Christy Mathewson was baseball's first superstara beloved turn-of-the-century pitcher who was among the initial group of five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He also defined moral excellence, bridging sport and national culture at a time when pro ballplayers were perceived as louts, and was the first to bring respectability to the game. This is a thoughtful and inspiring story of a singular American life that had a profound and lasting influence on our national identity.
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THE PLAYERCHRISTY MATHEWSON, BASEBALL, AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY
By Philip Seib
FOUR WALLS EIGHT WINDOWSCopyright © 2003 Philip Seib
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePlaying for Fun
The hole in the barn wall wasn't much wider than the ball in the boy's hand. He reached back and threw as hard as he could. The ball shot through the hole. He picked up another ball and did it again ... and again. In his mind's eye, he wasn't pitching in his backyard, but in a stadium filled with cheering people-cheering as he whipped his fastball past snarling batters. He fired one more ball through that little hole, into the hay stacked in the barn. The cheers grew louder.
Playing. That's what baseball is. Throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. It's a game.
But it is also something more. The competition, graceful and intense, is presumed to be a window on the American spirit. Those who master the art of baseball preside over more than the field of play. They become cultural icons, reflecting the state of the nation and influencing the tenor of national life. Only a few players reach this level: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Cal Ripken among them. Before them all was Christy Mathewson.
He was a gentleman in a ruffian's game, a sportsman among brawlers. He exemplified personal virtue as an American characteristic when the nation was defining its values. And he was enormously, dazzlingly talented at the game he loved.
On the days he was good-and most days he was very good-he left batters frustrated, reaching for a pitch that suddenly wasn't there. The fastball shot by, the curve dipped out of reach and the mysterious fade-away broke in the wrong direction. Putting bat on ball is the hardest task in sports, and Mathewson made it even harder than usual. During his long career, not many opponents crossed home plate against him-barely two every nine innings. Any batter who did hit him solidly was unlikely to ever see the same pitch again.
Mathewson's temperament as well as his skill lifted the play of his teammates. Another player's fielding error or failure to drive in a run would not draw even a glare from him, much less a harsh word. One of his catchers, Chief Meyers, said: "How we loved to play for him! We'd break our necks for that guy."
And he started by just playing, out by the barn.
Factoryville, Pennsylvania, hasn't changed much since Christy grew up there in the 1880s and '90s. Houses from that time, including the ones he lived in, stand in the little valley about sixteen miles northwest of Scranton. Spacious porches look out over lawns running down to Tunkhannock Creek, where the fishing is good. The railroad tracks have been replaced by a not-very-busy state highway, and there's a stoplight at the corner where the road curves down the hill into the village. It's a pretty place, with brooks and farmers' fields close by.
The village was officially created in 1828 with the establishment of its first post office. The railroad brought salesmen and a few visitors to town, and jobs could be found at the tannery and the grist mill. Main Street featured a bank and a photography studio. In the 1880s, the population was about 640.
Christopher Mathewson was born August 12, 1880, in the second-floor bedroom of a trim white house on Main Street, now College Avenue. He was named after an uncle who had promised to bestow a thousand dollars upon a namesake. His parents, Gilbert and Minerva, were of New England stock, and their families had settled in Pennsylvania as part of the movement west, searching for opportunity and elbow room.
The cotton goods factory that gave the town its name had failed, so Gilbert did some farming, like others in the town, and a bit of carpentry on the side. He didn't have to work too hard because Minerva was a Capwell, which meant a lot in Factoryville. Town records list a Capwell as one of the first physicians. A Capwell owned the first hotel, and he was succeeded in running it by a Mathewson. During Christy's childhood, Minerva's money ensured that the Mathewsons were always comfortable, if never wealthy.
Gilbert fought in the Civil War as a teenager and then landed a job in Washington, where he worked in the Senate post office. When he returned home, he presided over a family of three sons and two daughters. (Another boy died as an infant.)
With their family growing, the Mathewsons moved about a hundred yards down the street to a slightly larger house where Christy and his siblings would grow up. It was a comfortable, lively place. Minerva described it like this: "I've never had anything in my home too good to be used. I have always wanted my children to enjoy everything in it. A home is to live in. It's for your children and their friends."
The barn out back was nestled against a wooded hillside. Christy would practice pitching by himself, or recruit someone to play "hailey over," which involved arcing a throw over the barn to a catcher on the other side.
He went to grade school in Factoryville and enjoyed the idyllic life of small town America: fishing for pickerel in the Tunkhannock, playing trombone in the town band (which meant he got to wear a brass-buttoned uniform), helping out with the family vegetable garden, and playing ball. Christy later said that he had not been particularly precocious in baseball. While very young, he played the outfield or second base-anywhere the older boys told him to play. Everyone wanted to pitch; that was the position for heroes who would mow down enemy batters, and it was reserved for the oldest boys on the team.
Christy practiced pitching on his own, with a ball if one was handy or, more often, with stones. A cousin taught him how to make stone curve in flight, and as Christy tramped through the woods around town, "I got to be a great stone thrower, and this practice increased my throwing power and taught me something about curves. When I was nine years old, I could throw a stone farther than any of the boys who were my chums."
Like many towns, Factoryville had its own amateur baseball team, made up of adults who took seriously their rivalries with neighboring villages. At age ten, Christy was made the team's "second catcher," position that involved little more than fetching foul balls, carrying bats, and bringing water to the real players. Although proud to be associated even in this slight way with the team, he later recalled that the players were not perfect role models. Many "had whiskers on their faces and were really fat men."
He was eager to play ball at every opportunity. He later wrote, "would rather play baseball than eat, and that is the spirit all boys need who expect to be good players." A cousin told a story about the time she hired Christy to pick strawberries in her yard. He worked hard until a ball game started. Using some of the money his cousin was paying him, Christy hired younger boys to finish the job so he could join the game.
His first chance to establish himself as a player came when he was fourteen. It was the day before a big game between Factoryville and Mill City, a despised rival seven miles away. Factoryville's pitcher became ill, and his usual backup was out of town. There was talk of sending for a semipro player and paying him to fill in, but the team didn't have the money for that.
"What about Christy?" someone asked. "The kid can pitch pretty well."
A tryout was arranged for the morning of the game, right in the middle of Main Street. In front of the Factoryville team and much of the rest of the town, Christy showed off his pitches and wrapped up his performance by striking out the captain. He had won himself the job. The team boarded its mule-drawn coach and headed for Mill City.
Here the storybook tale goes a bit awry. There was no pitching miracle on the Mill City diamond. After all, this was a fourteen-year-old throwing against adults. Christy gave up seventeen runs.
But the story has one more twist. For most of the game, Christy was as overmatched at the plate as he was in the pitcher's box. (There was as yet no mound for pitchers.) Each time he came to bat, he struck out ... except once.
The bases were loaded, and Christy, swinging with the same cross-handed grip he used when hoeing potatoes, slashed at the ball and met it with all his weight. It soared over the left fielder's head, and three runs crossed the plate. Final score: Factoryville 19, Mill City 17. The boy was a hero.
This game was at the end of the summer, and soon it was time for Christy to return to school. There was no public high school in the area, but right down the street was Keystone Academy, a Baptist prep school whose founders included Christy's Grandmother Capwell. The school's articles of incorporation proclaim, "It shall be a literary institution for the education of the people in useful arts, sciences, and literature." The student handbook noted that "each day's work is begun by chapel exercise, consisting of singing, Scripture reading and prayer." By this time Christy's mother had decided that her son should become a Baptist preacher, and she saw Keystone as the perfect place for Christy to prepare for that career.
The campus consisted of twenty acres donated by the Capwells. The original red brick building stands on a leafy hill, with woods and fields stretching out behind it. Today, the campus covers 270 acres and the school has become a college, but it retains the quiet charm of the nineteenth century, with a string of nicely restored Victorian homes serving as a bridge between campus and town.
The 1898-1899 student handbook notes that "much attention is given to football and baseball. The physical part of our being is developed on the field while the mental is taken care of in the classrooms. ... We believe in an amiable temper and aim to develop it while contesting for honors." At the end of the handbook's section about athletics is the name of the baseball team's captain, Christy Mathewson.
For a while at Keystone, Christy concentrated on football. He later said that while baseball might be the better spectator sport, football was more fun for the players. Nevertheless, he kept playing baseball, both for the school and in pickup games. His mother later recalled: "A good many times I've come out here and acted as umpire.... In those days, as now, no matter how excited the others got, they never could fuss Christy. He'd just stand aside while the others fought things out and at the end he'd say, 'Oh, come on and let's play ball.' "
While he was at Keystone, the Mill City team he had once defeated made him an extravagant offer: a dollar a game to pitch.
Christy later said, "It was such fun for me to play ball then that the idea of being paid for it struck me as finding money."
He had to get to the games on his own and bring his own catcher, so Christy would recruit one of his buddies and they'd walk the seven miles to the Mill City diamond along a tree-lined country road. Fred Brauer was one of those early catchers, and in later years he'd show his son his gnarled knuckles, the result of foul tips by batters who couldn't catch up with Christy's fastball. He never said if Christy split the dollar with him.
Christy played seven or eight times for Mill City, once pitching a shutout, which was a rare occurrence given the haphazard fielding of amateur ball in those days.
In the summer of 1898, just after graduating from Keystone, Christy took the train into Scranton to watch that city's YMCA team play Pittston. He sat in the stands, working his way through a five-cent bag of peanuts while waiting impatiently for the game to start. The Scranton pitcher did not show up that day, and one of the YMCA players who had seen Christy pitch walked over to the grandstand, nodded at the boy, and asked, "Want to work for us this afternoon?"
Christy scrambled into a uniform that was many sizes too big and started pitching. He struck out fifteen that day and was rewarded with an offer to come back and pitch regularly for Scranton. He would be paid enough to cover the cost of getting to and from Scranton and given a uniform that fit.
He also kept playing for Factoryville, and became a local celebrity, which did not impress his mother. She told of the day he was scheduled to pitch for his hometown against local rival Honesdale.
"There was a lot of practicing, so much that when the day came for the game Christy's potato patch had not been picked. I told him that he could not go to Honesdale unless the patch had been taken care of. On the morning of the game he tried to beg off. All of his teammates came to me. Without Christy, they said, Factoryville would be beaten by Honesdale. I answered that Factoryville would have to be beaten, then. There and then they saw a light, and every one of the nine pitched in and picked potatoes. They cleaned the field up before noon, I paid them with a good meal, and Factoryville won the game."
That victory over Honesdale led to Christy's best baseball deal to date. The Honesdale team offered him twenty dollars a month and board to play for them. "This seemed to me then a princely sum," he later said, "and I began to speak of 'J. P. Morgan and me.'"
Honesdale is about thirty miles east of Factoryville. The Honesdale Eagles played against teams from towns such as Goshen, Port Jervis, and Chester. On July 18, 1898, Christy pitched his first game for the Eagles, winning 16-7. A few days later, he pitched a 2-0 shutout, and on July 27 he pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against Carbondale, winning 7-0. Over the course of the summer he won eight games for Honesdale.
The Honesdale Eagles were considered an amateur team, although today they would be called semipro. Players received small stipends, but they all held down other jobs or went to school. When a good prospect like Mathewson was noticed, the team would try to lure him away from wherever he was playing. Everyone was a free agent.
Games were played on unused farm fields or town lots like the Silk Mill Flats that the players cleared themselves. Teams might receive financial help from local businesses-sometimes cash, sometimes a keg of beer. Members of the community took fierce pride in their team and valued the bragging rights earned by victories over neighboring towns.
They also valued baseball itself. By the mid-nineteenth century, the game had become part of American culture, an enterprise that encouraged personal achievement and civic enthusiasm. Walt Whitman wrote: "I see great things in baseball. It's our game-the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us."
Most members of these teams played until their skills faded or their work and family responsibilities left them no time for the practices and games. Then they joined the ranks of the spectators as the next cadre of young men took their place.
Excerpted from THE PLAYER by Philip Seib Copyright © 2003 by Philip Seib. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
|Prologue: October 8, 1925||1|
|1||Playing for Fun||3|
|2||The Strenuous Life||19|
|5||The Moral Nation||85|
|6||Elevating the Game||107|
|7||Making the World Safe||125|