William Matthews is one of those early 20th century players for whom a lot is not known. He was a right-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox near the end of the 1909 season, but we don’t have any information on his height or weight – though one news report had him as 6 feet tall.i We also don’t even know whether he batted right-handed, or perhaps was a switch-hitter. He didn’t hit all that well; that we do know. In his eight major-league at-bats, he never had a hit and struck out three times. In his seven known minor-league seasons, Matthews hit .131 in 649 at-bats. Of course, his claim to relative fame was as a pitcher. He won 92 games in minor-league ball, and pitched reasonably well during the one month he was in the majors.
INTRODUCING MR. MATHEWS – HE COMES TO RED SOX FROM TORONTO – YESTERDAY’S HIS FIRST BIG LEAGUE GAME, AND HE LOOKS LIKE A GOOD ONE. The eight-column headline spread across all of page 11 of the August 29, 1909, Boston Globe. In an era during which the arrival of a rookie sometimes even neglected to mention the player’s first name, the headline was almost unprecedented. Why the newspaper chose to feature his arrival in this way is impossible to discern. (The spelling of Mathews with just one “t” in Boston newspapers contributed to his being listed in the Red Sox Media Guide that way over a century later, though both census records and his death certificate, and both print and online baseball encyclopedias have it with the “tt.”)
Matthews’ first major-league appearance came in Cleveland. The Red Sox were in a pennant race, just 3½ games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers and a half-game behind the Philadelphia Athletics after the games of August 27. The game story in the Globe recounting Mr. Matthews’ start was florid in its style, commencing thus: “The turning back of the Persian hordes by a band of young Greek athletes has furnished material for a thousand poems since, but these gallant youths never displayed a more fighting spirit than did the Boston Speed Boys this afternoon, when they were declared victors over Cleveland by 4 to 3.”
Cleveland was 15 games out of first place; this was hardly an elimination game for either team. And there weren’t any runs scored in the last two innings, so it wasn’t even a cliffhanger resolved at the last possible moment. Yet the main headline in the Globe dubbed this “A GAME OF GAMES.” Reading about the game a century later, it doesn’t seem that remarkable a contest. Red Sox manager Fred Lake gave Matthews the ball for his first (and, as it turned out, only) big-league start. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Addie Joss worked for Cleveland, and the Red Sox scored first, in the top of the first, on a single by Harry Lord, a stolen base, and a two-out single by Doc Gessler. Cleveland tied it with a run in the second. Boston put two more runs on the board in the fourth, on nothing more dramatic than a wild pitch and four singles, and scored a fourth time in the sixth, on two singles and some advances with a hit batsman and a sacrifice. There were a few good plays noted, but nothing in the way of season superlatives.
In the bottom of the seventh Cleveland got to Matthews a bit. Leadoff batter Joe Birmingham doubled. Matthews struck out the next man. Manager Deacon McGuire, who’d taken over the Cleveland reins from Nap Lajoie a few weeks before, sent Ted Easterly up to pinch-hit for Joss; the move paid off with a triple to the right-field fence. Easterly was then replaced by a pinch-runner, who scored the second run on a single by Elmer Flick. With the score 4-3, Lake brought in Ed Karger to relieve Matthews. Even though Karger was “very wild,” according to the Globe account, his infield saved the inning with a short-to-second-to-first double play. There was little other than a routine ending to the game and no real evidence reminiscent of legendary young Greek athletes turning back the Persian hordes, but the Red Sox did win the game.
Matthews did not receive credit for the win, it apparently being awarded to Karger for preventing Flick from coming around to score the tying run in the seventh and then holding the lead. Today Matthews would almost certainly have been given the “W.” It would have been nice for him; he never got one.
This wasn’t a young Matthews we are talking about. He was 31 years old at the time, born on January 12, 1878, in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. His father, George Matthews, was a laborer in a warehouse in nearby Pottsville at the time of the 1880 census, with William the youngest of four children (Maud, Annie, and Owen preceded him) of George and Emma (Fisher) Matthews.
Nothing is known of William’s upbringing or schooling, but he does turn up in the 1900 census, stationed at the Hamilton Barracks in Matanzas, Cuba. Private Matthews served in the 2nd United States Cavalry Regiment, Company D. For whatever reason, he was separated from the Cavalry on December 12 with a dishonorable discharge at Matanzas.
Four years later he pitched for a 5-1 record in Class A baseball, working for the Eastern League’s Buffalo Bisons and manager George Stallings in 1904. The Bisons won the Eastern League pennant by a wide margin, beating the second-place Baltimore Orioles by eight games. As a batter for Buffalo, he was 1-for-22.
Minor-league records are incomplete for the earlier years of the 20th century and nothing is noted for Matthews in 1905, but Sporting Life shows him among the early arrivals for Buffalo at spring training.ii He wasn’t there long, however. The April 15 issue of Sporting Life reported that he had jumped his contract with Buffalo and signed with an “outlaw club” – the independent league team in York, Pennsylvania, managed by George Heckert. There was a pitcher named Matthews who worked some for Buffalo, however, so the picture remains a bit confusing.iiiThe Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball shows Bill Matthews of York winning 27 games, and leading the eight-team Tri-State League. The team finished in third place.
Matthews pitched in 1906 with York – again seeing his team finish first in the Tri-State League, now a six-team league. His record was 18-17, barely above .500. The league’s top pitcher was York’s Stony McGlynn, who enjoyed a 36-10 season and won almost half his team’s games.
The Tri-State League was brought into Organized Baseball in 1907, and Matthews pitched again for York, but the team struggled badly, the franchise even relocating to Reading (and becoming the Reading Pretzels) on July 24. The team plunged from first place to last place in a league that had expanded again to eight teams, and wound up 38-87 (.304), 48½ games behind the first-place Williamsport Millionaires. Matthews’ own winning percentage was .303, almost identical with the team’s. His record was 10-23. Sporting Life reported in its June 22 issue that he had been traded to Lancaster for pitcher McCabe. Just the week before, it had been written that because of his “erratic work” he would probably be placed on the bench.iv The trade may never have been consummated.
In 1908 Matthews split the season between Reading and Trenton. He threw a number of close games, attracting attention early for Reading in an April 27 game against visiting Johnstown, when he allowed just three hits, “one of which was of the scratchy order.”v In late May or early June he was secured by Trenton, as reported in the June 6 issue of Sporting Life. He pitched well for the Tigers, too; one of his first efforts was a 2-1 loss to Williamsport, each team getting just four hits; Matthews “pitched ball that could hardly be improved on.”vi
In 1909 the Boston Red Sox purchased his contract from Trenton during the season, despite his record of 12-13 (the team’s final record was distinctly worse, a .377 winning percentage). The Red Sox were hoping to bolster a somewhat thin pitching staff, but Matthews hadn’t had a winning record since barely managing the 18-17 record in 1906.
Why would they invest in a pitcher with a seemingly mediocre record? The games that may have caught the eye of the Red Sox in 1909 were one on June 14 when he struck out 11 Altoona batters, and one on June 19, when he one-hit Harrisburg, winning the game, 1-0. Ten days later Trenton sold Matthews’ contract to the Red Sox for a price reported at $1,500. The arrangement was that he would report to Boston at the end of the Tri-State League season, but Red Sox owner John I. Taylor requested that he report to the Red Sox in New York on August 16.
Let us return to pick up the story of Matthews’ time with the Red Sox. After his quite decent debut, Matthews wasn’t asked to work again for ten days, until a game at Washington on September 7. Ed Karger started and was hit hard for three runs in the bottom of second inning. Boston scored four times in the top of the fourth to take the lead, and manager Lake showed little patience after Karger walked the leadoff man in the bottom of the fourth on four pitches. Matthews was brought in, and matched Karger pitch for pitch – walking the second batter on four pitches. And then did it again to the third man up. Eight pitches were all he was allowed, and Lake turned to Frank Arellanes, who finished the game. Before he could close the inning, however, all three baserunners scored. Just as Matthews was not assigned a win in the August 28 game, he was not assigned the loss in this one, the final score being 11-6, Matthews being taken off the hook when his teammates scored twice in the sixth.
On September 16 Matthews appeared once more, throwing the last eight innings of the game after Arellanes had been roughed up for four White Sox runs in the first. Matthews allowed nine hits and three more runs over the course of the game, but Boston never caught up or tied the game (a 7-5 final). He was 0-for-3 at the plate but reached one of those times on an error and came around to score the only run of his career in the seventh.
A walk, a single, and a run scoring on an out gave Cleveland one ninth-inning run against Matthews on September 23, Matthews pitching just the one inning. Boston lost, 7-3.
The Red Sox played some postseason ball in 1909, a game in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then a best-of-seven series against the New York Giants, a matchup between the third-place finishers in each league. The Red Sox won the series, winning four straight after dropping the first game. Matthews appeared just once in October, in the deciding game on October 14. It was a 5-4 win, the lead changing hands a couple of times. Larry Pape started and Harry Wolter followed him. The score was tied, 3-3, after three innings. Matthews came in to pitch the fourth. With one out, he walked a man, then gave up a single to center field, but Tris Speaker’s throw easily nailed the runner trying to go from first to third and the alert Harry Lord at third fired to first base to catch the runner off the bag for an inning-ending double play. In the fifth, a walk, a single, and a walk loaded the bases, and Matthews was fortunate to escape the inning with just one run scoring – though it was a run that gave the Giants a lead. Charley Hall pitched the rest of the game and benefited when Bill Carrigan hit a triple to drive in one and then scored himself when Larry Doyle bobbled the ball at second base long enough for Carrigan to score the go-ahead run.
In 1910 the Wilkes-Barre Barons (Class B New York State League) were able to secure Matthews’ contract under an option agreement. All of a sudden, he had a spectacular season as far as won-loss records go: 20-10. The Barons finished in first place. In 1911 Matthews pitched again for the Barons, who again led the league. His own personal record was a disappointing 13-15.
In February 1912 Wilkes-Barre released Matthews back to the Trenton Tigers, and he returned to the Tri-State League – again playing, as he had on and off since 1905, for George Heckert. His won-loss record tipped the other way, to 14-13. The Tigers finished third, at 61-51.
The 1913 campaign began with “Wild Bill Matthews” as one of the key pitchers on the Trenton staff.vii The team had a new manager in Bert Conn. Something happened, however, and in its May 13 issue Sporting Life reported that Matthews had been released outright. The 1913 Tigers finished next to last in the league.
Matthews was 35 years old at this point and it was perhaps time to seek other career opportunities. There is indication that he married and started a family at the time. The 1930 census showed him living with his wife, Isabel, and son Frank, 16. Matthews was employed as “labor, water company.” At the time of his death at the age of 68 on January 23, 1946, after a year of arteriosclerotic heart disease, he was working as a watchman for the Silver Creek Water Company in Pottsville.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Matthews’ player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and consulted Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Boston Globe, August 14, 1909
ii Sporting Life, April 22, 1905
iii Sporting Life, June 24, 1905
iv Sporting Life, June 15, 1907
v Sporting Life, May 9, 1908
vi Sporting Life, June 13, 1908
vii Sporting Life, May 10, 1913