Bobby Mathews

This article was written by Brian McKenna

Bobby Mathews, nearly forgotten today, was one of the top pitchers of the early professional era despite his small stature (5-feet-5½-inches tall, weight about 140 pounds). Between 1871 and 1887, he won nearly 300 games, 297 to be exact – more than any other pitcher not inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His exclusion is perhaps based on the fact that the bulk of those victories were accrued in the National Association and the American Association, leagues often brushed aside by Hall of Fame voters.

Mathews was the best native Baltimore player before Babe Ruth. Besides the highs normally attributed to the diamond exploits of a top athlete – which include being one of the first to master the curveball and throwing the game’s first spitball, Mathews’ career was also beset with a few negatives. He was known to have “careless habits,”1 which most would assume meant excessive drinking and poor conditioning. It does, but it could also have extended connotations. For one, he was a member of the controversial New York Mutuals, who had a reputation for gambling-related offenses. Mathews’ reputation did not emerge unscathed from this association. Secondly, he suffered complete and rapid mental deterioration, a malady that was likely attributable to syphilis, soon after leaving the big leagues.

Robert T. Mathews was born on November 21, 1851, in Baltimore, Maryland, the only son of Irish natives John and Mary Mathews. He learned to play ball as a teenager on the Belair Market lots in the Old Town section of the city.

At the age of 16, Mathews, a right-hander, joined the junior team of the Marylands of Baltimore in 1868. Junior, or reserve squads typically included younger players or those otherwise looking to compete for slots on the senior nine. In August 1869 he moved to the senior club, replacing Elias Cope as the club’s main pitcher. The Marylands were formed in 1867 as an amateur club. Two years later, they declared themselves as professionals when the ruling body of the day, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), officially allowed teams to do so. Mathews made his first start as a pro on August 19 against the Orientals of New York, a 28-15 victory. The Marylands were not among the elite clubs of the NABBP; Mathews and third baseman Tom Carey were the only two whose careers would stretch into the National League era. But the roster was eventually strong enough to form the crux of one of the initial franchises in the game’s first professional league, the National Association.

In late July 1870, the Marylands embarked on a Western tour that took them to Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Rockford, and Chicago, among other stops. It wasn’t a successful tour by any means. Of the four league games they played, the Marylands won only one. On August 8 and 9, they played the Kekiongas of Fort Wayne, Indiana, defeating them 28-10 and 19-6. The Marylands then left for Pittsburgh but soon the Kekiongas reached out and poached the Baltimore club for Mathews and Carey. First baseman Tom Forker, infielder-catcher Frank Sellman, and Mathews’ batterymate, Bill Lennon, soon followed. The group played out West into November.

By the end of the year, the game was changing. The NABBP had run its course, torn apart by competing interests of amateurism and professionalism. Fort Wayne chose professionalism and set about to join the new National Association (NA). Over the winter, the club’s secretary, armed with an agenda and cash, raided Baltimore clubs for several more players. The Marylands were forced to disband, and the local Pastime club was severely damaged as well.

Fort Wayne’s Opening Day roster in 1871 included five Maryland club players: Mathews, Lennon, Carey, Wally Goldsmith, and Ed Mincher. On that day, May 4, Mathews, just 19 years old, pitched and won the first game in National Association history – some might call it the first major-league game. It was one of the cleanest, most competitive baseball games any fan had seen to that point. Mathews allowed only five hits and struck out six in the 2-0 shutout. It was the lowest-scoring game anyone could ever remember. The opposing pitcher, Al Pratt of the Cleveland Forest Cities, gave up only four hits. The New York Herald declared it “the finest game of baseball ever witnessed.”2 The Fort Wayne Gazette agreed: “This is undoubtedly the best game on record.”3

The game was still in its genesis in 1871. It was played barehanded, and the style of pitching was underhanded from 45 feet. The previous winter, standout catcher Nat Hicks had gone to Baltimore to work with Mathews. Historian Peter Morris surmises that this was the point at which the pitcher developed, or perhaps gained control of, a curveball. Only one other pitcher in the game, Candy Cummings, could make that claim. (Cummings maintained that he invented the pitch, but historians over the years have put forward other “inventors.”)

Fort Wayne included several other Baltimore players: Robert Armstrong, Charles Bierman, Bill Barrett, and Henry Kohler. The club was formed as a cooperative, meaning that the players shared in the gate receipts in lieu of a salary. Dwindling attendance plagued the team nearly from the start. A Fort Wayne game scheduled for Washington on July 8 was moved to Baltimore in order to spark interest and increase the gate. On July 25 Bill Lennon, Mathews’ primary catcher since he turned pro, and Frank Sellman were released for excessive drinking and related offenses. The players’ bitterness over this and the meager paydays took its toll on team morale. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Pastimes reorganized under manager Albert H. Henderson, who quickly signed Lennon, Mincher, and Sellman. Henderson also added Bill Stearns from the Washington Olympics and George Hall from the Brooklyn Atlantics. At the end of August, the Kekiongas disbanded amid financial troubles. Mathews had started and completed all the club’s 19 games. He joined the Pastimes with Carey and first baseman Jim Foran. The men played out the season in and around Baltimore.

The Pastimes reorganized administratively again in 1872, now calling themselves the Lord Baltimores. From the previous year, Mathews, Carey, and Hall were retained as the ballclub joined the National Association. The team adopted a colorful black, white, and bright yellow uniform, which led some to call them the Baltimore Canaries. Well-known ballplayers Bill Craver, Davy Force, Dick Higham, and Lip Pike, among others, were brought in to fill out the roster. Cherokee Fisher was hired to sub for Mathews in the box. The Baltimore Sun wrote, “Great care has been taken and considerable expense undergone to form for the city a first-class professional nine, with suitable playing grounds.”4 (It’s interesting to note that Baltimore included Hall, Craver, and Higham, three people who would become the center of National League game-fixing scandals.)

The Canaries finished second in the National Association to the extremely strong Boston Red Stockings. Mathews led the league in strikeouts. He started 47 games, for a 25-18 won-lost record, to Fisher’s 11 starts. The latter, though, performed ably and posted a 10-1 mark. In September, Mathews re-signed with Baltimore, but didn’t rejoin the team the following spring. Instead, he essentially traded places with Candy Cummings, who was the main pitcher for the New York Mutuals. Mathews took his batterymate, Dick Higham, to New York. Higham split the catching duties with Doug Allison and Mathews’ old training partner Nat Hicks.

The Mutuals were run as a cooperative but Mathews and first baseman Joe Start were guaranteed salaries to assure their continued loyalty to the club. Mathews started all but one game for New York in 1873, amassing a 29-23 record as the team finished in fourth place. He landed in the top three in the league in wins, strikeouts, and earned-run average. On July 3 he tossed a two-hitter against Washington in a rain-shortened six-inning contest. Mathews knocked a triple and scored the tying run in the 2-1 victory.

Researcher Daniel Ginsburg unearthed some alleged game-fixing scandals involving Mathews. Though generally complimentary, he wrote, “Unfortunately, Mathews’ name was brought up a number of times in connection with some of the New York Mutuals scandals.”5 The scandals involved the pitcher’s time with the Mutuals, a club with a long history of suspicious play. Two specific games received the most attention. On August 9, 1873, the Mutuals lost to the Brooklyn Atlantics, 12-2, amid heavy betting. Mathews pitched a poor game, sparking numerous accusations – especially after the Atlantics went up 4-1 in the first inning.

The second game was played on August 5, 1874, in Chicago. The Mutuals lost, 5-4. The Chicago Tribune was particularly incensed: “For the first time in the history of baseball in Chicago the national game has been disgraced by palpable and unblushing fraud. … This dirty piece of business was left to a club [Mutuals] which has, for the past six or seven years, enjoyed a doubtful repute for unvarying honesty. As long ago as 1868 it used to be said and believed of the Mutuals of New York that they were governed by a long ring of gamblers, and games were won or lost according as the gamblers had placed their money.”6

The Tribune charged that an unnamed, “prominent” Mutual was seen in the company of a local gambler and that the odds shifted before game time in the favor of Chicago despite the fact that New York had defeated the White Stockings five times without a loss up to that point in the season. The particular charge against Mathews was that he appeared to be in perfectly good shape but had to leave the game after the fifth inning because of a lingering groin injury. Despite the fact that Mathews was leading 4-2 at the time, the Tribune believed that he left to appease the gamblers. He was supposedly doing too well and the fans hissed as Mathews left because it meant “John] Hatfield, an inferior pitcher, taking his place.”7

Amid the charges, the Mutuals produced a doctor’s note after the game that certified that Mathews went to the box despite a doctor’s warning. It was also learned that Chicago had been told before the game that Mathews might not be available. As a consequence, the shifting of odds might be attributed to this fact.

Daniel Ginsburg also noted that the overall accusations against Mathews were contradictory. While still with the Mutuals, now in the National League, in July 1876, the pitcher unilaterally turned over a suspicious telegram from a gambler that was sent to him. A sting was then put in place that lured further damaging telegrams. The league published all the telegrams in the New York Herald in an attempt to embarrass and hopefully stymie future game-fixing attempts.8 These efforts combined with the harsh treatment the following year of accused game-fixers on the Louisville Grays helped clean up the game. Mathews certainly played a positive role toward the league’s goals.

The Mutuals finished second to Boston in the National Association in 1874. Mathews, starting every game for the team, placed second in the league in wins with a 42-22 record and also placed second in ERA. On June 18 he pitched in one of the most lopsided games in the history of the majors. Mathews and the Mutuals defeated Chicago 38-1. The right-hander allowed just two hits, while the Mutuals collected 34, and only one of his teammates had fewer than three hits. To boot, Chicago committed 21 errors. The Chicago Tribune commented, “Nearly every man in the White Stockings nine seemed utterly demoralized. They could neither bat nor field.”9 It’s interesting to note that Mathews performed so skillfully under extreme weather conditions. “The wind was blowing a perfect hurricane during the entire game,” the Tribune said.10 On September 1 he shut out Hartford, 14-0, on a three-hitter.

Mathews was a small guy, nicknamed Little Bobby; he couldn’t overwhelm the batters with a blazing fastball. As a consequence, he relied heavily on the curveball, alternating it with a fastball, changeup (called a “slow ball” at the time), and even a spitter. Like all good pitchers, he delivered each pitch with the same fluid motion, ensuring that the batter wasn’t tipped off. Sporting Life claimed, “Robert Mathews was the first to introduce a slow raise [a rising changeup], as far back as ’72.”11 He was one of the few to master the various deliveries as the rules of the game changed over the years: underhand, side-arm, and overhand. Throughout his career, he consistently posted strikeout-per-nine-inning ratios that were among the best in the league; he was in the top two in 1871-73, 1879, 1882-83, and 1885.

Mathews relied a great deal on psychology, intellect, and confusion, strong pitching weapons. For one, Henry Chadwick noted in the New York Clipper that Mathews had a “habit of throwing away the first ball to each striker by tossing it over the batsman’s head.”12 Second, Sporting Life noted, “Bobby hid the ball under his arm before pitching and turned his back to the batsman. It was a feat to be remembered.” The weekly went on to comment, “Matthews pitched with his head as well as with his arm, and that explains in a large measure why he lasted so many years. There never stood in the box a cooler and nervier man than Matthews. In a tight place he had no equal, because there never has been a pitcher yet who had as good a pitching head upon his shoulders as did the subject of this sketch. As a strategist he was a marvel.”13

Mathews summed up his own philosophy this way: “Good, straight pitching, thorough command over the ball, a good ‘out-curve’ and a good ‘in-shoot’ are what the great pitchers are working with today, and I, for my part, don’t believe in anything else.”14 James Hart described another reason for Mathews’ effectiveness for the Chicago Tribune: “He had the most remarkable memory for a batter’s weaknesses of any pitcher who ever lived. … He was quick to size up a batsman. … He had perfect control, and this enabled him to put them up just where a fellow didn’t want ’em. … Another thing about Matthews, he could pick up tricks of other pitchers quicker than anybody you ever saw. And there wasn’t any trick of pitching that he couldn’t pick up. If he saw you doing something new one day he would be doing it the next – that is, if he wasn’t doing it the same day. He was one of the really great pitchers of the profession.”15

It’s thought that Candy Cummings and Bobby Mathews were the only two professionals to have mastered the curveball through the 1873 season. (Others soon cropped up.) Mathews said he learned the curve by watching Cummings. The Hall of Famer George Wright told Sporting Life in 1911, “Robert Mathews was the next after Cummings to get a perceptible curve on the ball. He did not, however, get a genuine curve until 1879, when he went to Worcester and changed his delivery.”16 Cummings, during his efforts to identify himself as the originator of the curveball, said, “The first man to get the curve after myself was Bobby Mathews of Baltimore, and as long as he lived he never claimed to have invented the curve, but always told all who asked that he learned it off me.”17 Albert G. Spalding offered this perspective in his work America’s National Game: “Arthur Cummins [sic], of Brooklyn, was the first pitcher of the old school that I ever saw pitch a curved ball. Bobby Mathews soon followed. This was in the early seventies. Both men were very light, spare fellows, with long, sinewy wrists, and having a peculiar wrist-joint motion with a certain way of holding the ball near the fingers’ end that enabled them to impart a rotary motion to the ball, followed by a noticeable outward curve.”18

After the spitball came into vogue in the early twentieth century, several baseball men stepped forward to claim that it was not, in fact, a new delivery. While it is true that Mathews never claimed to have been the original spitball pitcher (he died before it became an issue), quite a few did, including Cap Anson, Jim Corbett, 1880s pitcher Ted Kennedy, umpire Billy Hart, Phonney Martin, Tim Murnane, Hank O’Day, and William Rankin. O’Day wrote in an article in Baseball Magazine in May 1912, “There is no doubt it was employed by such a veteran as Bobby Matthews. He would certainly spit on the palm of his hand and rub the ball in the moisture. In the course of two or three innings, the ball would be perfectly black except in the spot where it was rubbed and there it would be perfectly white. Matthews was a very effective pitcher … and he was clever enough to cover this up and keep the batsman in a quandary [as to] what it was that made him so successful.”19

Mathews started all but one of New York’s 71 games in 1875. He and the club had a poor record, though, with the pitcher posting a 29-38 mark. He was a workhorse, leading the league in starts, complete games (69), and innings pitched (626⅔). Two consecutive games in May stand out. On the 21st, he dueled Cummings, of Hartford, with the latter emerging victorious, 1-0. The Hartford Courant reported that an error was the deciding factor: “Jack] Remsen scored for the Hartfords on the muff of Jim] Holdsworth. This was the only run scored and the game may be said to be one of the finest of the season. The great feature was the pitching and catching on both sides.”20 The next day, Mathews topped Brooklyn, 4-0, on a one-hitter. An error-free day allowed the pitcher to face only 28 batters.

Mathews’ 131 wins in the National Association rank third behind Al Spalding of Boston (205) and Dick McBride of Philadelphia (149), quite a feat considering that the latter two played for stronger clubs (the only pennant winners) while Mathews’ nines were typically weak with the bat. Over the final four National Association seasons, Mathews amassed more than 2,050 innings on the mound. He was the career National Association leader in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings.

Mathews remained with the Mutuals as the club moved into the upstart National League in 1876. It was a poor club, though. He started all but one of the team’s games, accruing 516 innings and a 21-34 record. On July 8, Mathews took a 5-1 lead into the ninth inning against Louisville but gave up four runs to push the game into extra innings. The game was called after 15 innings with no further scoring. Mathews and Jim Devlin pitched the entire contest. Two days later, the same pitchers dueled in the next contest between the nines. This one went 16 innings. The Mutuals scored four times in the 16th to finally claim a victory.

New York refused to finish its schedule, ignoring a road trip in mid-September, and was consequently ousted from the league over the winter. Mathews then joined Cincinnati with his batterymate Nat Hicks for 1877. The club was extremely poor and folded in mid-June. Amid financial trouble, the owner refused to pay for an impending road trip. Mathews was 3-12 in 15 games. The team reorganized a couple of weeks later but Mathews departed. Candy Cummings was brought in to man the box. Mathews wouldn’t become the main pitcher on a major-league club again until 1883. At the end of the 1877 season, Cincinnati was expelled from the National League for refusing to pay its dues. Mathews then joined Janesville in the League Alliance.

Opening Day of 1878, April 20, found Mathews with the independent Brooklyn Chelseas, a club that had been in the League Alliance the previous season. On May 17 he jumped the club. According to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “The Brooklyn nine has lost the services of its pitcher and catcher, Mathews and [Ed] McGlynn, who, being offered good terms by the Worcester club manager, left Brooklyn.”21 On June 1 Worcester and the Lynn Live Oaks of the International Association essentially merged. The new club, the Worcester Live Oaks, remained a member of the International Association. Mathews continued with Worcester but in July he was expelled for drunkenness, a malady that was plaguing the team. On the 11th, stellar African American pitcher Bud Fowler, who had pitched earlier in the year for Lynn, was brought in to help replace Mathews. He pitched that day, thus integrating the club. Mathews soon returned, though excessive drinking was still a problem on the club. Management challenged the players and, as the St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote, “The members of the Worcester nine voluntarily signed the temperance pledge.”22

On August 15 Mathews tossed a two-hit shutout over Boston of the National League. After the August 30 game, Worcester withdrew from the league. In 20 games, Mathews posted an 8-12 record. The men continued to play but soon abandoned Worcester, the city, altogether. They hopped to Mathews’ hometown, Baltimore, and played under the name Waverlys. (Baltimore native Bill Smiley was also on the club.) The Waverlys played a few games around Baltimore and Washington, and then disbanded. On October 15 Mathews signed with the Providence Grays, headed back to the majors. Orator O’Rourke was also added the same day.

Providence won the National League pennant in 1879 under manager George Wright by five games over Boston. Mathews won 12 and lost 6 subbing for John Montgomery Ward (47-19) on the mound. As a strategy, Ward also finished 10 of his colleague’s games. Mathews joined the club in mid-June, initially playing in right field. On June 27, he hit the only home run of his career, a two-run shot off Tommy Bond of Boston. Mathews made his first start on July 19 and started 25 of the club’s remaining 46 games.

In May 1880, Mathews joined the San Francisco Stars of the independent Pacific League. It was a poorly designed league with only three area clubs, the Eagles, Renos, and Stars, and folded in July. Mathews roomed with The Only Nolan and Honest John Kelly. In December Mathews re-signed with Providence. He started 14 games between May 3 and July 13, 1881, alternating in the box with Monte Ward and Hoss Radbourn. In mid-July, Providence management became fed up with the excessive drinkers on the club. Mathews, Radbourn, and substitute catcher Emil Gross were particularly singled out. Mathews and Gross were released. The former then joined the Boston Red Stockings, but not as a pitcher, at least initially. He played 18 games in the outfield. Mathews made only one start for Boston, a 10-3 victory over Cleveland on September 28; he relieved in four other contests.

Boston’s rotation changed in 1882. Mathews alternated with Jim Whitney. Bobby had 32 starts, Whitney, 48. Mathews raised his total innings pitched to 285 from his anemic totals of recent years. The pair won 43 games as Boston finished in third place. On September 18 Mathews fanned four Buffalo players in one inning.

Mathews’ career took an upward turn in 1883 when he joined the Philadelphia Athletics in the American Association, a rival major league in its second season. Immediately, he reassumed his ace status after six years, at age 31. The specifics of how Mathews joined the Athletics shed some light on the secret workings of the game at the time. Philadelphia owner Bill Sharsig later told the New York Telegram, “In 1882 when the Association was just making itself felt, and there was no National Agreement, there was a demand for players. I met Matthews in the Bingham House (in Philadelphia) during August that year, and made an arrangement with him by which he agreed to play with the Athletic club next season. I then gave him $1,000 to bind the bargain.”23

Mathews started 44 games for the Athletics in 1883, pitching 381 innings, and posted a 30-13 record. He was happy in Philadelphia, which wasn’t far from his Baltimore hometown, and played out his career there. He won 30 games in each of his first three seasons with the Athletics, pitching 1,234 innings. Philadelphia took the pennant in 1883 behind Mathews’ right arm. The battle was close as the Athletics nipped St. Louis by a mere game. Winning two of three from the Browns in late September sealed the pennant, despite the fact that the Athletics went on to drop three of four to Louisville. Philadelphia finished in the middle of the pack in 1884 and ’85. On September 30, 1885, Mathews struck out four men in an inning again. From 1882 through 1885, Mathews’ strikeout-to-walk figures were outstanding. He led the league in the category three of those years, with a total of 928 strikeouts to 159 walks, or 5.84 to 1. Perhaps, as George Wright noted, Mathews had successfully tweaked his curve in the minors.

In January 1886 it was announced that Mathews was returning to San Francisco, but it didn’t pan out. Instead, he coached the pitchers at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to the Athletics. Mathews’ arm started giving him trouble and he lost his starting job to Al Atkinson; he was benched for ineffectiveness and started only two games after July 21. Philadelphia docked his pay, an act that led to a holdout in 1887. Despite his troubles, he posted a 13-9 record in 24 games that season.

Mathews held out in the spring of 1887, demanding that the $541 deducted from his salary the previous year be restored. He coached at the University of Pennsylvania again. The two sides settled in March, agreeing on a $2,650 salary, but the pitcher’s career was rapidly coming to an end. His arm was ailing. The Baltimore Sun reported in late April, “One of the first surprises of the season is the announcement that the Athletic club of Philadelphia is about to dispense with the services of Bob Matthews. [The press sometimes spelled his name with two t’s.] To hear of the Athletics without a Bob Matthews will be a novelty that it will take some time for the baseball public to get used to. He has been with the team many years, and was at one time considered not only the best pitcher of the Athletics, but one of the best in the country. … But the Athletics now have a long list of pitchers, and Matthews very likely has to make room for some younger blood.”24

Philly asked waivers on Mathews, intending to ship him to Cleveland, but Baltimore claimed the pitcher, and in the end no deal was worked out. Mathews started on May 26 and 31 and again on June 13, winning two of the games, but was then sent home by the club. He returned to Baltimore and pitched for a local amateur nine. Rumors placed him with the Salem club, but that never panned out. When July 15 rolled around and he hadn’t received his monthly paycheck from Philadelphia, Mathews filed suit. Two weeks later, the Baltimore Sun announced, “It is said that Bob Matthews, and the Athletic management have made up, and that he will again pitch for the club.”25 He started again on August 2 and 19, two humiliating defeats, and was again bumped from the rotation. He reappeared on October 7 to start two of the final three games of the season, winning one and losing one. The October 10 game was his last active appearance in pro ball.

Mathews gained a stellar reputation coaching college pitchers. After the 1886 season, he talked about creating a training school for pitchers and probably instructed young pitchers privately. One reader sent a question to Sporting Life in late 1888 asking, “Where can an amateur get instructions in pitching?” The reply was, “Go to some professional and ask him to instruct you. If you live in Philadelphia you can get instructions from Bobby Matthews.”26 As his career wound down, he started focusing on his coaching skills for future employment. In fact, he may have been the first professional coach in major-league history.

Mathews was concerned that his arm was quickly failing. He had made a deal with Athletics president (and field manager for the end of 1886) Bill Sharsig to stay with the club in 1887 and help coach the team’s pitchers if his arm didn’t hold up. Sharsig then hired Frank Bancroft to oversee the club. Bancroft didn’t approve of the deal and it was nixed. As noted, Mathews had a rocky relationship with the club in ’87, falling off the roster twice. Sharsig reassumed the field manager’s role in 1888 and brought Mathews back in the spring to help coach his young pitching corps, which included Gus Weyhing, Kid Gleason, Ben Sanders, Henry Long, and others. The additional hope was that Mathews could also get his arm back in shape, but that wasn’t in the cards. Mathews was given control over Philadelphia’s reserve squad and played for that team as well. Sporting Life shows him playing second base on April 14. Mathews helped coach the club for much of the season. He was with the team at least through August and even played in the outfield and pitched in some exhibition games. The following March, he filed yet another lawsuit against the Athletics – for $600 in unpaid coaching fees. In 1889 Mathews coached a couple of amateur squads in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, made up of employees of the Cornwall Railroad Company. He also pitched for the main club at times.

Like many players during the era, Mathews was called upon to umpire throughout his active career. He did so in 25 games over four years in the National Association and for 17 games in three National League seasons. In 1888 he worked four games in the American Association. He sought an umpiring post in the American Association in 1889, even refusing “several offers from minor-league clubs” to do so.27 He was eventually offered that post but at $1,200, a salary less than that of any other umpire. He declined, saying it wouldn’t be fair to all umpires to drag the salary level down. Late that year, he joined the new Players’ League. According to Sporting Life in November, “The veteran pitcher, Bobby Matthews, is an out-and-out Brotherhood man, and is using his influence in securing the signatures of [National] League and [American] Association players to Brotherhood contracts. Bobby is already slated as a Brotherhood umpire.”28 However, he was let go after 71 games in July 1890. Sporting Life wrote, “Bobby Matthews has been released for neglect of duty in leaving the New Yorks and Chicagos without an umpire in New York a couple of weeks ago in order to visit a sick friend in Philadelphia.”29 In 1891, Mathews found another slot in the American Association but was again replaced in mid-June after 37 games.

After his umpiring career ended, Mathews, who never married, moved around the East Coast from job to job. He belonged to the Mountain League, a social organization for professional ballplayers based in Philadelphia. There were a few such groups around at the time in different cities; it’s not a leap to say that there was more drinking and reminiscing going on than actual social organizing. The club did have events from time to time, though. In December 1891 Sporting Life found Mathews still living in Philadelphia: “Bobby Matthews, the old pitcher, has joined in the tug-of-war craze and is forming an American team for the Philadelphia tournament.”30 By early 1892, he was living in Trenton, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, hitting the race track almost daily. Wrote Sporting Life: “Lon Knight and Bobby Matthews are side-partners at the Gloucester horse races.”31 A year later, in April 1893, Sporting Life noted, “Bobby Matthews, the veteran ex-pitcher, is [still] one of the regular attendants at the Gloucester race track”32

By the middle of 1895, Mathews was virtually penniless, living and working at a roadhouse outside Providence owned by his ex-teammate of six years Joe Start. In May 1897 the first indication that Mathews was ill was found in Sporting Life: “According to the veteran, George Wood, that once famous pitcher, Bobby Matthews, is at Joe Start’s roadhouse, near Providence, a physical wreck.”33 In July, he was moved to Maryland General Hospital under the care of Dr. T.P. Lloyd for a brain disorder. Lloyd held out no hope for his recovery, proclaiming that he was “suffering from organic brain trouble, not paresis [a sexually-transmitted disease,]” as had been rumored.34

Mathews was suffering from delusions, believing that the nurses were trying to kill him, and having run-ins with the other patients. His memory faded and he couldn’t hold long conversations. Dr. Lloyd moved him to the Spring Grove Hospital for the Insane in Catonsville, Maryland, that month. Mathews’ aged mother told the press that she couldn’t financially care for her son. Baseball men across the country started a collection and benefit games were arranged to help finance Mathews’ care.

In late August, Mathews was invited to and attended a game at the behest of the Baltimore Orioles. Sporting Life regretfully announced, “Bobby Matthews attended one of the last Baltimore-Cincinnati games. The veteran has lost one of Dame Nature’s priceless jewels – memory – and is but a wreck of his old self. He did not even recognize the old war horse, Frank Bancroft, and asked: ‘What club are you with now?’ Alas, poor Horatio!”35 In October the Baltimore Sun proclaimed, “Matthews is entirely harmless and for some time has been failing very rapidly, until he has become so feeble that he can hardly move about. His malady is incurable and as the physicians hold out no hopes of his lingering very long in his present condition, his mother desired that he should spend the remainder of his life at home.”36 He was taken to his parents’ tiny home at 513 Bloom Street in Baltimore on October 5.

On April 17, 1898, Bobby Mathews, 46 years old, died at home “after a long and painful illness.”37 The funeral service was held at his cousin’s house and a Catholic Mass was celebrated at St. Gregory’s Church. He was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore, near other famous Baltimore baseball men Ned Hanlon, John McGraw, and Wilbert Robinson.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted,,,, Retrosheet,org, and a number of additional newspapers. Books that helped provide context include the following:

Bready, James H. Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

Egan, James M. Jr. Baseball on the Western Reserve: The Early Game in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, Year by Year and Town by Town 1865-1900 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008).

James, Bill, and Rob Neyer. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).

Morris, Peter. Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009).

Nemec, David. The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball (New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1997).

Ryczek, William J. When Johnny Came Sliding Home: The Post-Civil War Baseball Boom, 1865-1870 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998).

Spalding, John E. Always on Sunday: The California Baseball League, 1886 to 1915 (Manhattan, Kansas: Ag Press, 1992).

Wright, Marshall D. The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2000).



1 Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker, eds. Nineteenth Century Stars (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1989), 144.

2 “The Game in Indiana – The Finest Game Ever Played,” New York Herald, May 9, 1871: 4.

3 “A Splendid Victory for Fort Wayne,” Fort Wayne Gazette, May 5, 1871: 4.

4 “Local Matters,” Baltimore Sun, April 4, 1872: 1.

5 Daniel E. Ginsburg, The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game-Fixing Scandals (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1995), 33.

6 “Base Ball. Chicago vs. Mutual,” Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1874: 8.

7 “Base Ball. Chicago vs. Mutual.”

8 New York Herald, July 23, 1876. Reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1876: 5.

9 “The White Stockings Meet Their Waterloo in New York,” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1874: 8.

10 “The White Stockings Meet Their Waterloo in New York.”

11 “National League News,” Sporting Life, March 2, 1907: 3.

12 “Baseball,” New York Clipper, August 14, 1875: 157.

13 “Matthews No More: The Once Great Pitcher has Passed Away,” Sporting Life, April 23, 1898: 1.

14 Peter Morris, A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, The Game on the Field (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 137.

15 “Praises ‘Bobby’ Mathews,” Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1898: 4.

16 T.H. Murnane, “The Curve Ball: Convincing Testimony that the Famous Arthur Cummings Was the Bona-Fide Inventor of the Delivery That Revolutionized the Pitching Art,” Sporting Life, March 11, 1911: 3.

17 Candy Cummings, “More Baseball History: Close of Mr. Cummings’ Reminiscences,” The Cottager (Baldwinville, Massachusetts), August 1898, from the Cummings player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, per David L. Fleitz, Ghosts in the Gallery at Cooperstown (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004).

18 Albert G. Spalding, America’s National Game (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 484.

19 Henry O’Day, “Baseball Old and New,” Baseball Magazine, May 1912: 58.

20 “The Hartfords Defeat the Mutual in Brooklyn 1 to 0 – A Splendid Game,” Hartford Courant, May 22, 1875: 2.

21 “Diamond Dust,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 15, 1878: 5.

22 “Diamond Dust,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 28, 1878: 8.

23 “Diamond Dust,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 12, 1887: 5, attributed to the New York Telegram.

24 “Athletic to Give Up Matthews,” Baltimore Sun, April 28, 1887: 6.

25 “Base-Ball Notes,” Baltimore Sun, July 28, 1887: 6.

26 “Questions Answered,” Sporting Life, November 7, 1888: 6.

27 “Local Jottings,” Sporting Life, March 13, 1889: 6.

28 “News Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, November 27, 1889: 5.

29 “News Notes and Gossip,” Sporting Life, July 26, 1890: 5.

30 “Base Ball: Local Jottings,” Sporting Life, December 26, 1891: 10.

31 “Personal Mention,” Sporting Life, February 6, 1892: 2.

32 “Local Jottings,” Sporting Life, April 1, 1893: 3.

33 “News and Comment,” Sporting Life, May 22, 1897: 5.

34 “Stricken Matthews: Condition of the Unfortunate Player Unchanged – Movements for His Financial Easement,” Sporting Life, October 16, 1897: 6.

35 “News and Comment,” Sporting Life, September 11, 1897: 5.

36 “Failing Matthews. The Famous Ex-Pitcher Has Not Very Long to Live,” Elkhart (Indiana) Weekly Truth, December 9, 1897: 6.

37 Baltimore Sun, April 19, 1898: 4.

Full Name

Robert T. Mathews


November 21, 1851 at Baltimore, MD (USA)


April 17, 1898 at Baltimore, MD (USA)

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