By Joe Darby
As the time for baseball spring training nears, my thoughts turn to that grand old game and, for some reason, to one of the greatest ballplayers to ever pick up a baseball.
I’m talking about Christy Mathewson, a pitcher for the New York Giants more than 100 years ago. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, or if you like baseball but don’t study its history, you may just find this story interesting.
Christy accomplished one of the greatest athletic feats ever in the 1905 World Series. I’ll talk about that in a few minutes.
But first let me tell you a little about Christy. When he played baseball, most men of the diamond were a pretty rough lot. Many were foul-mouthed heavy drinkers from working class families, who played the game rough and tough, and spent their nights carousing and frequenting the many brothels that were a fact of life in cities and towns of that era.
Let me quote Christy here as to what he thought of such shenanigans. “A man who would cheat on his wife would also cheat in baseball…” He wasn’t known as the Christian Gentlemen for nothing. And not only did he disdain the rowdy behavior of many of his teammates, but he was a college boy! That was a true rarity in those days, when most ballplayers had had to drop out of school to go to work to help support their families.
So you can imagine how Christy’s background, behavior and comments would grate on his teammates. At least at first. One said of him, “Hardly anyone on the team speaks to Mathewson. He is a pinhead and a conceited fellow who has made himself unpopular.”
That comment, however, was made before the Giant players realized that he was one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Here’s another quote from his catcher, Chief Meyers: “How we loved to play for him. We’d break our necks for that guy. If you made an error behind him or anything of that sort, he’d never get mad or sulk. He’d come over and pat you on the back. He had the sweetest, most gentle nature…”
Small boys worshiped the tall, handsome blue-eyed blond man. His manager, the tough John McGraw, loved him and looked upon him as a son. At Bucknell College he was president of his class and a football All-American. He married his childhood sweetheart, a Sunday School teacher. He had such a pristine reputation that his wife felt it necessary to show that he was indeed human. “He’s a good man, very good, but he’s no goody-goody. He sometimes plays checkers for money.”
During his career, which lasted from 1900 to 1916, Mathewson won 373 games, tossing 2,507 strikeouts along the way. And that was a time when batters didn’t strike out as nearly as often as they do today. In 1905, when he had that unbelievable World Series, he won 31 games and lost 9, with a miniscule 1.28 ERA. (That means opposing teams scored only 1.28 runs per nine innings against him, not counting runs scored because of errors.)
So here’s what he did in the 1905 World Series, when the Giants took on the mighty Philadelphia Athletics (the forerunners of today’s Oakland Athletics.) In a period of only six days, he pitches three times. Today’s starting pitchers require a four or five-day rest between their starts!
He pitches the opening game, all nine innings, for a 2-0 shutout. He pitches game three, all nine innings, for a 9-0 shutout. Just two days later, he pitches game five, all nine innings, for a 2-0 shutout. Incredible! Three games, three complete shutouts. Twenty-seven innings, zero runs given up. No other pitcher has ever come close to such an achievement in the World Series.
By the way, another pretty good pitcher, Iron Man McGinnity, won a game for the Giants, who took the series, 4 games to 1.
Christy had a tragic end to his short life. Being the kind of man he was, he enlisted in World War I and was gassed in Europe. He could never breathe properly again and coughed up blood. He told his beloved wife, “Now, Jane, I suppose you will have to go out and have a good cry. Don’t make it a long one. This can’t be helped.”
Christy lived, very uncomfortably, until 1925, when he died at the age of 45. He died during the 1925 World Series, between the Washington Senators and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Flags flew at half-staff, the band played “Nearer My God to Thee” and all the players wore black armbands.
The commissioner of baseball, Kennesaw Landis, said, “Why should God want to take a thoroughbred like Mattie so soon and leave some others down here that could well be spared?”