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MATINEE IDOL INTO MATURE HERO

June 02, 1958
June 02, 1958

Table of Contents
June 2, 1958

X-Ray
Acknowledgments
Spectacle
Mature Hero
Nature
Boxing
Food
Golf
Tip From The Top
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

MATINEE IDOL INTO MATURE HERO

Such was the transformation of Eddie Mathews, who makes a lot of money by working as the best third baseman in the business for the world champion and pennant-bound Milwaukee Braves

The third baseman of the Milwaukee Braves awakened at 9. The Braves, who were baseball champions of the world in 1957, had lost the day before and had lost the night before that. They had fallen back into second place, and now they were about to begin a three-game series with the San Francisco Giants, the team that had passed them and taken over the National League lead.

This is an article from the June 2, 1958 issue Original Layout

However, the third baseman of the Braves was not thinking of these things as he awakened last Thursday. His long athlete's sleep had been interrupted by the arrival of his son, who had traveled the length of the hall from the back bedroom to the front. He was 2, going on 3, he had a cold and he wanted to get in bed with daddy.

The third baseman and his son bore the same name: Edwin Lee Mathews. They horsed around together, the big man and the little boy, while in the other twin bed Virjean Mathews, wife of one Eddie and mother of the other, and also pestered by a cold, smiled and enjoyed the rare opportunity to sleep on. For in the next room, six-month-old Stephanie Mathews, the third cold-racked member of the family, considerately slept on.

Not until 11 did Stephanie begin to send out calls for room service. Then, while Virjean took care of her and dressed young Eddie, the best third baseman in the world went out to the kitchen and cooked breakfast for his family.

This scene of domestic tranquillity was one to rouse cynical smiles, along with quizzical stares and an occasional loud laugh, from those who knew Eddie Mathews when. Mathews, cooking breakfast? Eddie Mathews?

The mind sped back to the headline days of 1953, when Mathews at 21 was the National League's home-run champion and the matinee idol of the brand-new Milwaukee Braves. That was the Braves' maiden year in Milwaukee, when they finished a completely unexpected second and broke the National League attendance record. Every Brave was a hero, but the handsome, single Mathews was the biggest hero of them all.

Later, however, reports began to leak out of Milwaukee that Eddie pouted occasionally and now and then stamped his foot. The leak became a flood of rumors, most of them unfounded. But enough were true. Mathews, slated to receive an award between games of a double-header late in the 1953 season, had been booed in the first game for a bad play and therefore stubbornly refused to come out of the clubhouse between games to accept the trophy. And the following spring Mathews was arrested for reckless driving in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee. It was night (he was on his way home from Teammate Bob Buhl's house), and he tried to elude the arresting officer by turning off his lights and ducking into side streets. At the hearing the next morning, Eddie threatened to break a photographer's arm if he snapped his picture, and later the judge asked for Mathews' autograph. The publicity was instantaneous, rich and widespread. Here was a spoiled, willful child. Everyone hurried to throw a rock. One New York columnist shed bitter tears over the fate of Milwaukee's children if Mathews were allowed to run loose behind the wheel of a car.

All this was long ago. Mathews is different now, patient with photographers, agreeable with reporters, on splendid terms with the law. In a word, Mathews has changed, as has been attested to in one story after another in sports pages around the country. The new Mathews, he is called, the mature Mathews, the adult Mathews, all of which is fine grist for the mill of the needlers in the Braves' dressing room. (Mathews last week was kidding Joe Taylor, the corpulent clubhouse custodian. "Joe," Mathews said, "if you ever started walking downhill with that stomach of yours, the law of inertia would take hold of you and you wouldn't be able to stop till you got to the bottom." Taylor turned, a look of wonder on his face. "Inertia?" he said. "Inertia? What is this, the new Mathews? You didn't find that word in those westerns you read." Mathews grinned. "I've been reading a mystery," he explained.)

Actually, the change in Mathews was a striking though essentially simple thing. A month after the reckless-driving incident, Mathews' father, long an invalid, died. He had been a profound influence in his son's life. Later that summer Mathews met and fell in love with a girl named Virjean Lauby. They were engaged within the month and married the day after the season ended. Abruptly, Mathews changed from a boy, with nothing but money and time on his hands, to a man, with a wife and, eventually, a home and family.

Mathews was born in Texarkana, Texas, in October of 1931, a Depression baby. He was an only child. His earliest memories are of San Antonio, where the family had gone to live. He remembers going to Brackenridge Park with his father to play a primitive form of catch. Then the family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where Eddie grew up and where his mother still lives. He is essentially a Californian, not a Texan. His father obtained a job with Western Union as a telegrapher, work that took him into the press box of the minor league Santa Barbara team and occasionally even into the press boxes of the big football stadiums in Los Angeles. Eddie was often able to go with him, a rare treat for a boy. The father was a gaunt man who had been hit by influenza in his youth; eventually he became tubercular. His love for sport, and particularly baseball, became concentrated in his son.

"He played catch with me every day," Mathews recalled last week. "He made me exercise to build myself up. He and my mother and I would go over to the field in the evenings. My mother would pitch and I'd hit and my father would shag the balls in the outfield. But then I clipped my mother with a couple of line drives, so my father had to pitch and my mother shagged balls. My father didn't coach me at all. He just gave me a chance to play all the time. I don't believe you can coach a kid so that he'll develop into a good athlete; otherwise you'd have a thousand major leaguers. The ability has to be there."

ABILITY PLUS SIZE

The ability was there with Mathews. And the size. He was not particularly big until about his junior year in high school. Then he grew massively (today he is 6 feet 1 and weighs 195) and soon developed into one of the great schoolboy athletes of southern California, an all-state third baseman in baseball, an all-state back in football.

"I had a lot of scholarship offers for football," Mathews said, "and I listened to a lot of talk about this college and that one. But I never seriously considered any of them. I didn't want to go to college. I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief. I hated school; all I liked was sports. I brought my books to school and I brought them home again, but that's about all. I liked sports."

Naturally, Mathews' baseball skills had attracted major league scouts. He received several bonus offers from major league clubs, but at that time a bonus player (one who signed for more than $6,000) had to be moved up to the big league club after only one year in the minors. Mathews and his father decided that he'd be better off refusing a bonus and working his way up through the farm system. He signed for $6,000, the maximum non-bonus sum, with the Boston Braves. Many persons have since implied that the Mathews family received an under-the-counter bonus, but Mathews denies this. "It's not true," he says flatly. "I've never lied about anything in my life, and I'm not lying about this."

Mathews reported to the Braves in Chicago a few days after his graduation from high school. He was 17. He worked out with the team for two days and then was assigned to the minors. He spent the remainder of that season, 1949, with a Class D minor league club, the lowest there is, and then jumped to Class AA ball in 1950. After the 1950 season he enlisted in the Navy, but a few months later his father became seriously ill, and in mid-1951 Mathews received a hardship discharge. He finished out the season in the minors. The next year he became the regular third baseman of the Boston Braves (he batted only .242, but he hit 25 home runs), and the following spring the Braves moved to Milwaukee. There, Eddie hit 47 homers, drove in 135 runs, batted .302, became the matinee idol of Milwaukee and acquired that unhappy reputation.

A SHREWD YOUNG MAN

Despite his outspoken antipathy for education and his appreciation of the more direct pleasures of life (like baseball and westerns), Mathews is a surprisingly shrewd young man. He makes a great deal of money, and this is due not only to his great physical skill but also to a clear appreciation of what that physical skill is worth in cold cash. Neither baseball clubs nor baseball players give out salary figures, but those close to the scene say that Mathews' salary jumped to $35,000 after his (and Milwaukee's) fabulous 1953 season and that his present contract is in the neighborhood of $60,000. Mathews also owns a small construction company, picks up a fair sum annually from testimonials and has substantial investments. This last item testifies to the young man's financial acumen. Ballplayers are in a grasshopper profession: the summers of youth are great, but the winter of middle age and beyond can be awfully barren. Mathews is in a far better position than 95% of the major league players. He commands a huge salary at a young age (he is only 26) and is reasonably certain to maintain and, indeed, improve that salary over the next decade.

But he is extremely conscious of the fragility of a major league career. "When you think of Roy Campanella," he said, "it makes you realize what can happen. Even in lesser ways. You ruin your knee or maybe you break your leg, and you can be pretty well through. I don't know what I'd do if something like that happened to me. I don't know how to do anything but play ball."

In an effort to imitate the ant, who prepared for winter while the grasshopper played, Mathews turned to professionals for financial advice. "I had an account at the Marshall and Ilsey Bank in Milwaukee, and one day I asked them to handle my income for me. I more or less turn it over to them, and I take only what I need for the family and the house and all." He grinned. "They're pretty conservative, but I guess they know what they're doing. I made a couple of investments on my own, and I sure got stung."

This ability to figure out the right thing to do has been a marked characteristic of Mathews. He is like the wise child who burns his fingers on the hot stove and promptly figures out the proper way to handle stoves. He corrects his mistakes. One night when he was in the minors he stayed out past the strict curfew most baseball clubs impose on their players and was caught red-handed sneaking through the hotel lobby at 3 a.m. He's kept curfew since. He tried to elude that Wauwatosa policeman and was spectacularly brought to justice. Nothing like that has happened again. He used to strike out as many times as he had base hits. He has cut that down to a more accepted slugger's total. He was a terrible fielding third baseman. He has improved so much ("I learned an awful lot just watching Red Schoendienst") that his fielding play that ended the 1957 World Series is remembered more vividly than his extra-inning game-winning home run in the fourth game.

"He's a good player," said Chub Feeney, vice-president of the Giants, who was in Milwaukee last week with the San Francisco team. His use of the simple word "good," in preference to more colorful baseball jargon, gave the compliment force. "He does everything well. He hits, he hits with power, he's a good fielder, he has a good arm, he's a fast runner. Maybe he won't lift a team the way a Mays or a Mantle will, but he's still one of the five or six best players in the game. You talk about Mays, Musial, Mantle, Aaron. He's in that group. He's moved ahead of Snider and Berra. Banks is up there, and McDougald. Williams is a hitter; he's in a class by himself. But for all-round players, Mathews is one of the best."

The subject of Feeney's admiring appraisal spent the rest of that Thursday before the first Giant game at home. He arranged at his wife's behest for the family barber to come over to the house to trim young Eddie's hair (the persistent cold had confined the boy to the house for two weeks, and his mother insisted with maternal exaggeration that his hair had grown halfway down his back). He ate a late lunch of pot roast and then guided his black Chevrolet Impala over the 20-minute drive from his ranch home in suburban Brook-field to County Stadium. Not until he was half-dressed in his baseball uniform, sitting in front of his locker in the clubhouse, did his attention focus on the game that night. "Who are the Giants pitching?" he asked another player. "Gomez," was the reply. "Gomez," Mathews repeated, without, it seemed, any particular interest.

Indeed, that seemed to be the way the entire Milwaukee team approached the series of games with the Giants. Here was the team that had taken over first place, the hottest, most exciting team in the league. And here were the Braves, beautifully relaxed, clowning in the clubhouse.

Mathews and Henry Aaron were arguing lightly about professional football. Henry thought highly of the Cleveland Browns. Mathews was trying to work Aaron into a bet, and Aaron was eluding skillfully. Red Schoendienst and Wes Covington were also talking football. (Most baseball players are football fans; Mathews and Joe Taylor flew last fall from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to see the University of Wisconsin play the University of Minnesota on Saturday, flew from Minneapolis to Cleveland on Sunday to see the Browns play the Los Angeles Rams and then flew back to Milwaukee.) Warren Spahn came along the lockers leading his roommate, Lew Burdette, by the arm. Burdette was scheduled to pitch that night, and Spahn was making a pretense of rounding up a lineup. "Ed, will you play third? Thanks. John, short? Good. Del, will you catch? Okay. Frank, first? No? How about you, Wes? You feel like playing left? You don't? I only got three positions, Roomie. But don't you worry, we'll get a lineup."

THEY ALL PLAYED

They did. Frank did play first and Wes left and the others where Manager Fred Haney wanted them. Burdette pitched capably, if nowhere near the level of his World Series performance, and the Braves won easily, 9-3. It was bitter cold (42° at game time) and Gomez, who likes hot weather, was wild and ineffective, as were the Giant pitchers who succeeded him. Mathews walked his first three times up, scoring each time, and singled each of his other two times at bat.

"Gomez was pitching me careful because there were men on base," Mathews said after the game. "But that third time, that other fellow was just wild."

He showered, dressed and left for home. On the way he stopped and bought a couple of hamburgers for a late snack for his wife and himself. "You can't go straight to bed and expect to get to sleep after a night game," he explained. "If you do you'll play the whole game over again in your mind. You have to relax first, have a bite to eat."

The next day at noontime (another night game was scheduled) Mathews drove downtown to a luncheon meeting with bank officials to discuss the possibility of working out a deferred-compensation plan for the ballplayers. Then he drove home, met a photographer and posed for pictures. Afterward he took a nap and then drove in to the ball park. His wife does not come in to see very many games ("We'd go broke paying baby sitters," Mathews explained), though she listens to all Milwaukee games on radio.

This night it was Spahn's turn to pitch, and the left-hander was all business. He pitched magnificently for six innings, retiring 18 Giants in order, so briskly and efficiently that the ever-optimistic onlookers began to anticipate a no hit or even a perfect game. Mathews had hit a long home run to right field in the first inning off Spahn's opponent, John Antonelli, and Del Crandall had hit a two-run homer in the fifth. The Braves led 3-0 as Spahn went out to pitch the seventh inning. He retired the first man on a ground ball to Mathews. But then, in an extraordinary reversal of the flow of the game, everything seemed to fall apart. Spahn lost his perfect game when he walked O'Connell. He lost his no-hitter when Mays singled through the middle. He lost his shutout when O'Connell scored on Sauer's grounder to third. In the eighth inning he lost his lead when Schmidt and Kirkland hit home runs on successive pitches, and in the ninth inning he lost the game when Mays hit another homer over the left field fence. It was a stunning, crushing defeat. The Braves' dressing room was quiet, though not so quiet as the Giants' had been the night before. Spahn talked genially to reporters. Mathews sat a while, then showered, dressed, left the ball park, stopped for hamburgers and went home.

Saturday, before the afternoon game that day, the Braves were in fine spirits again. Spahn discussed the game he had lost with a reporter, then over the radio with a sports broadcaster and finally, at a shout, with Antonelli, his rival of the night before. "Hey, No. 43!" he yelled. When Antonelli glanced over at the Braves' dugout, Spahn made a strangling gesture with his hands and said, "I had you right here." Antonelli grinned and made a little motion to the left field stands and then to the right, to indicate the home runs.

Mathews said his family was over their colds, except for the little girl who still had the sniffles. In the first inning he smacked a hard single to right to set up a run that scored on Henry Aaron's groundout. But the Giants took a 3-2 lead in the third and held it into the eighth. Then an error and a walk put the tying and winning runs on base, and successive hits brought them home. Another single scored another run, and a Giant wild pitch let in a fourth. The Braves won 6-3 to take the rubber game of the series and move close to first place.

The Braves' locker room was more cheerful but not ecstatically so. Chub Feeney had said the Braves looked complacent to him, a little too confident of their ability to move up into first place when they had to. Perhaps this was so. Certainly the Braves were far less excited over the series with the Giants than the Giants were. But if they were less exhilarated by victory, so were they less downtrodden by defeat. Spahn's loss Friday night had not bothered the Braves the way Saturday's loss bothered the Giants.

"They're not quite sure how good they are," Del Crandall, the Milwaukee catcher, said of the Giants after the Saturday game. "They're sort of wondering. If they're still where they are now in August, they'll begin to know that they're good and that maybe they can go on to win. But right now they don't know. They're sort of looking around and wondering. That's the difference right now. We know about how good we are."

Mathews said much the same thing.

"They're pretty good. But then, we haven't been hitting at all and here we are, only a game and a half behind. Aaron and I, we haven't been hitting at all."

Eddie was being modest. He was leading the team in home runs, runs scored, runs batted in and was hitting close to .300. At the same time it was an unintentional tribute to his tremendous ability for him to feel that he should do better. "Once we start," he said, "once we go on a hitting streak like the Giants have had, we'll move out fast."

With that, the third baseman put on his coat and left his job for the day. He had a date with his wife. Since it was Saturday night, they had hired a baby sitter and were going out for the evening.

PHOTOMATHEWS SCORES RUN IN LAST WEEK'S SERIES WITH THE LEAGUE-LEADING GIANTSPHOTO41 WAS FIELDING HERO OF WORLD SERIESPHOTO1953: MATINEE IDOL WITH HIS FAN MAILPHOTO1958: MATURED VINTAGE AT HOME WITH PRETTY YOUNG WIFE VIRJEAN, BABY STEPHANIE AND HIS 2-YEAR-OLD SON, EDWIN LEE