Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Christy Mathewson: The Gentleman Hurler

The simple stone for Christy Mathewson
Notes his military career, but not his baseball one
Pulling onto the sacred grounds of Lewisburg Cemetery, I was instantly relieved I had directions for the grave I sought. Searching for one grave among the thousands of tombstones would be searching for that proverbial needle in the haystack. Following the directions I had with me I passed slowly through the cemetery in search of a famous, though often forgotten, son of Pennsylvania. Driving along the cemetery’s paved roadway I passed the grassy lanes that separated the sections of the cemetery and turned right onto the first paved one.

Even before I finished the turn I spotted the family plot of the gentleman I was searching for. Located almost immediately on the left side of the roadway (once I made the turn) was the family monument that marked the resting place of the Mathewson family. Parking in front of the Mathewson plot, I stepped out to see which grave site was the one I sought. I found the grave quickly and I was amazed that the stone, like the family stone, was plain and held no hint of the importance of the man who was buried there. In researching his life story, I don’t think Christy would have wanted a fancy marker and would have be pleased with the simplicity of the stone.

Resting here with his wife and son is one of the greatest baseball players of all time: Christopher “Christy” Mathewson. See the note at the end for mre information about Christy's family.

Christy was known by a number of nicknames: “Matty," “Big Six," “The Gentleman’s Hurler” and “The Christian Gentleman,” which derived from his Christian beliefs that included not pitching on Sundays. Mathewson's beliefs brought respect to the game of baseball. In a time when baseball players were known for being rough and rowdy, Christy was known for his soft-spoken ways, for his intelligence, and for avoiding cursing. even when things went sour. Christy also was known to take care of his body, avoiding the things his teammates loved: alcohol, tobacco, and fighting. 

The blond haired, blue-eyed Christy was born August 12, 1880, in the community of Factoryville in Wyoming County. After graduating high school he enrolled at Bucknell University, majoring in forestry. Christy played on the school’s football team as a fullback and punter, the basketball team as a center, and baseball team as a pitcher. In addition to school sports, Christy also played semi-pro baseball.

Christy Mathewson
Card part of author's personal collection
In 1899, he signed his first professional baseball contract with the New York Giants. The following year Christy was traded to the Cincinnati Reds and then back to the Giants the same year.

Known for his extreme control of the baseball, the right-handed Christy threw an above average fastball and a “fadeaway” pitch, which in now referred to as a screwball. In his first professional season (1901), Christy won twenty games. From 1903 to 1905 he would win at least thirty games a year. During the 1905 World Series, Christy pitched three shutout games in his three starts — an accomplishment that has never been repeated.

From 1903 to 1908, Christy led the National League in strikeouts and in 1908 he had one of the best seasons ever: he pitched thirty-four complete games (out of forty-four starts) and won thirty-seven of those games, in addition to leading the National League in strikeouts. Over a fourteen year span starting in 1903, Mathewson won twenty-three games or more each season.

In 1916, Christy was traded back to the Cincinnati Reds and ended his baseball career on September 4 of that year. In the seventeen seasons he played, Christy finished with 373 wins, 188 losses, and 2,504 strike-outs.

Interestingly, Mathewson also had a professional football career, though it was very short one. In 1902 he played fullback for the Pittsburg Stars, a position that he played for the Bucknell Bisons. Christy would only play half the season before disappearing from the team roster. The exact reason he left the team is not clear, but it is believed that he left because the Giants received word that their star pitcher was playing football and demanded he stop. More information about the Pittsburg Stars, please see the note below.

In 1918, Christy enlisted in the United States Army and would become a Captain in the Chemical Warfare Service. Mathewson was joined in this unit by two more baseball players: Branch Rickey and Ty Cobb. The Chemical Warfare Service was to use deadly gases against the enemy to bring the war to an end, but the plan never saw action due to World War One ending Novemeber 11, 1918.

While serving in France during the war, Christy was accidentally gassed during a training exercise. Christy would spend the rest of his life fighting infections and on October 7, 1925 died of tuberculosis. Exactly when he contracted tuberculosis has been debated. Most sources claim that he contracted it as a result of the accidental gassing. However some sources, and I tend to agree with them, believe that he contracted it from his brother who died from it and the gassing only made it worse.

Christy Mathewson had the honor of being one of the first five players elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. The other four of that first class were: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner (a fellow Pennsylvanian).

Christy's grave is very easy to find. Enter into Lewisburg Cemetery and drive stright back the paved road. Turn right on the first paved roadway and his grave is next to the road almost immediately on the left side. If you choose to visit Christy Mathewson’s final resting place, please do so with respect.

Christy Mathewson
Card part of author's personal collection
A note about Chrisy's family: Christy met his future wife, Jane Stoughton while attending Bucknell.. The couple only had one son, Christopher Jr. 

Christopher attended Bucknell like his father before him, and then joined the United States Army Air Corps. On January 8, 1933, he survived a horrific crash that killed his bride, the former Miss Margaret Phillips, when the plane he was piloting slammed into a muddy field near Shanghai shortly after takeoff. Her remains were brought to Frackville, Pennsylvania, and buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.

The accident cost him a leg and he had to struggle to regain the use of his arms, but he eventually recovered and remarried. This marriage ended in divorce and he took Lola Finch as his third wife. On August 16, 1950, Christopher was installing an electircal dishwasher in the basement when a spark set off a gas explosion. He managed to crawl out of the basement, but would die later that day from his burns. The disaster claimed most of the memorabila he had that belonged to his father. His wife was away at the time of the explosion.

Christy's brother, Henry also played baseball, but his is a story for another day.

Christy Mathewson
Card part of author's personal collection
A note about the Pittsburg Stars: When the team was formed in 1901, during the time frame that Pittsburgh was spelled without the “H” at the end of the name (1891 to 1911), but most modern references mistakenly call the team the Pittsburgh Stars.

The team was a part of the National Football League (not the NFL of today) and consisted of three teams: the Philadelphia Athletics, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburg Stars. The league was created by the baseball teams with the players also being members of the football teams. The Phillies and the Athletics were both sponsored by the baseball teams of the same name and it is believed that the Pirates had sponsored the Stars, but there seems to be some debate if this is true or not.

The Stars played their games at North Shore Coliseum, while the Philadelphia teams used their respective baseball stadiums. Each team played each other twice and when they weren’t facing off against each other they would play against colleges and athletic clubs around Pennsylvania and southern New York.

The championship of the league was played Thanksgiving Day between the Athletics and the Stars. The two teams played to a scoreless tie. It was decided that there would be a second game the following Saturday and the Stars won 11-0. The following week, the Athletics would beat the Phillies to secure a second place win and the city championship.

The Stars' members didn’t take much notice of their championship: they would spend the next couple of months suing to get their promised pay for playing on Thanksgiving.

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