The Christian Gentleman
NEW YORK – In 1911, the Giants reestablished themselves as the preeminent baseball club in the National League. Manager ‘Mugsy’ McGraw’s youngsters were coming of age, and beginning to prosper. Finally, it seemed that the shades of Fred Merkle’s mental error that fans thought cost the Giants the pennant in 1908 were beginning to dissipate. Though the years since had proven to be an uphill battle to supplant either Chicago or Pittsburgh at the top of the standings, in 1911, with a new style of play, the Jints found themselves in serious World Series contention for the first time in almost three years.
Unlike the New York teams of the prior decade, these men of Coogan’s Bluff terrorized their foes along the base paths, stealing a record 347 bases. Josh Devore led the Giants in that category, with 61 swipes. Fred Snodgrass contributed 51, with Merkle close behind at 49. Tied for fourth place were John Joseph ‘Red’ Murray and Charles ‘Buck’ Herzog, with 48 each.
However, had it not been for stellar pitching, none of these players would have ever seen postseason play that year. Richard ‘Rube’ Marquard, now in his third full season, began to fulfill his supposed potential – perhaps squelching the throats of the naysayers who felt his $11,000 purchase price in 1908 was a ludicrous figure. Rightly so, as Rube had posted a 9-18 win loss record for his career up to that point. Now, mastering his control as well as a forkball changeup, Marquard finished the 1911 season winning 24 games, and losing 7, topping the league with a .774 winning percentage, in addition to a robust 237 strikeouts. But it was Marquard’s teammate, Christopher Mathewson, who would be remembered as the dominant pitcher of the staff, as well as the dominate pitcher of the era.
Born in the tranquil village of Factoryville, Pennsylvania to a gentleman farmer and his wife in 1880, Christy was raised in a religious atmosphere. Born to sober parents who thought ill of alcohol and smoking, the family was a church-going lot, tied to a rigid and stern Baptist faith. With most of the inhabitants of Factoryville working in the mines when they came of age, Gilbert and Minerva Mathewson had hoped their son would become a preacher. Placing a high value on education, the Mathewsons intended on someday sending their son to Keystone Academy, a junior preparatory college in Factoryville that was founded by Christy’s grandmother.
Baseball was still in its infancy in the 1880s, but it was already becoming very popular in Factoryville, and the young Christy took to the game much like children took to playing Cowboys and Indians. Honing his throwing ability with his older cousin, Mathewson’s arm strength grew, and later, after hurling stones at blackbirds and squirrels, developed pin-point accuracy.
Christy’s baptism into the world of professional baseball came in 1895, as a fifteen year old kid pitching against older coal-mine teenagers, earning a dollar a game for the Factoryville team. By the time he had enrolled in Bucknell University in 1898, he had already finished impressive stints with teams in Honesdale, PA and Taunton, MA. In October of 1900, he signed with Norfolk of the Virginia-North Carolina League, where he would win 20 games and pitch a no-hitter. A ticket to the big leagues seemed imminent with all of the scouts scouring the country for new heroes.
That June, he was picked off of the Norfolk roster for $1,500 by the Giants, an untried Mathewson performed poorly in five games for New York. Compiling a 0-3 record while giving up 35 hits in 30 innings, he was returned to Norfolk, where he would then be drafted by Cincinnati for $100. The Reds would trade Mathewson back to the Giants, in exchange for the rights to the once-invincible Amos Rusie. John T. Brush, the owner of the Reds, was in talks with Giants owner Andrew Freedman, to purchase the New York franchise. With such a deal in the offing, Brush did not want any trouble waiting for him in New York from a disobedient Rusie, who, over skirmishes in pay, had not played the past two seasons for the Giants. The now 20-year old Christy was on his way back to Manhattan.
Rusie, being one of the greatest pitchers of the 1890s, had won an amazing 245 games in ten years, winning over 30 in three of them. It was felt that Rusie was one of the main reasons that the pitching mound was moved back to its current distance of 60 feet and 6 inches from home plate. The ‘Hoosier Thunderbolt’ however, had no more victories ahead of him, as he pitched poorly in three appearances with the Reds die to a shoulder injury, and would retire from baseball in 1901 to work in a paper and pulp mill in Muncie, Indiana.
Mathewson, however, soon flourished as a starter. Winning 30 games in 1903 and 33 in 1904, the phenom quickly became the ace of the staff, as well as a favorite of new Giants Manager John McGraw. In 1905, he won 31 games and lost 9, while leading the league with a 1.28 ERA, 8 shutouts and 206 strikeouts. Additionally, he would throw his second no-hitter on June 13 against ‘Three Finger’ Brown and the Cubs. Appearing in their first ever World Series that year, McGraw’s team would dominate Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics, taking the championship in five games. Christy would start the opener, pitching a 4-hit shutout for the victory. Three days later, with the series tied at 1-1, Game 4 saw the same result – another 4-hit shutout for Christy and the Giants. Two days later, Mathewson would pitch a 6-hit shutout to clinch the series for New York. In six days, the youth had pitched three complete games without allowing a single run on baseball’s biggest stage – the greatest performance in World Series history.
‘Matty’ became idolized as a shining example for – and by – boys around the country. Considered to be the original American hero of the sports world, he certainly owned the part with his tall frame, dirty blonde hair, striking blue eyes, and handsome looks. In an era when most baseball players were known to be brawlers and hard-drinking men, he was one of the few who were college educated. At Bucknell, though he excelled in baseball, basketball and football, he also played bass horn in the University band and sang in the Glee Club. Academically, he served as an historian for his freshman class and later as president of his junior class. He was also a member of the Euepian Literary Society and Theta Delta Tau, a men’s honorary leadership society. With his adherence to a clean living, good sportsmanship, and religious observance, he was considered Frank Merriwell in the flesh – a role model after whom parents wanted their children to shape their lives. The fact that he was dubbed by sportswriters as ‘The Christian Gentleman’ probably only exaggerated his virtues – as he was also known to be arrogant, enjoy cigars, and have a penchant for checkers – but on the ball field, he gave them nothing but Herculean deeds from which to draw their accolades.
The model of consistency throughout his career, Mathewson employed his intelligence, good mechanics, outstanding control, and a devastating screwball to dominate the National League. He was known to breeze through his starts, throwing 75-80 pitches in a game, carefully cataloging each and every one, and then usually holding back for situations in which he had to bear down with runners on base. In his first eleven years, he had already won 263 games averaging a 2.24 ERA, perhaps the greatest pitching performance in the history of the game up to that point. By the end of the 1911 season, he had led the Giants with 26 wins and a sparkling 1.99 earned run average, propelling the team to a rematch with the Athletics, their American League opponents in the Series from six years prior.
Pictured is the great man posing in centerfield before a regular season game at the spacious Polo Grounds, the effects of the steamy summer and overcast day wearing on his forehead and uniform.
1911 began the next epoch of baseball glory for New York in the National League, with Christy Mathewson leading the mighty Giants to three straight pennants, further cementing his legacy as one of the greatest – and most admired – pitchers of all time.