November 07, 1977

It has been a notable season for baseball, and for baseball books as well. First came Roger Angell's Five Seasons and Roger Kahn's A Season in the Sun. And now we have a wholly unexpected bonus: Christy Mathewson's Pitching in a Pinch (Stein and Day, hardcover $10, paperback $3.95).

Yes, Christy Mathewson. In the winter of 1911 and 1912, Mathewson, with the considerable assistance of a newspaper syndicate operator named John Wheeler, wrote a series of articles about "Baseball from the Inside." In 1912 they were collected under the title Pitching in a Pinch, but like most sporting ephemera, the book vanished into the dusty corners of library shelves and old men's memories.

That is where it would have stayed had not a couple of New York baseball writers, Neil Offen and Vic Ziegel, stumbled upon a catalog card for it in the central reading room of the New York Public Library. They asked to see the book, with this result:

"Up from the bowels of the library on a creaky dumbwaiter came Pitching in a Pinch. No bullpen gate ever swung open to offer more. The cover was dusty, the pages yellowed, some of them breaking off at the touch. But there, neither yellowed nor crumbling, but real as life was Matty. And McGraw. And Merkle. And Marquard. And...."

What they had discovered was an authentic piece of baseball nostalgia, and it is our luck that they persisted in seeing to its republication. They say it was three years before the project was completed, but this book justifies their labors. Pitching in a Pinch is the real thing: baseball as it really was in the early years of the game, an on-the-spot record of how it was played and who played it that will be treasured by older and younger fans alike.

Among its many virtues, the book is sure to assist the restoration of a great American hero to his proper place in the national consciousness. For all the celebrity of the Ruths, DiMaggios and Aarons who followed him, Mathewson may well be the single most heroic figure baseball has known. It's not just that he was arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher in National League history, but that he was, without question, one of those brightly shining figures who all too rarely grace our company.

He was, for one thing, perhaps the handsomest man ever to play the game. Pictures can lie, of course, but the one facing page 16 in this new edition of Pitching in a Pinch reveals more than just the rugged good looks that made Mathewson seem, in his time, the very embodiment of the Frank Merriwell legend. It also suggests a grace and gentleness that are almost palpable. That, apparently, was the way Mathewson really was. Among John McGraw's roughhewn Giants Mathewson was a seeming anomaly—gracious, college educated, thoughtful, modest, mannerly—yet he had about him no air of saintliness, self-righteousness or moral superiority. If he was not quite one of the boys, neither was he above it all. Baseball was his livelihood, and he played the game fairly but fiercely.

All of which comes through in Pitching in a Pinch. The prose is probably more Wheeler's than Mathewson's, but it has the ring of authenticity. As Red Smith says in his introduction, "Unlike some spooks of later vintage, Wheeler was conscientious enough to consult Matty before putting the pitcher's comments on paper." Additionally, the book is very much of its own time, which enhances both its charm and its plausibility; it is written in the rather stilted sporting prose of the day, and its tone has the innocence and simple joy that then characterized baseball.

Here, for example, is Mathewson on the subject of umpires: "Many times have I, in the excitement of the moment, protested against the decision of an umpire, but fundamentally I know that the umpires are honest and are doing their best, as all ballplayers are."

And here, in another passage, is an explanation of the book's title and a quintessential specimen of Wheeler-Mathewson prose style:

"In most Big-League ball games, there comes an inning on which hangs victory or defeat. Certain intellectual fans call it the crisis; college professors, interested in the sport, have named it the psychological moment; Big-League managers mention it as the 'break,' and pitchers speak of the 'pinch.'

"This is the time when each team is straining every nerve to win or to prevent defeat. The players and spectators realize that the outcome of the inning is of vital importance. And in most of these pinches, the real burden falls on the pitcher. It is at this moment that he is 'putting all he has' on the ball, and simultaneously his opponents are doing everything they can to disconcert him."

His college education notwithstanding, Matty was as superstitious as his simpler teammates. In a chapter called "Jinxes and What They Mean," he says, "A really true, on-the-level, honest-to-jiminy jinx can do all sorts of mean things to a professional ballplayer. I have seen it make a bad pitcher out of a good one, and a blind batter out of a three hundred hitter, and I have seen it make a ball club composed of educated men carry a Kansas farmer with two or three screws rattling loose in his dome, around the circuit because he was accompanied by Miss Fickle Fortune. And that is almost a jinx record."

The language is dated but the baseball is not. Every player and every fan today will recognize the basic game situations that Mathewson described three-quarters of a century ago. Throughout the book, Mathewson's baseball is absolutely sound and pertinent to today's game. It proves Roger Angell's point, that "baseball's time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors" (The Summer Game, page 303).

That's reason enough why Pitching in a Pinch reads just about as well in 1977 as it must have in 1912. But what is really likely to draw readers to it now is its sunniness, its innocence, its heroic demeanor. Matty's bright sun shines.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)