Jones was hit in the foot with a pitch, which he proved to the umpire by showing a mark made on the ball by the polish on his shoe. Red Schoendienst sacrificed pinch-runner Felix Mantilla to second, and then Johnny Logan doubled to score Mantilla and tie the game. This brought Eddie Mathews, batting .091 during the Series up until then, to the plate.

First base was open, but the Yankees elected to pitch to Mathews rather than walk him and face Hank Aaron, who was waiting in the on-deck circle. With Milwaukee fans roaring, Mathews belted a Bob Grim pitch over the right-field fence for a game-ending homer and a 7–5 victory. “He didn’t get many hits in that Series,” recalled Aaron, “but that was the big one. That set up the whole Series for us.”

This unexpected victory energized the Braves, who won a 1–0 squeaker the next day as Eddie scored the only run of the game. After a Yankees win in Game 6 tied the Series at three games apiece, Lew Burdette pitched the Braves to the title with a 5–0 shutout in the seventh game. Mathews, who doubled in the first two runs of the contest in the third inning, was the hitting hero once again as the Braves won their first, and only, championship in Milwaukee. “Without (Mathews) in that Milwaukee lineup,” moaned losing manager Casey Stengel, “it would have been a different Series.”

The Braves won the pennant again in 1958, but the Yankees enjoyed revenge in the Series. Mathews, who had slumped during the regular season with a .251 average and 31 home runs, managed only four hits and struck out 11 times as the Yankees regained the title. Eddie rebounded in 1959 with one of his greatest seasons, leading the league with 46 homers and finishing second in the Most Valuable Player balloting, but the Braves finished the campaign in a tie for the pennant with the Los Angeles Dodgers. After his team dropped the first game of a best-of-three playoff, Eddie walloped a homer off Don Drysdale in the second contest, extending the Braves’ the lead in the fifth inning. However, the Dodgers tied the game in the ninth and won it in the 12th to clinch the pennant.

Mathews and Aaron supplied the power for the Braves over the next several seasons, though the team faded from contention after 1959. In 1962, Eddie tore the ligaments in his right shoulder while swinging at a high pitch thrown by Houston’s Dick Farrell. He was never as dangerous a hitter after the injury, and his total of 29 homers in 1962 ended a nine-year streak in which he hit 30 or more. His first home run of the 1963 season was the 400th of his career, but his output began to diminish due to back and shoulder problems. He rebounded in 1965 with 32 homers and 95 runs batted in for the Braves. Home run No. 28, smacked August 20 in Pittsburgh, totaled 773 for the Mathews-Aaron tandem, passing the Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig mark of 772. Aaron and Mathews combined for 863 home runs between 1954, when Aaron joined the club, and 1966, the team’s first season in Atlanta.

Eddie, the only man to play for the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, lasted only one season in the Deep South. In November 1966, the Braves obtained Clete Boyer from the Yankees to play third base, then traded the fading Mathews to the Houston Astros. Eddie’s career was winding down, though his short tenure with the Astros provided one bright moment. On July 14, 1967, he belted a Juan Marichal pitch into the right-field stands at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park to become the seventh member of baseball’s 500-homer club. However, Eddie played mostly as a first baseman and occasional pinch-hitter for Houston. He was expendable, and in August, when several American League teams inquired about his availability, the Astros cleared Mathews through waivers. The Detroit Tigers, in need of a third baseman after an injury to Don Wert, acquired Eddie on August 17, 1967, in exchange for a player to be named later. That November, the Tigers sent reliever Fred Gladding to Houston to complete the deal.

Eddie displayed his leadership mettle on his first day as a member of the Tigers when he discovered that not all of his new teammates were content with manager Mayo Smith. When he walked into the Detroit clubhouse for the first time, Mathews spotted a chalkboard on which an anonymous Tigers player had written, “We’ll win it despite Mayo.” Eddie erased the offending message and gave his teammates a lecture on the importance of supporting their manager. “That little episode made me a friend of the whole team because some idiot had written that down there,” recalled Mathews. “Starting from that moment, I was accepted right away.”

“You don’t appoint guys to be leaders like that,” Detroit General Manager Jim Campbell said several years later. “They either have it in them to take over, or they don’t. And Eddie had it. We knew that when we traded for him. We got him as a player, but we got him to be a leader, too. Even Kaline looked up to him. He took a lot of pressure off Al.”

Mathews played third for the Tigers until Wert’s return in early September, then shared first base with the slumping Norm Cash for the remainder of the season. He batted .231 in 36 games for Detroit, adding six home runs to raise his career total to 509. On the final weekend of the season, when the Tigers needed to win three out of four from the California Angels to clinch a tie for the pennant, Eddie started all four games at first base. He drove in four runs, but the Tigers won only two of the contests and lost the pennant to the Red Sox by one game. In the final game, as Detroit’s hopes for victory faded, Eddie nearly tripped over a news photographer while chasing a foul ball. The frustrated Mathews caught the ball and threw it at the unlucky man’s feet, earning a chorus of boos from the crowd.

In the spring of 1968, Mayo Smith decided that Eddie’s days as a regular third baseman were over. Don Wert reclaimed the third base job, while Mathews and Norm Cash competed at first base. Smith even suggested that he might platoon Mathews and Cash, though both were left-handed batters. Cash had struggled against lefties, while Mathews had enjoyed more success against them. Cash, however, established himself as the regular at first with Eddie on the bench. Mathews finally hit his first homer of the 1968 season on May 19 against the Washington Senators. Eight days later, Eddie hit the 511th and 512th homers of his career against the Angels, passing Mel Ott for sixth place on the all-time list. The two blows lifted his batting average above the .200 mark for the first time in 1968.

The veteran also gave his team a lift against the Athletics on May 26, after Oakland’s Lew Krausse broke Al Kaline’s forearm with a pitch the day before. When Jack Aker hit Detroit’s Jim Northrup in the helmet, both benches emptied for what umpire Ed Runge called “the best fight I have ever seen on a baseball field.” The charge from the Tigers dugout was led by Mathews, who raced to the mound and clocked Aker in the cheekbone. The skirmish, which raged for more than 10 minutes, energized the Tigers, who won 16 of their next 21 games and opened up a lead in the pennant race that they maintained to the end of the season.

Unfortunately, Eddie’s back problems flared up again, and in early June the Tigers put him on the disabled list with a ruptured disk. Neither rest nor traction helped ease the pain, and on July 5 doctors at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit operated to remove the offending disk.

Most observers figured that Eddie’s season, and his storied career, were over, but the veteran soon returned to the Tigers and worked hard to get into shape. By early September he was back on the active roster, making a few starts at third and appearing as a pinch-hitter. He lifted his average to .212 by season’s end, but the two homers he hit against the Angels in May proved to be his last in the major leagues. Mathews was surprised and pleased that the Tigers decided to put him on the roster for the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, though he had already decided that 1968 would be his last season. His third World Series appearance, coming a decade after his performances in the fall classic for Milwaukee in 1957 and 1958, would mark the end of his playing career.

Mathews played in only two of the seven games against the Cardinals. In Game1 , he pinch-hit for Don Wert in the eighth inning and struck out against Bob Gibson, who set a Series record by setting 17 Tigers down on strikes in that game. In the fourth game, Mayo Smith gave Eddie the starting assignment at third, with Gibson once again on the mound for St. Louis. Eddie walked once and hit a single, one of only five hits managed by the Tigers in a losing effort. Mathews rode the bench for the rest of the Series as the Tigers won the final three games and claimed their first world title since 1945. Though Eddie modestly described himself as a “cheerleader” for the club—“all I needed was the pompons and the little skirt,” he said—he was thrilled to retire as a World Series champion. “We finished on top in Class D in my first year in organized baseball, and we finished on top my last year,” said Eddie. “What more can a ballplayer ask?” The title eventually made Mathews only the third Hall of Famer, after Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Mize, to retire a World Series winner.

Jim Campbell offered Eddie a job as a scout, but Mathews decided instead to go into business. This effort was a failure; as Eddie later put it, “I didn’t like being a salesman. I wasn’t a closer. I’d go in and talk baseball for half an hour and walk out without mentioning my product.” In 1971 he returned to baseball as a coach with his old team, the Atlanta Braves, and in August 1972 he replaced Luman Harris as manager of the club.

The biggest controversy of Eddie’s managerial tenure occurred as his old teammate Hank Aaron, still a fixture in the Atlanta lineup, stood on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth’s career mark of 714 home runs. Aaron entered the 1974 season with 713 round-trippers, and hit the record-tying blow on opening day in Cincinnati. Eddie then announced that Aaron would sit out the next two games in Cincinnati, the better to break the record at home in Atlanta the following week. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn angrily ordered the Braves to play Aaron against the Reds, threatening to fine or suspend Mathews if Aaron was not in the lineup. After a heated exchange of opinions between Kuhn and Mathews, Aaron sat out the second game of the season, then went hitless in the third and left Cincinnati still tied with Ruth. In the Braves’ home opener, on April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his 715th homer, breaking the record that many had once expected Mathews to shatter.

The Braves floundered in mid-1974, and in July of that year the owners fired Eddie as manager. He spent the next several years coaching and scouting for the Texas Rangers, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Oakland A’s. In 1978, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his fifth year of eligibility. Though Eddie had publicly questioned why Ernie Banks, who compiled statistics similar to his, entered the Hall on his first try while he waited five years for induction, he was a happy man at the ceremony in Cooperstown that summer. “I’m just a beat-up old third baseman,” Eddie told the crowd. “I’m just a small part of a wonderful game that is a tremendous part of America today.”

Eddie’s later years were filled with difficulty. Married four times, the hard-drinking Mathews admitted in his 1994 autobiography that his alcohol intake caused him to lose several baseball jobs, including his position as Braves manager. In 1982, he developed a serious case of pneumonia and was hospitalized for months. Fourteen years later, he slipped while boarding a boat; fell into the water and was crushed between the vessel and the pier, smashing his pelvis. The old ballplayer never regained his health after that devastating injury, and on February 18, 2001, he died of pneumonia and respiratory failure at the age of 69.

“I think he was one of the greatest third basemen of all time,” Johnny Logan said. “He had one of the sweetest swings I ever saw. There was only one Eddie Mathews.”

Sources

Allen, Bob, with Bill Gilbert. The 500 Home Run Club: Baseball’s 16 Greatest Home Run Hitters from Babe Ruth to Mark McGwire. Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publications. 2000.

Mathews, Eddie, and Bob Buege. Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime. Milwaukee: Douglas American Sports Publications. 1994.

Associated Press, February 19, 2001.

Haudricourt, Tom. “Eddie Mathews Overlooked As One of the Game’s Greats.” Baseball Digest, June 2001.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, February 19, 2001.

New York Times, January 20, 1978; August 8, 1978.

The Sporting News, January 15, 1958, p. 4; August 26, 1978, p. 12.

The Eddie Mathews page at www.baseball-almanac.com

Note

This article originally appeared in the book Sock It To 'Em Tigers--The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, published by Maple Street Press in 2008.

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