The dominant pitcher of his era and one of five all-time greats originally inducted into the Hall of Fame, Mathewson looked like the classic American hero: tall, blond, and blue-eyed, with a reputation for clean living and good sportsmanship that was often held up as a splendid example for the nation’s youth. While those virtues were surely exaggerated, his pitching skills were not. He retired with 372 wins (fourth all-time), 78 shutouts (third), and a 2.13 ERA (fifth).
The son of a gentleman farmer, Mathewson attended Bucknell University, where he was class president, an excellent field goal kicker, and, of course, star pitcher. Leaving Bucknell in 1899 to pitch for Taunton (New England League), he advanced to Norfolk (Virginia League) the following year and went 20-2. The Giants bought him for $1,500, but returned him to Norfolk when he lost his first three decisions, declaring the deal cancelled and demanding their money back. He was then drafted by the Reds for $100 and traded to the Giants for sore-armed Amos Rusie, who had not pitched since 1898. Reds’ owner John T. Bush was about to buy the Giants and wanted a promising pitcher when he got there.
In 1901 Mathewson won 20 games with a 2.41 ERA for the Giants, but manager Horace Fogel still did not believe his young star would win consistently, and had him practice at first, shortstop, and in the outfield. John McGraw arrived in mid-1902 to quickly put a stop to such experiments, and from 1903 to 1914 Mathewson never won fewer than 22 games.
Mathewson’s pitching was marked by intelligence, good mechanics, and outstanding control (he walked only 1.6 batters per nine innings), but he also had a magic pitch. Today’s screwball, he called it his “fadeaway,” a reverse curve that broke in to righthanded batters. Thrown with an extremely unnatural twist of the arm, he rarely threw more than a dozen a game, but the threat was always there. Combined with his other outstanding pitches, it made him one of baseball’s rare masters. He could breeze through a game on 75 or 80 pitches, often holding something back for what he called “pitching in a pinch” (the name of his book).
Mathewson was only 14-17 in his second full season, but led the NL with eight shutouts and posted a fine 2.11 ERA. The following year he won 30 games and led the league in strikeouts, feats he would repeat in 1904 and 1905. In the 1905 World Series, Matty turned in one of baseball’s best postseason performances, shutting out the Athletics in Games One, Three, and Five, allowing only 14 total hits, as the Giants took the Series 4-1. In 1906-07 Christy’s brother Henry pitched three games for the Giants, going 0-1; until Gaylord and Jim Perry broke their record, Christy and Henry held the record for wins by brothers.
Mathewson’s finest regular season was 1908, as he led the league in wins (37), ERA (1.43), strikeouts (259), and shutouts (12), but the Giants finished a game behind the Cubs. Between 1911 and 1914 Mathewson won 98 games to young Grover Alexander’s 96, but when Matty slipped to 8-14 in 1915 Alexander won 31, and the mantle of the league’s best pitcher was passed. In 1916 he was traded to the Reds, where he won the one game he pitched before leading them to two fourth-place finishes as manager. When he retired, Matty had won the ERA title and the strikeout crown five times each and had led the NL in wins and shutouts four times each.
Off the field, public reputation aside, some found him brusque and stand-offish, others said he had a swelled head. He was also known to break a contract, once signing with the Philadelphia Athletics before changing his mind and jumping back to the Giants. Still, he lent considerable prestige to the players’ unionizing efforts in 1912, and while managing once suspended Hal Chase for “indifferent playing.” He was also one of the few to publicly state he thought the White Sox were throwing the 1919 WS.
Enlisting as an Army captain in 1918, he served overseas and was gased in a training exercise, thereafter suffering from tuberculosis. He coached with the Giants in 1919-20, but spent much of his time upstate, fighting TB. He served as part-time president of the Braves in 1923, and died two years later at the age of 47.