Known as “The Gentleman’s Hurler,” Christopher Mathewson became one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history, a poised human being that changed the way most perceived baseball players. The first great pitching star of the modern era and is still often the standard when greatness among pitchers is measured.
He was born on August 12, 1880 in Factoryville, Pennsylvania. His first experience with semi-professional baseball was in 1885, when he was 14-years-old. He was asked to pitch in a game for the Factoryville Baseball Club against a rival team in Mill City, PA. He helped his hometown team to a 19-17 victory – surprisingly with his offense, rather than his pitching.
Mathewson went on to college at Bucknell University, where he played and excelled at football, basketball and baseball. As the class president and member of the Phi Gamma Delta, people looked up to Mathewson.
While at Bucknell, he played for minor league teams in Honesdale and Meridian, Pennsylvania as well as his college team. He was also selected to the Walter Camp All-American football team in 1900 as a drop-kicker.
In 1899, Mathewson signed to play professional baseball with Taunton of the New England League. He would move on to play for the Norfolk team of the Virginia-North Carolina League the very next season. His record for the season was a whopping 20-2 record.
By that July, the New York Giants purchased his contract from Norfolk for only $1,500 (equivalent of $46,000 in present day). From July to September, Mathewson appeared in six games for the Giants. With a record of 0-3, he was greatly displeased with himself and so were the Giants – who returned him to Norfolk and demanded their money back for him.
The Cincinnati Reds quickly picked up Mathewson off the Norfolk roster, in turn they traded him back to the Giants for Amos Rusie in the winter of 1900. Despite his uneasy beginnings with the Giants, he would stay with the team from 1900 until 1916.
During his 17-year career, he won 373 games and lost only 188 to produce a .665 winning percentage. His career ERA of 2.13 and 79 career shutouts are among the best all time for pitchers. His 373 wins are still number one in the National League, which he remains tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander.
He had outstanding control with his fastball and with his pitch which he termed the “fadeaway,” a pitch that we know now as the screwball. He learned the pitch from his teammate Dave Williams in 1898. There is a bit of controversy behind this – in Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball, it is stated that he learned the pitch from Andrew “Rube” Foster, who was hired by the Giants manager John Joseph McGraw.
He recorded 2,507 career strikeouts and only 848 walks. He was offensively superior as well: a career average of .215 (362-for-1687) with 151 runs, 167 RBI and seven home runs. Out of 17 years in the majors, he found himself in double figures in RBIs a total of 10 times. He had 20 doubles in 1903.
He was a premier pitcher from 1900 to 1904 – he consistently posted a low ERA and won nearly 100 games. Despite Major League Baseball not having a World Series in 1904, the Giants captured the pennant with Mathewson’s success on the mound.
The Giants went on to win the 1905 World Series over the Philadelphia Athletics. Mathewson was the starting pitcher in Game 1, pitching a four-hit shutout to earn the win. Three days later, he went on to pitch another four-hit shutout. Two days later, he would throw a six-hit shutout to clinch the series. In six days, Mathewson had three complete games without allowing a run, only giving up 14 hits.
In 1906, he was diagnosed with diphtheria and lost his edge. He struggled throughout the season and maintained a 22-12 record with an ERA of 2.97. He had a WHIP of 1.271 which was deemed uncharacteristic of him due to an increased number of hits and walks throughout the year.
It would take until 1908 for Mathewson to be back on top of his game and as the league’s elite pitcher. He claimed his second Triple Crown that season – an ERA of 1.43 with 259 strikeouts. He led the league in innings pitched and shutouts, and held hitters to an exceptionally low .0827 WHIP.
He would post tremendous numbers in 1909 and repeated his strong performance in 1910 and 1911, helping lead the Giants to their first pennant since 1905. Mathewson went on to sign a three-year contract with the Giants in late 1910, the first time he had signed a contract over a year in length. The Giants lost the 1911 World Series, Mathewson and Rube Marquard allowed two game winnings home runs to future Hall of Famer Frank Baker.
In the 1912 World Series, the Giants faced the Boston Red Sox. Despite throwing three complete games and maintaining an ERA below 1.00, errors by the Giants cost them the championship. They would lose the 1913 World Series as well – Mathewson’s brilliant season on the mound with a 101 win season and a 2.06 ERA in over 300 innings.
Mathewson began to struggle and the Giants declined. In his penultimate season with New York, the Giants were the worst team in the National League standings. And on July 21, 1916, he found himself in a three-year deal to manage the Cincinnati Reds.
He was traded to the Cincinnati Reds along with Edd Roush on July 20, 1916 and immediately became the Reds’ player-manager. He only appeared in one game as a pitcher for the Reds on September 4, 1916. His Reds’ won over the Cubs 10-8.
He went on to retire as a player after the 1916 season and managed the Reds for the entire 1917 season and first 118 games of 1918 for a total record of 164-176 as a manger.
He married his wife Jane in 1903 and their only son Christopher Jr., was born shortly after. His son served in World War I and passed away at his home in Texas in 1950 due to an explosion. He faced hardship in the 1909 offseason when his younger brother Nicholas committed suicide in a neighbor’s barn. His other brother Henry who also pitched for the Giants passed away from tuberculosis in 1917.
He was a clean-cut, intellectual collegiate, his rise to fame brought a better name to the game of baseball and how people looked at ball players. Typical baseball players were looked at as womanizers who gambled and enjoyed drinking alcohol. Mathewson was a devote Christian and never pitched on a Sunday, a promise that he had made to his mother that brought him popularity among the more religious New York fans.
In 1912, he published his classic memoir Pitching in a Pinch. He would go on to co-write a mildly successful play called The Girl and The Pennant. He pursued more literary endeavors such as a children’s book called Second Base Sloan. One of the journalists that unmasked the 1919 Black Sox, Hugh Fullerton consulted Mathewson for information on baseball gambling.
Mathewson was enlisted in the United States Army during World War I in 1918. While his wife Jane was very much opposed to the his decision, Mathewson went ahead with the decision. He served overseas as a captain in the newly formed Chemical Service along with Ty Cobb. He was accidentally gassed during a chemical training exercise and developed tuberculosis. He served with the American Expeditionary Forces until February 1919.
He returned to serve as a coach for the Giants from 1919-1921, although he spent more of his time in Saranac Lake fighting tuberculosis. In 1923, he returned to professional baseball when Giants attorney Emil Fuchs and he put together a syndicate that bought the Boston Braves. The initial plans called for Mathewson to be principal owner and team president but his health deteriorated and he turned the presidency over to Fuchs after the season.
He died in Saranac Lake, New York of tuberculosis on October 7, 1925. He was buried at Lewisburg Cemetery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, adjacent to Bucknell University. After his death, members of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators wore black armbands during the 1925 World Series which began on the day of his death. According to Baseball, his last words were to his wife Jane: “Now Jane, I want you to go outside and have yourself a good cry. Don’t make it a long one, this can’t be helped.”
Christy Mathewson Day is celebrated as a holiday in his hometown of Factoryville, PA., on the Saturday that is closest to his birthday. Bucknell’s football stadium is named “Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium.” The baseball field at Keystone College is named “Christy Mathewson Field.” Mathewson was mentioned in the poem by Ogden Nash, “Line-Up for Yesterday.” F. Scott Fitzgerald refers to him in his first novel from 1920 “This Side of Paradise.”
In 1936, Mathewson was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of its first five inductees along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner. He was the only one of the five to be inducted posthumously. His jersey, denoted as “NY” has been retired by the Giants and hangs in the left-field corner of Oracle Park.
In 1999, he was ranked number seven of The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He was the highest ranking National League pitcher on the list. And during World War II, a 422-foot Liberty ship was named in his honor, the USS Christy Mathewson.