This article was written by Eddie Frierson
In the time when Giants walked the earth and roamed the Polo Grounds, none was more honored than Christy Mathewson. Delivering all four of his pitches, including his famous “fadeaway” (now called a screwball), with impeccable control and an easy motion, the right-handed Mathewson was the greatest pitcher of the Deadball Era’s first decade, compiling a 2.13 ERA over 17 seasons and setting modern National League records for wins in a season (37), wins in a career (373), and consecutive 20-win seasons (12). Aside from his pitching achievements, he was the greatest all-around hero of the Deadball Era, a handsome, college-educated man who lifted the rowdy world of baseball to gentlemanliness. Matty was the basis, many say, for the idealized athlete Frank Merriwell, an inspiration to many authors over the years, and the motivation for an Off-Broadway play based on his life and writings. “He gripped the imagination of a country that held a hundred million people and held this grip with a firmer hold than any man of his day or time,” wrote sportswriter Grantland Rice.1
The oldest of six children of Minerva (Capwell) and Gilbert Mathewson, a Civil War veteran who became a post-office worker and farmer, Christopher Mathewson was born on August 12, 1880, in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the northeastern part of the state, not far from the New York border. His forebears, original followers of Roger Williams in Rhode Island, had settled in the region as the nation began to expand westward after the Revolutionary War. The blond-haired, blue-eyed Christy was always big for his age—he eventually grew to 6-feet-1 1/2 and 195 pounds—and his playmates called him “Husk.” At age 14 he pitched for the Factoryville town team. Christy continued pitching for semipro teams in the area while attending Keystone Academy, a Factoryville prep school founded by his grandmother. The summer after his graduation from Keystone, Christy was pitching for the team from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, when a left-handed teammate named Dave Williams, who later pitched three games for the Boston Americans in 1902, taught him the fadeaway.
In September 1898 Mathewson enrolled at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, 75 miles west of Factoryville. He pitched for the baseball team and played center on the basketball team, but football was his chief claim to fame at Bucknell, which played a rugged schedule that included powerhouses such as Penn State, Army, and Navy. For three years Christy was the varsity’s first-string fullback, punter, and drop kicker; no less an authority than Walter Camp, the originator of the All-America team, called him “the greatest drop-kicker in intercollegiate competition.”2 Majoring in forestry, Mathewson also was a top-flight student who excelled in extracurricular activities, serving as class president and joining the band, glee club, two literary societies, and two fraternities. It was also at Bucknell that he met his future bride, Jane Stoughton.
During the summer after his freshman year, Mathewson signed his first professional contract with Taunton, Massachusetts, of the New England League. He pitched in 17 games and went 2-13. To make a bad season worse, Taunton folded and the players had to arrange a Labor Day exhibition just to raise funds for their transportation home. Before the start of the Bucknell-Penn football game that fall (in which Matty kicked two long-range field goals, then worth five points apiece, the same as touchdowns), an old major-league pitcher named Phenomenal Smith signed him to a contract with Norfolk of the Virginia League for the following summer. Reporting right after final exams, Mathewson became an immediate sensation in the Virginia League, amassing a 20-2 record by mid-July. After the last of those victories, Smith took Matty aside in the clubhouse and offered him a choice between being sold to Philadelphia or New York of the National League. Christy chose New York, thinking the Giants needed pitching more than the Phillies, and made his major-league debut on July 17, 1900, one month shy of his 20th birthday.
Mathewson did little more than pitch batting practice for the Giants, becoming so frustrated that he wrote a friend, “I don’t give a rap whether they sign me or not.”3 Towards the end of the season he received two starting assignments and lost both, ending the year winless in three decisions with a 5.08 ERA. The Giants returned him to Norfolk. That offseason the Cincinnati Reds drafted him for $100, then promptly traded him back to the Giants for a washed-up Amos Rusie. It was part of a collusive master plan to save $900; the Giants would have had to pay $1,000 to Norfolk if they’d kept Mathewson after the season, and Reds owner John T. Brush was negotiating to purchase the Giants from Andrew Freedman. In 1901, his first full season in the majors, Mathewson pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 15 and went 20-17 with a 2.41 ERA for the seventh-place Giants. New York fans started calling their ace “The Big Six.” Matty thought it was because of his height, but the nickname probably originated when sportswriter Sam Crane compared him to New York City’s Big Six Fire Company, the fastest to put out the fire.4
The Giants floundered again at the start of 1902, prompting new manager Horace Fogel to play Mathewson in three games at first base and four in the outfield in addition to his pitching duties. Many have implied that this was a sign of Fogel’s ineptitude, but years later Matty defended Fogel, explaining that the manager knew he was a good hitter and fielder and was willing to try anything to turn around his team. The experiment ended, however, when John McGraw took over as manager on July 19. To that point Mathewson had won only one game, but over the rest of the season he won 13, eight of them shutouts, winding up at 14-17 with a 2.12 ERA as the Giants finished last. That winter Matty married Jane Stoughton while McGraw rebuilt his team through trades and free-agent acquisitions. The Mathewsons honeymooned in Savannah, where the Giants held spring training. Blanche McGraw took the young pitcher’s wife under her wing, while the McGraws treated Christy like the son they never had.
Christy Mathewson enjoyed a breakout year in 1903, the first of three consecutive 30-win seasons. That year he went 30-13 with a 2.26 ERA and a career-high 267 strikeouts, which stood as the NL record until Sandy Koufax struck out 269 in 1961. Matty was just as good in 1904, leading the Giants to the NL pennant with a 33-12 record and 2.03 ERA, but the following year he was even better. Mathewson was 31-9 with a miniscule 1.28 ERA, capping off his banner 1905 season with the best World Series any pitcher ever had. Opposing him in the opener on October 9 was Philadelphia’s Eddie Plank, a fellow Pennsylvanian who’d pitched against him several times while attending Gettysburg College. Mathewson got the victory, as he had in each of their college match-ups, shutting out the Athletics on four hits. After Chief Bender shut out the Giants in Game Two, Matty was ready to pitch again in Game Three but received an extra day’s rest when the game was rained out. On October 12 he shut out the Athletics, 9-0, on another four-hitter. The next day Joe McGinnity defeated Plank, 1-0, and Mathewson returned on just one day’s rest to clinch the Series with a 2-0 victory over Bender. Within a span of six days, he’d pitched 27 innings, allowing 14 hits, one walk, and no runs while striking out 18. The next week Matty and his catcher Frank Bowerman went hunting in Bowerman’s hometown of Romeo, Michigan. Coaxed to pitch for Romeo in its final game of the season against archrival Lake Orion, Christy lost, 5-0, to an obscure group of semipros.
Mathewson was the toast of New York. Endorsement offers poured in, with Matty “pitching” Arrow shirt collars, leg garters (for socks), undergarments, sweaters, athletic equipment, and numerous other products. He received an offer to put his name on a pool hall/saloon but turned it down when his mother asked, “Do you really want your name associated with a place like that?”5 But in a pattern that haunted him for the rest of his life, disappointment and tragedy followed his greatest triumph. In 1906 Matty caught a dose of diphtheria and nearly died, struggling to a 22-12 record and an uncharacteristic 2.97 ERA. Late that season the Giants called up his brother Henry, who was only 19 years old. In his first start Henry walked 14 Chicago Cubs. Disappointing though the ’06 season was, Matty experienced his greatest joy on October 6 when Jane gave birth to the couple’s first and only child, a son they named Christopher Jr.
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. By his own admission he had “nothing on the ball” in that contest, and he also felt responsible that four people had lost their lives in falling accidents at the Polo Grounds that day (according to Christy’s second cousin, Harold “Alvie” Reynolds, if Mathewson had only said the word, the Giants would’ve refused to play and those tragedies would’ve been averted).6 Compounding his guilt, in January 1909 Christy found the body of his youngest brother, Nicholas, dead in his parents’ barn of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Two years earlier, Detroit Tigers manager Hughie Jennings had wanted to sign the 17-year-old Nicholas and bring him directly to the majors, but Christy had advised against it.7
Mathewson nonetheless bounced back to go 25-6 with a career-best 1.14 ERA in 1909. He helped the Giants win three consecutive NL pennants from 1911 to 1913, leading the NL in ERA in both 1911 (1.99) and 1913 (2.06). In 1914, however, the 34-year-old Mathewson started experiencing a constant pain in his left side towards the end of the season. Doctors found nothing wrong and told him he was just getting old. It affected his performance, however; his ERA increased to 3.00 in 1914 even though he still managed to win 24 games, and the following year he was just 8-14 with a 3.58 ERA. By the midpoint of the 1916 season Matty had won just three games. Knowing that his days as an effective pitcher were behind him, he decided that he wanted to manage. On July 20 McGraw came through for his friend, trading him for Cincinnati Reds player-manager Buck Herzog on condition that he replace Herzog as manager.
Mathewson was a good manager who might have become a great one, but he could do little with Herzog’s leftovers and finished tied for last in 1916. At least he added some interest to an otherwise dismal season, pitching one last game against his old rival on “Mordecai Brown Day” in Chicago. In the only major-league game he ever pitched in a uniform other than New York’s, the 36-year-old Matty yielded 15 hits but defeated a nearly 40-year-old Brown, 10-8, giving him the 373rd and final victory of his 17-year career. In 1917 Mathewson guided Cincinnati to a 78-76 record, its first winning season since 1909, but tragedy struck on July 1 when his brother Henry died of tuberculosis at age 30, leaving behind four young daughters. Matty’s Reds continued their improvement in 1918, but on August 9 he suspended his notorious first baseman, Hal Chase, after confronting him about some suspicious-looking misplays and a $50 payment to pitcher Jimmy Ring. Cincinnati went on to finish third but by that point Mathewson was in France, having been commissioned a captain in the Army’s Chemical Warfare Division. While Mathewson was overseas, Chase’s case came before the National Commission; without the star witness against him, Chase was exonerated.
While in France Mathewson endured a bad bout of influenza and was exposed to mustard gas during a training exercise. He was hospitalized and apparently had recovered by the time he returned to the United States in the spring. On his arrival, however, he discovered that Pat Moran was managing the Reds. When owner Garry Herrmann didn’t hear from Mathewson that he’d be back in time for spring training (both had written to each other but neither had received the other’s message), he did what he felt he needed to and hired a new manager. Mathewson resigned from the Reds and accepted a position from McGraw as assistant manager of the Giants. In 1919 New York finished second to the Matty-built Reds, and Mathewson covered the World Series for the New York Times. Before the first game he saw several Chicago White Sox conversing with Chase in the lobby of Cincinnati’s Hotel Sinton. It has been rumored that, doubting the legitimacy of the Series before a single pitch was thrown, Mathewson discussed the possibility of a fix with sportswriter Hugh Fullerton and agreed to circle suspicious-looking plays on his scorecard.8 Angry at what he witnessed, believing that “his” team would have won the Series on its own merit, Matty forwarded his findings to the National Commission and walked away from the Black Sox Scandal.
Returning to the Giants in 1920-21, Mathewson was unable to shake the cough that had plagued him since joining the club in 1919, and the pain in his left side was back and worse than ever. The physicians who examined him in 1921 immediately diagnosed the condition as tuberculosis. It’s possible that he’d contracted the disease from his brother Henry and had it since 1914, but the physicians who’d examined him then were looking for muscle strain, not lesions irritating his lung and rubbing the inside of his ribs. Along with his wife, Jane, Christy set off for the tuberculosis sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York, where he initially received a prognosis of six weeks to live. For the next two years he fought as hard as he ever had on the diamond to recover from the deadly disease. By the winter of 1922-23 Matty thought he was strong enough to return to baseball.
That winter McGraw urged Judge Emil Fuchs of New York to purchase the Boston Braves. “And if you buy them,” McGraw said, “I’ve got the man who can run the club for you.”9 On February 11, 1923, Fuchs announced that he’d bought the Braves and Christy Mathewson would run the club as president. His physicians warned him that he couldn’t undertake too much, but Matty nonetheless threw himself into the task of rebuilding the pitiful Braves. Some reports say that his cough returned in 1925 after he was soaked in a spring-training rain shower. Whether it was stress, the rain, or a disease that wouldn’t give in, Mathewson’s body began to fail and he was forced to return to Saranac Lake where he died on October 7, 1925. On that day McGraw was in Pittsburgh, covering the World Series for a newspaper syndicate. When he received the news, he immediately left for New York to meet his wife, Blanche. Together they went to Saranac Lake to be with Jane Mathewson and Christy Jr.
Three days later, with his manager, wife, and son standing graveside, Christy Mathewson was laid to rest in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in view of the Bucknell campus. Today there is a memorial gate at the entrance to the campus, built in 1927 with donations from every big-league team, and in 1989 the Bison football stadium was renovated and re-dedicated as Christy Mathewson Memorial Stadium.
An earlier version of this biography appeared in SABR’s “Deadball Stars of the National League” (Brassey’s Inc., 2004), edited by Tom Simon. It also appeared in “From Spring Training to Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors“ (SABR, 2018), edited by Rob Edelman and Bill Nowlin.
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
1 Grantland Rice, “Christy Mathewson,” obituary, New York Herald-Tribune, October 9, 1925.
2 A Loomis Field Hero (Christy Mathewson Stadium Re-Dedication Program), Bucknell University Athletics, September 30, 1989, 3.
3 Personal letter written to Earl Manchester by Christy Mathewson, dated July 26, 1900. Facsimile copy in author’s possession.
4 The Big Six Fire Company in New York won several contests among New York fire departments in the early part of the twentieth century and was regarded as the quickest able to respond to an emergency. The nickname for Mathewson (“The Big Six”) is noted in Frank Graham, The New York Giants: An Informal History of A Great Baseball Club (New York: G P Putnam and Sons, 1952), 30.
5 Author interview with Alvie Reynolds, August 1984, Factoryville, Pennsylvania.
7 Author interview with Grace Mathewson Van Lengen (niece of Christy Mathewson, daughter of Henry Mathewson) Taped Interview, August 15, 1985, Liverpool, New York.
8 Hugh Fullerton, “Is Big League Baseball Being Run for Gamblers, with Players in the Deal?” New York Evening World, December 15, 1919. Fullerton went into more detail about his World Series conversations with Mathewson in Hugh Fullerton, “I Recall,” The Sporting News, October 17, 1935. Thanks to Jacob Pomrenke for these citations.
9 Baseball’s Immortals No. 7 (Cooperstown, New York: Home Plate Press, 1961), 27.