A natural athlete blessed with tremendous power, a rifle arm, and a durable body, Mathews was the premier third baseman of his era, overshadowing Clete Boyer, the young Brooks Robinson, and Al Rosen. A key member of the excellent Braves teams of the late 1950s, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978 on his fifth try. His 512 homers ties him with Ernie Banks; and his 486 homers hit as a third baseman were a record until surpassed by Mike Schmidt.
Heavily scouted in high school, Mathews signed with the Boston Braves in 1949 on the night of his high school graduation. He and his father had scouted major league rosters and had decided that Boston’s Bob Elliott was the third baseman most likely to be replaced in a few years. In less than three years Mathews was starting at third for the Braves; he kept the job for fifteen years and two franchise shifts. Ironically, Mathews played for minor league teams in Atlanta and Milwaukee on his way up.
Mathews’s ascension in the majors coincided with the decline of the Boston Braves. A shy twenty-year-old, he grew up quickly in the empty confines of Braves Field, and while the team slumped to seventh place, he provided one of the few bright spots for the future along with shortstop Johnny Logan and pitcher Lew Burdette. Mathews’s 25 HR (and only 58 RBI) in 1952 included tape measure shots in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati, plus three homers on September 27 in Ebbets Field off Joe Black and Ben Wade. His hustle and determination attracted attention throughout the league – particularly in spring training when he bowled over Commissioner Ford Frick and Braves publicist Billy Sullivan while running down a foul fly.
In 1953 the depressed Boston franchise was uprooted to Milwaukee in spring training. The Braves quickly became the darlings not only of the city but the entire upper Midwest region in a brief but intense romance unparalleled in baseball history. Coinciding with the deliverance from Boston was a dramatic improvement in talent as Adcock, Bruton, and Conley, and later Aaron, Buhl, and Covington joined the roster. Sparked by the new surroundings, Mathews improved from .242 with 25 HR and 58 RBI in 1952 to .302 with 47 HR and 135 RBI and became a star virtually overnight. Both of his power categories were career highs. The Braves shot to second place and were contenders through the rest of the decade.
Mathews had a remarkable physique, and his powerful stroke and bat speed were marveled at by opponents. “He swings the bat faster than anyone I ever saw,” commented Carl Erskine. “You think you’ve got a called strike past him and he hits it out of the catcher’s glove.” Even Ty Cobb, not known for his appreciation of the modern ballplayer, was impressed. “I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them.”
The fast start enjoyed by Mathews is still unsurpassed in baseball history. He hit 190 home runs in his first five seasons, putting him far ahead of Ruth at age 25, and piled up impressive RBI totals, although his average remained below .300 in most seasons. Mathews’ World Series and All-Star statistics belie his excellence. In 10 All-Star games Mathews had three times as many errors (6) as hits. His lifetime All-Star average was .080 and he fielded just .647, but both of his hits were home runs. In three World Series he averaged but .200.
After losing the pennant to the Dodgers by a single game in 1956, the Braves came back the following year with a seven-game World Series triumph over the Yankees. Mathews won Game Four with a 10th-inning homer off Bob Grim, and his backhanded grab of Bill Skowron‘s shot down the line closed off the Yankees in Game Seven. Despite hitting only .227, four of Mathews’s five hits were for extra bases. His .292 average, 32 homers and 94 RBIs contributed greatly to the Braves’ regular season success.
In 1958 Mathews suffered through a subpar season at the bat, hitting only .251, and the Braves’ one-year reign as World Champions ended with a Yankee win in seven games. Mathews could only manage a .160 average and struck out 11 times. Although he rebounded to a career high of .306 with a league-leading 46 HR and 114 RBI in 1959, the Braves were beaten by a rejuvenated Los Angeles Dodgers team in a two-game playoff series. Mathews contributed a second-game homer off Don Drysdale.
From 1959 on, Mathews’s home run totals steadily declined. With one exception – the last Milwaukee year (1965), when he belted 32 – they dropped from 46 down to 10 in his last season as a regular, and his batting average, while never high, also showed his diminishing skills. He continued to play third base regularly but he reflected the Braves team as a whole: respectable, but not good enough to contend.
A final 1966 season with the Braves permitted Mathews to play in Atlanta, thus becoming the only three-city ballplayer with the same franchise. After Mathews hit .250 with 16 HR he was shipped to Houston for Dave Nicholson. He had little success in the Astrodome and in July 1967 he was traded to Detroit, which hoped he would regain his former power down the short right-field line in Tiger Stadium, but Mathews produced just nine homers in a year and a half.
Mathews coached for the Braves in the early 1970s and served as manager in 1972-74. His 1973 team featured slugging from former teammate Hank Aaron, Davey Johnson, and Darrell Evans, the first trifecta of 40-HR-season teammates.