There's only one Christy I know at all, one Christy that I ever
saw. He's the one that discovered the fadeaway ball and he pitches
for Muggsy McGraw.
It was in 1903, a century ago, that John McGraw and Christy
Mathewson were on the Giants for their first full season
together. In many ways, that was the start of baseball as we
would come to know it.
Among other things, Nineteen-Aught-Three was also the year that
New York City got a franchise in the brash young American League.
Until then the Giants of the mature National League had been
Gotham's only team. Well, Brooklyn had become a borough of New
York City and had its Superbas, but let's not get into those
geopolitics. In America's national pastime, in America's grandest
city, the Giants were the team. Only they were dreadful--"the
rankest apology for a first-class team ever imposed on a major
league city," according to a contemporary newspaperman.
In 1902 the Giants had posted the worst record in the majors.
Fewer and fewer Gotham cranks (as fans were known then) would
leave work early and take the Eighth Avenue El up to the 155th
Street stop and the Polo Grounds to watch the "Harlemites" play.
Why, few cranks would so much as bother to stand up on Coogan's
Bluff and watch the games for free.
Who would have imagined that in just another few years a rookie
named "Laughing" Larry Doyle would utter these words that would
become the baseball leitmotif of its time: "It's great to be
young and a Giant!" But, you see, it all turned around very
quickly in that summer 100 years ago, when two uncommon men, who
were so unlike each other, came together as friends and force.
Never was there such an odd couple in sport. Nevertheless, it was
because of their association that the Giants ascended and
baseball bloomed as a signal part of Americana in the bully new
The most promising Giant at the start of the 1903 season was
Mathewson, a 22-year-old righthander. He was wholesome and
handsome, broad-shouldered at a towering 6'2", with a
clean-shaven face, bright blue eyes and wavy brown hair that he
parted in the middle. At a time when only 6% of Americans had
finished so much as high school, Matty was a college man, from
Bucknell. One admirer, the writer Homer Croy, summed him up: "He
talks like a Harvard graduate, looks like an actor, acts like a
businessman and impresses you as an all-around gentleman."
Christy Mathewson was a whiz-bang, sports' original all-American
McGraw, the Giants' manager, and Mathewson came together in New
York at one of those rare moments when everything sure and
reliable seemed to be in play. The Flatiron Building, then one of
the world's tallest skyscrapers, had just gone up on 23rd Street,
the gaslights were going out, and somewhere beneath them more
than nine miles of subway were being tunneled. For not much
longer would there be the need at the Polo Grounds to park
horse-drawn carriages behind centerfield.
America, however, remained mostly rural (there were still 1,800
farms within the New York City limits), and by far the most
famous athlete in the U.S. was a horse. God in heaven, Dan Patch
paced a mile in 1:56 1/4! But that was in 1903, just as the
Giants began to win. Soon baseball would replace horse racing in
the prime space of the sports pages. Crowds of more than 25,000
began to spill over at the Polo Grounds, and invariably they
could count on seeing Matty or "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity twirl. In
1903 the Iron Man went 31-20, winning three doubleheaders in
August. Matty was 30-13.
Likewise, it is unlikely that any American athlete has ever been
so great the hero, even till now. As baseball became more
popular, it needed an appropriate idol. Matty's primacy was
heightened by the fact that the few national sports stars who had
preceded him had been not only outside the Anglo-Protestant
mainstream but also, more important, of dubious ethical
grounding. (McGraw himself, for openers.) Well, yes, everybody
liked the Pittsburgh Pirates' Honus Wagner, but he fell between
two stools. Germans were the largest immigrant group in the U.S.,
but Wagner was homely and beer-bellied, so he could never be the
first German-American crossover figure. (That distinction would
be earned a generation later by one George Herman Ruth.) As
Mathewson's biographer Ray Robinson has written, "In the public
thirst for a saint among ballplayers, Mathewson became something
As the gentlemanly Matty earned the fans' adoration, there was
Muggsy, raising hell in the third base coach's box. "McGraw leaps
into the air, kicks his heels together, claps his mitt, shouts at
the umpire, runs in and pats the next batter on the back and says
something to the pitcher," Mathewson would remember. "The whole
atmosphere inside the park is changed in a minute."
Meanwhile, out on the mound, Matty officiated gracefully.
Completely unlike his manager and great friend, Matty never
complained, rarely even uttered a word out there. "Repartee is
not my line," he explained, sans repartee.
On March 4, 1903, Matty had married Jane Stoughton. There was
something of a prenuptial agreement. Matty promised to leave the
Baptist faith of his upbringing and worship in Jane's
Presbyterian church, while she swore to give up her Democratic
affiliation and join his Republican party. Then they set off to
honeymoon in Savannah. There Matty would spend his first spring
training under the iron hand of McGraw, who, according to one
contemporary umpire, "eats gunpowder every morning and washes it
down with warm blood."
Jane Mathewson soon met the manager's wife. At first Blanche
McGraw was put off by Jane, the country girl with her
Sunday-school-teacher airs. Blanche suspected that Jane looked
down on her for wearing too much jewelry. Blanche had herself
been married only a year, and she and Jane were about the same
age, but Jane's family was respectable old Pennsylvania farm
stock, while Blanche was Baltimore nouveau. More important,
Blanche was Roman Catholic, and at that time, in baseball as in
much of American life, there was a nasty Sunni-Shiite divide
among Christians. It had not helped the woebegone Giants, for
instance, that their Catholic and Protestant players generally
despised one another.
McGraw was Catholic. Irish, too, through and through. He was a
John Joseph, called Muggsy (presumably after the comic-strip
tramp), which he hated, and Mickey Face, which, for some reason,
he could abide. The heart of the Baltimore Orioles, with whom
he'd made his mark in the Gay Nineties, had been Irish: Wee
Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Wilbert Robinson and Hughie Jennings.
On Jan. 8, 1902, they were Muggsy's groomsmen when he married
Well, it turned out that in the spring of Aught-Three the two
young wives, stuck together, quickly discovered that they
genuinely liked each other. Blanche asked Muggsy about her new
friend's husband. "Looks like a pitcher with both his head and
his arm," he said. She didn't mean that. She didn't mean
baseball. But that was Muggsy. "Life without baseball had very
little meaning to him," Blanche once said. "It was his meat,
drink, dream, his blood and breath, his very reason for
existence." McGraw did like the Presbyterian college man, who,
although only seven years his junior, had grown up in his thrall.
"I worshiped him in those days, little thinking that I should
ever play for him," Mathewson recalled later. Ah, but somewhere
within the pugnacious McGraw there was surely just as much
admiration for his majestic kid pitcher. In fact, McGraw must've
been at least somewhat jealous of Matty; after all, everybody
At a time when the average ballplayer stood barely 5'9", McGraw
was stumpy, only 5'6 1/2". Not for nothing would he come to be
known, redundantly, as Little Napoleon. He was pasty-faced, which
set off his black eyes and black hair all the more. He wore his
hair swirled fashionably on the sides (known as the fish-hook
effect) and tried hard to be stylish, favoring Cuban shirts with
the blue serge suits that every gentleman then wore, all year
Sometime during that spring training, the McGraws invited the
Mathewsons to live with them in Manhattan. The four rented a
ground-floor apartment for $50 a month on the Upper West Side, at
Columbus and 85th. Muggsy paid the rent and the gas, and Matty
paid for the food. The arrangement turned out just fine. Blanche
said, "Jane and I fed the men and left them alone to talk their
baseball. Their happiness was our cause."
Still, for all their success, all they would mean to the national
pastime, only once did McGraw and Mathewson drink to a World
Series victory together. It's tragic, really, how heartbreak and
disease and death always overshadowed their achievements. Even
that first spring.
McGraw was only 30 years old, but he was an old 30. In the
previous few years he'd had malaria and typhoid, not to mention
all manner of injuries. Then, at the Polo Grounds, before the
third game of the '03 season, McGraw was slapping fungoes while,
in the outfield, a deaf-mute pitcher named Dummy Taylor was
shagging flies. (In those less gracious times, mutes were called
Dummy, just as Native Americans were invariably called Chief.)
Taylor threw back a ball, and it hit McGraw in the face, smashing
his nose and breaking a blood vessel in his throat that caused a
frightening crimson gusher from his mouth and nose.
The injury would affect McGraw's sinuses and make him vulnerable
to upper respiratory infections for the rest of his life. But he
was back from the hospital before the game ended, his nose
stuffed with cotton. Then, although still in distress, he
prepared to take off on a road trip, but Blanche would not allow
it unless she came along to nurse him. Reluctantly, Muggsy
agreed, but with one proviso: that Matty stay behind, so his
young bride would not be left alone in the strange new city.
McGraw mandated this even though it meant that his star pitcher
would miss a start. Nobody had ever heard of such a concession
from Muggsy McGraw.
But then, he had begun to love the Mathewsons, as they loved him.
Growing up, McGraw had never had much of a family life, and
before he married Blanche, he'd had a brief, childless marriage.
As for the Mathewsons, Jane was pregnant soon enough, and when
the boy was born, he was christened John Christopher, the
manager's name before the father's.
The man who loses gracefully, loses easily.... Namby-pamby
methods don't get much in results.
--JOHN J. McGRAW
McGraw had jumped--"kangarooed out," it was called in those more
lyrical times--to the Giants from the Orioles in July 1902,
promising, "I shall not tamper with any of the Baltimore club's
players." Whereupon he brazenly stole four Orioles, notably the
indefatigable righthander McGinnity, so that the New York Sun
called the Giants "the Baltimorized New Yorks."
McGraw never again spoke to his old friend Ban Johnson, the
Orioles' owner--a corpulent reformed sportswriter who had
single-handedly made the Western League into the American, a
budding second major league--and, as we shall see, this
stubbornness would cost baseball a World Series. John J. McGraw
was nothing if not cocksure. His biographer Charles Alexander
decided that he was a baseball version of the undaunted original
who then restlessly roamed the White House: Teddy Roosevelt. "Do
what I tell you," Muggsy would order his minions, "and I'll take
the blame if it goes wrong."
Mathewson was thrilled to have his idol take the helm. The Giants
were in such disarray that the hapless manager who preceded
McGraw had actually moved arguably the greatest pitcher in
history off the mound, briefly using him at first, at short and
in the outfield. This prompted The New York Times, the paper of
record, to refer to him as "Christy Mathewson, the former
pitcher." McGraw himself characterized the move as "sheer
insanity," adding, "any man who did that should be locked up."
After all, Mathewson had, as a rookie in '01, won 20 games, and
while he was but 14-17 in '02, the Giants won only 48 games that
season. Mathewson's ERA was 2.11, and eight of the victories he
"officiated" were complete-game shutouts. The first game he
started for McGraw, he shut out the Superbas. McGraw knew what he
had--and didn't have. He wrote off the season and spent much time
on the road, scouting.
Next to baseball, Muggsy had always liked nights out. In
Baltimore he and the stout Wilbert Robinson, who owned adjoining
row houses, had tripled their baseball income running a
high-class joint, the Diamond Cafe. Besides wining and dining, it
had billiards, pool and bowling. Indeed, duckpin bowling was
invented at the Diamond. McGraw had less success with similar
ventures in New York City, investing in pool halls with
professional gamblers, most notably Arnold Rothstein, who would
be accused of bankrolling the 1919 Black Sox fix.
At a time when gambling and baseball went hand-in-glove, Muggsy
was into one as much as the other. He loved the ponies, and it
was not uncommon for him to catch a few races before the
late-afternoon game. Still, the surest creature to wager on was
Mathewson. McGraw always sought him as his bridge partner. Matty
owned as extraordinary a mind for cards as he did for pitching.
Chief Meyers, one of his catchers, said, "Any time you hit a ball
hard off him, you never got a pitch in the same spot again." And,
just as Matty never forgot a pitch, never did he forget a card.
It was at checkers, though, that Mathewson was most accomplished.
McGraw took him to high-tone places like the Lambs' Club and
watched as he whipped all comers. Sometimes Matty would play
eight games simultaneously, winning them all. Sometimes he would
even play blindfolded.
Muggsy liked to show off Blanche, too: dress her up, drench her
in glittering jewels. For his girl, nothing but the best. The
McGraws were chauffeured all around Manhattan. For some reason,
all his life Muggsy refused to drive. Like electricity,
motorcars--which were called "devil wagons"--were just coming in.
Still, in every fashionably dark and crowded Manhattan parlor,
the clippety-clop could yet be heard in the streets. Sanitation
workers still had to deal with tens of thousands of gallons of
horse urine and manure every day, so the hems of the long skirts
Blanche and Jane and the other ladies wore were always a
mess--East Side, West Side, all around the town.
Let others sing of motorcars
Extol the record run;
But let me sing, oh,
Stripes and Stars,
Of Christy Mathewson.
NEW YORK HERALD, OCT. 10, 1905
As good as the Giants became under McGraw that season in 1903,
they could not catch Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, McGraw envisioned a
lucrative postseason series with the Pirates. But to his absolute
horror, what did the owner of the Pirates do but consort with the
enemy? Instead of playing the New Yorks, runners-up in the true
league, the Pirates agreed to play the Boston Pilgrims, champions
of Ban Johnson's upstart American League. As if that wasn't
revolting enough, Pittsburgh actually lost the so-called
Inter-League Series to the wannabes, the future Red Sox.
So, for McGraw, victory in '04 would mean more than just the
championship. It would be the chance to stick it to fatso Ban
And that is exactly what happened. With the Polo Grounds'
capacity expanded to 24,000, with refurbished offices and locker
rooms complete with electricity and steam heat, the Giants drew
an incredible half-million cranks and ran away with the pennant,
going 106-47. Mathewson was 33-12, but McGinnity's 35-8 was even
better. Still, McGraw made it plain that he would not lower
himself to play Ban Johnson's champs in any postseason scrum.
It was not easy being so principled. McGraw was everywhere
labeled a coward, and his own players desperately wanted a
postseason payday. But, hey, money isn't everything. "We are not
a lot of grafters looking for box-office receipts at the expense
[of the honor] of our club," Muggsy said.
The players, sensible grafters almost to a man, were not happy
about this (Matty kept his own counsel), and rules were soon
adopted mandating that pennant-winners face off. Thus was the
stage in place for Matty in '05 to give still the grandest
performance in any Series.
By 1905 Mathewson, who turned 25 in August, had attained
preeminence as a slab man. "My salary wing," as he termed his
right arm, accounted for 31 wins against only nine losses. He
walked 64 batters in 338 2/3 innings, had an ERA of 1.27 and
pitched eight complete-game shutouts, including his second
no-hitter. Matty had command of a half-dozen pitches: a fastball,
a changeup, a drop ("My very best, and a surprise for all the
batters"), a curve, an underhand curve and, on rare occasions, a
His signature pitch, though, was the fadeaway, which broke away
from lefthanded batters, like a modern-day screwball. He threw it
using the same grip as his fastball, but with "a peculiar snap of
the wrist," as Matty described it. As famous as the fadeaway was,
though, it could be "killing on the arm," so he used it only a
few times a game.
To be sure, Matty came along just as rules were changed to
benefit pitchers. In 1901 the plate was widened from 12 inches
and four-sided to 17 inches and five-sided, and foul balls became
strikes (except, of course, when the batter already had two
Was there ever a pitcher whose mere presence was so mesmerizing?
Here he comes, marching to the mound, with just a touch of human
blemish--a slightly knock-kneed gait--wearing a long white linen
duster, removing it to stand there tall, broad-shouldered and
square-jawed, and then starting to toss effortlessly, with
consummate grace. McGraw called every pitcher's pitches ...
except Mathewson's. Matty's was the one mind in all of baseball
that Muggsy deferred to.
By now Mathewson was referred to as Big Six. The origin of this
nickname remains in doubt--perhaps it was simply that Matty was
an overpowering pitcher, taller than six feet back when six feet
was big. There are other, more arcane theories, but years later
McGraw claimed that it was none other than he who had so dubbed
Mathewson. McGraw was pretty good at naming things. It was he who
called Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics white elephants (an
insult that Mack eventually turned around, putting an elephant on
the team's uniforms), and, in Havana, he gave a bar the famous
name of Sloppy Joe's. When, in 1905, he called on Sammy Strang to
bat 14 times "in the pinch," he created another term.
By now the Giants were effectively the McGraws--"imbued with all
of their energetic leader's resourcefulness, gameness and
aggressiveness," as one newsman wrote. This meant they were
everywhere despised, the target of hurled eggs, produce, rocks
and bricks. In Philadelphia the Giants took to carrying rocks in
their carriages, the better to fire back at their tormentors. In
Brooklyn the bleacher cranks preferred to fling spears fashioned
from umbrella tips. McGraw loved it. As best he could, he had
reconstituted his old team from his Baltimore days, when he had
been, according to a Georgia newspaper, "a rough, unruly man, who
is constantly playing dirty ball.... He adopts every low and
contemptible method that his erratic brain can conceive to win a
play by a dirty trick."
Even that impeccable Christian gentleman Mr. Mathewson sometimes
fell under the McGravian spell. In April 1905, before a crowd of
20,000 in Philadelphia, a near riot broke out, and as the Giants
were mobbed, Matty knocked down a young lemonade vendor. He split
the lad's lip, loosening some teeth. The Sporting News quoted a
shocked Philadelphian who saw in this act the very Fall of Man:
"It's just to show that his association with the old Baltimore
crowd had made a hoodlum of [even Mathewson]."
But then, as Doyle observed, "Matty was no namby-pamby."
Certainly he was never averse to brushing back hitters.
When the Giants prepared for their first Series, Muggsy tabbed
Matty to start the opener against Mack's Athletics on Monday,
Oct. 9. Days of the week in America then were called by the
appointed household chores. Monday was for laundry. And in a way,
big-time American team sports as we know them may be dated from
this Washing Day.
McGraw, who enjoyed changing the Giants' uniforms, had decked his
men out in black, with white lettering. As befitted the age, odds
were openly discussed, and there was even considerable
speculation that the southpaw Rube Waddell, the Athletics' ace,
had not really injured his shoulder clowning around, as reported,
but had been reached by gamblers. Anyway, even without Waddell,
McGraw got $400 down at even odds. Although the Series winners
were granted 75% of the players' share, various A's and Giants
paired up and agreed to split their prize money down the middle.
And now: Time for the game! Gentleman Jim Corbett, the
ex-heavyweight champeen, came out with Roger Bresnahan, the
Giants' wily catcher, waving an Irish flag. Then, at home plate,
Connie Mack, the A's gaunt, ascetic manager, presented a
delighted McGraw with a small white elephant to commemorate his
famous remark of three seasons past. It was something of a peace
offering from the new league, and McGraw wowed the enemy crowd by
accepting at his most theatrical, bowing deeply, sweeping his cap
low and then dancing a little Irish jig. Play ball!
Alas, for the home crowd the game was anticlimactic. Matty shut
up the Philly fans by shutting out the A's 3-0 on four hits. Back
in New York, where the cranks "watched" the game on large
blackboards that posted the action relayed via telegraph ticker,
cheers for Matty rent the air. Thirty thousand made their way up
to the Polo Grounds the next day, Tuesday--Ironing Day--to see
the Iron Man, McGinnity, take on Chief Bender. The A's turned the
tables as the Chief pitched a 3-0 shutout, and back the Series
went to Philadelphia.
Although Mathewson had had only two days' rest, and this
Thursday--Market Day--was raw and cold, McGraw sent him back to
the mound. This game was a rout, 9-0, as Matty whitewashed the
home nine again. On Friday, Cleaning Day, back at the Polo
Grounds, McGinnity pitched yet another shutout, 1-0, giving the
Giants a 3-1 Series lead. "Goose eggs are becoming as staple an
item of Father Penn's diet as scrapple," the Sun observed smugly.
Pressing his advantage, McGraw called on Matty again the next
afternoon, Saturday. It was Mathewson's third start in six days,
and he had to face Bender. The throng that spilled over Coogan's
Bluff, filling the Polo Grounds, came loaded for bear. "Clinch it
today, Mac," the crowd screamed at McGraw when he ambled onto the
field before the game. "Nothing but the championship!"
"That's what you'll get," Muggsy bellowed back. Oh, he was ready
for this one, all right. He had Matty officiating, didn't he? And
even though the Giants could manage only two runs, they were
enough for what the Sun called "that professor of occult speed
and pretzel curves." It took Mathewson just 95 minutes to
construct his third shutout. In his 27 innings, he gave up only
14 hits and but one base on balls, while striking out 18. Even
Mathewson himself thought this Series was his best performance
The crowd poured onto the field, carrying players out to the
centerfield pavilion. Some of the Giants tossed their caps and
mitts to the faithful. And wait, who came out now to greet them
but Bresnahan and ... yes, Matty himself. Not only that, but the
battery mates unfurled a banner: THE GIANTS, WORLD'S CHAMPIONS,
And when the crowd read those words, it let loose with what the
Times described as a "deafening, reverberating roar" that "lifted
Manhattan's soil from its base." Why, this was Gotham's secular
first communion. If not already the first city of the world, it
would pass London and Paris soon enough. Anyway, it was already a
depot of dreams. A million or more immigrants disembarked there
each year. A New Yorker, as exuberant as his city--"Bully!"--ran
the country. And now New York was, too, champion of the national
No U.S. city had ever been so polyglot: 3.5 million people of
every stripe, a third of them foreign-born. What could bind them
together? Well, baseball was as good a mucilage as any. After
all, baseball was strictly American, and now the great American
city had great champions, and everybody could identify with the
Giants. Whoever he was, wherever he came from, any American could
admire McGraw, and any American could want to be Mathewson.
And there Big Six is now, holding up the victory banner, holding
court. Matty did not gloat, for that was not his way, even as the
cheers continued to roll up to him and then to the heavens above.
Only one more Giant took a curtain call--McGraw, emerging to
address his fond crowd. As befits a Napoleon, his speech was
courtly. "Ladies and gentlemen," Muggsy proclaimed solemnly, "I
appreciate the great victory as well as you. I thank you for your
patronage and hope to see you all next spring."
And so he would. But who could have imagined that it would never
again be the same for Matty and Muggsy as it was on this most
glorious of all Baking Days.
In a broadly 'religious sense,' Mathewson epitomized humanity as
it was created in the Garden of Eden. He lived and played in a
'garden paradise,' a pure specimen of the ideal ballplayer and
--DONALD HONIG, BASEBALL AMERICA
A century on, McGraw and Mathewson are still with us, templates of
two sustaining American sports archetypes. Muggsy: the earthy
scuffler, an odd duck, unrepentant, but who--surprise!--is
inspiring and brilliant. McGraw "could take kids out of coal
mines and wheat fields," Heywood Broun wrote, "and make them play
ball with the look of eagles." His heirs are many: George Halas,
Casey Stengel, Red Auerbach, Leo Durocher, Vince Lombardi, Bear
Bryant, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Scotty Bowman, Bill Parcells,
Mathewson is easier to portray: the solid gentleman athlete, wise
and spiritual, fair to a fault. A story, perhaps apocryphal, has
Mathewson sliding home in a cloud of dust. "Were you safe,
Matty?" the umpire asks.
"No, he got me."
Astounded, the catcher asks Mathewson how he could call himself
out. "I am a church elder," Matty replied.
Idolizing Mathewson was encouraged all the more because he was
the first star to play in New York, center of American publishing
(and dreams). He was identified, even confused, in the public
mind with the sports paragon Frank Merriwell. It hardly mattered
that Merriwell didn't exist.
The creation of a hack writer pen-named Burt L. Standish,
Merriwell was a scholar-sportsman who won games, rescued damsels
in distress and stood for fair play, sensitive masculinity and
what was called "muscular Christianity." The dime novels sold in
the millions at the turn of the century.
As much as any revered sports star, Mathewson walked a fine line,
holding to his principles but never being a sanctimonious prig.
While he was never guilty of "muckerism" (bad sportsmanship), it
was not uncommon for a curse word to spill from his lips. He
gambled, enjoyed liquor and smoked. He even endorsed Tuxedo
tobacco, something not even Muggsy would do. "You'll find
cigarette stubs ... on the path to baseball oblivion," McGraw
Mathewson, however, was neither afraid to take advantage of his
fame nor a prisoner of it, though his was the best-known face in
the country after those of three politicians: Roosevelt, William
Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan. "I owe everything I have
to the fans when I'm out there on the mound," Mathewson declared,
"but I owe the fans nothing ... when I am not pitching." He would
draw the shades on trains when they stopped, even though he knew
admirers had come to the station just for a glimpse of him. But
then he reneged on a promise to his mother never to play ball on
the Sabbath when he decided that it was selfish, unfair to the
workingman whose long weekdays denied him a chance to see the
national pastime (and its greatest hero) except on Sundays.
Then, too, as a friend confided, "Matty liked money." He shilled
for razors as well as tobacco. In 1910, when he made $10,000 as
baseball's highest-paid player, he spent 17 weeks in the
off-season working in a vaudeville show for $1,000 a week. He
starred in a one-reel film and lent his name as cowriter to a
series of children's books as well as to a comedy, The Girl and
the Pennant, which had 20 performances on Broadway. Matty,
however, drew the line at allowing a Manhattan "drinking and
dancing place" to be called the Christy Mathewson. As a man who
walked only 1 1/2 batters per nine innings, Big Six had as much
control over his life as he did of his pitches.
Indeed, through the wondrous Series of '05, Mathewson's life was
nearly without defect. He had grown up on a farm in Factoryville,
in northeastern Pennsylvania, a picture-book place. The Mathewson
house rested in a valley, yea, with a bubbling brook that
provided flat stones for young Matty to hurl at squirrels and
He was the eldest, born on Aug. 12, 1880, to Scots whose
forebears had crossed to Rhode Island not long after the
Mayflower. Gilbert and Minerva Mathewson would have five more
children, and although Cyril died in infancy, Christine, Henry,
Jane and Nicholas grew up as strong and healthy as their big
brother. The boys were educated nearby at Keystone Academy, and
then Christy--already a local legend pitching for the
Factoryville nine--went to Bucknell, in Lewisburg, where he put
on his blue freshman beanie and set about becoming the biggest
man on campus.
Besides being a baseball star, young Matty was as good a
dropkicker as there was at a time when that specialty was crucial
to football. Rubber Leg, he was called. He was also a terrific
student. Moreover, he wrote poetry, sang in the Glee Club, acted
in campus dramatics and belonged to an honorary leadership
If no upbringing was more idyllic than Matty's, none was more
different from it than what little Johnny McGraw endured. If
Matty was the effortlessly blessed American, Muggsy was the
bootstrap boy. What they shared, though, was more important: Both
made the most of what they were given, and as sport became
popular both became inspirations--different sides of the same
One percent of ballplayers are leaders of men. The other 99% are
followers of women.
--JOHN J. McGRAW
McGraw's father, also John, was a dull man of no good luck. No
wonder he couldn't understand his son's love for a silly game.
Hardly had John Sr. emigrated from Ireland, circa 1856, than he
was drafted into the Union army to fight a war he had no heart
for. He married but lost his wife to childbirth. Broke, a
widower, he migrated far north to the tiny town of Truxton, N.Y.
There he got a railroad job and married Ellen Comerfort. Their
first child, John Joseph, was born on April 7, 1873. Ellen would
bear seven more babies. The large family was rarely more than a
meal ahead of hunger, so Papa John despaired when his oldest boy
spent a dollar to buy a Spalding baseball or even a dime to
purchase Our Boys' Base Ball Rules--not to mention when young
John broke windowpanes playing the fool sport.
Then, in the awful winter of '84-85, diphtheria came to Truxton.
Ellen Comerfort McGraw fell to it; so too did four of young
John's brothers and sisters. Whatever thin thread connected the
two Johns, father and son, was frayed by this horror. By that
fall, when he was only 12, John had essentially left both home
and school. Scratching out a living, he lived for baseball. By
16, although he weighed only 105 pounds, he was the star
curveball pitcher on the town team. Six days before he turned 17,
he signed a contract with the Olean, N.Y., franchise of the newly
formed New York-Pennsylvania league.
Lord, did little Johnny McGraw grow up fast. He was playing ball
out of the country, in Cuba, in January 1891; El Mono Amarillo,
the Cubans called him--"the yellow monkey." In only three more
years, barely 21, he would lead the Orioles to their first
championship. He was their manager at 26, boss of the New Yorks
at 29. When he became manager of the Giants, he was the
highest-paid man in baseball. McGraw also became the highest-paid
act in vaudeville in 1912, playing 15 weeks on the Keith circuit.
Dressed in the fanciest morning suit, Muggsy came on stage after
Odiva the Goldfish Lady and told baseball stories. For this he
was paid three times what Matty had earned on the boards, pulling
down $3,000 a week.
But he never forgot. Every dog Muggsy ever had was named Truxton.
And every morning that he was home with Blanche, McGraw would
prepare breakfast, then pat his dog and bellow, "It's Truxton
against the world!"
There was a fundamental difference, though, between McGraw and
most poor boys who escaped poverty through sport. McGraw saw
beyond the outfield walls. He educated himself, stretched
himself, always seeking to prove that he wasn't just some dumb
shanty Irishman. Guess what the Giants players gave him after the
1916 season--the collected works of Shakespeare. Despite their
vastly different upbringings, it was not only baseball that made
Muggsy and Matty so close; they were intellectual equals.
No sooner had McGraw felt secure in Baltimore than he made a deal
with Allegany College, near Olean, whereby he'd coach baseball in
the off-season in return for academic courses. For three winters,
while most players whored and drank, McGraw returned to Allegany
(which would later become St. Bonaventure), teaching baseball
fundamentals while he, the elementary school dropout, studied
grammar, composition, history and math.
At a time when few Americans went abroad, McGraw was a world
traveler. He returned to Cuba often. Following the 1896 season,
McGraw led a party of Orioles to Europe. They returned as dandies
in Prince Albert coats, silk top hats and other adornments of the
sophisticated gentleman. In the off-season of 1913-14, the
McGraws led a baseball contingent that included the Mathewsons on
a 139-day journey around the world, returning on the Lusitania.
In 1924 the McGraws returned to England, where--ah, to be a fly
on the wall--Muggsy met George Bernard Shaw. Enthralled, Shaw
declared that he had "at last discovered the real and authentic
Most Remarkable Man in America."
Perhaps because the McGraws were childless, baseball was Muggsy's
family. It was only when he reached the bigs at Baltimore in '91
that he found something of what Matty had been born to. Muggsy
adored his manager, Ned Hanlon, and his teammates, even when he
scrapped with them. Baltimore truly was his first home. It was
there that he found the horse races, found friends for life and
fell in love. Even after all his years in New York, Baltimore was
where he would choose to be buried.
But always with McGraw, there was trauma and tragedy. In '95,
when he turned 22, he contracted malaria, and the next year he
almost died from typhoid fever, his weight skidding from 157 to
118. Ah, but when he was recuperating, he received a letter with
compressed flowers from a pretty Baltimore lass named Minnie
Doyle. When he regained his health, Muggsy started courting in
earnest, and he and Minnie were married on Feb. 3, 1897. The
happy couple honeymooned at Niagara Falls. Only two years later,
during McGraw's first season as manager, the Orioles were in
Louisville when Muggsy received a telegram that Minnie was
"seriously ill." Her appendix had burst, and she had undergone
surgery. Rushing home, he learned that Minnie had contracted
peritonitis and blood poisoning, and there was nothing that the
doctors could do. Muggsy sat by her bed, holding her hand, all
her last day and last night. She died on Aug. 31, five days after
the surgery. Minnie McGraw was buried in her wedding gown. The
Orioles were the pallbearers.
The young widower was devastated. It was not until Sept. 11 that
he returned to the coach's box. His friends noticed gray hairs on
him. John McGraw was only 26, the toughest ballplayer in all this
favored land, but disease had already taken his mother, most of
his brothers and sisters and now his young bride.
Seven years later, in 1906, as the Giants proudly wended their
way north from spring training wearing McGraw's new uniforms with
WORLD'S CHAMPIONS stitched across their chests, Mathewson came
down with what he thought was a bad cold. Only it turned out to
be diphtheria, which had wiped out most of McGraw's family.
Muggsy was beside himself. It did not seem possible. Not again.
But this one time he was spared. Big Six recovered and was back
on the mound by the middle of May.
It was, though, as if some score was being settled with Matty:
After a young life of unfettered success and joy, he must endure
commensurate loss and sadness. Three years later, in January
1909, Matty was visiting in Factoryville. His youngest brother,
19-year-old Nicholas, was, like Matty and the middle brother,
Henry, a pitcher. Why, there were some who thought Nicholas could
be better than Matty. Nicholas was home from Lafayette College
and went fishing. He caught two pickerel and gave them to an
elderly family friend. A bit later, Matty went out to the barn.
He came back in a few minutes and told his parents, "I have awful
news, but all of us have to remain calm." Matty had found
Nicholas dead, from a bullet he had fired into his own brain.
Then, eight years later, when Henry was 30, he died of
tuberculosis. Matty had lost all his brothers now. Shortly after
that the U.S. declared war on Germany, and a year later Matty
volunteered to fight against the Hun. There was no call for him
to go. He was 38, but Big Six thought it his duty to bear arms
for his country against the enemy.
Baseball is always played out in the sunshine, where the air is
pure and the grass is green, and there is something about the
game ... which teaches one to win or lose as a gentleman should,
and that is a very fine thing to learn.
After the '05 Series the Giants would suffer vexing and bizarre
reversals in big games. None, though, would match the one in
1908, when Mathewson had a late-season victory against the
Cubs--and possibly the pennant--taken from him because a teenage
reserve named Fred Merkle failed to advance from first base to
second in the bottom of the ninth on a hit that should have won
the game. Merkle was called out, and the game was declared a
draw. When those two teams finished the season tied for first,
they had to replay that game to decide the pennant. For the
contest that ensued--which, Matty said, "stood out like the
battle of Waterloo and the assassination of Abraham
Lincoln"--100,000 showed up at the Polo Grounds, although only
40,000 made it inside. Alas, Mathewson, who had pitched almost
400 innings and won 37 games that season, had exhausted himself.
The Cubs beat him 4-2 and went on to win the Series.
In 1911 the Giants finally got back to the Series, against the
A's, but in Game 3 Matty threw a gopher ball to a third baseman
named Frank Baker--who ever after was known as Home Run
Baker--and Philadelphia took the game and eventually the title.
The next year, in the eighth game against Boston (one game in the
Series had ended in a tie), Mathewson took a 2-1 lead into the
bottom of the 10th, but his centerfielder, Fred Snodgrass,
dropped an easy fly, and Merkle and the catcher, Chief Meyers,
missed a pop-up, and the Red Sox won. The tears streamed from
Matty's eyes as he trudged off the mound.
Big Six turned 33 the following year, and the cracks were
beginning to show. Still, he pitched Game 2 of the 1913 Series
against Philadelphia, a 10-inning shutout. But the Athletics won
the next three, so Muggsy called on Matty with one day's rest.
The Giants managed only one hit, made key errors and lost 3-1.
The reporter from the World wrote this valedictory: "They should
erect over Matty's grave some hundred years or so from now the
epitaph ... 'He done his damnedest--angels could do no more.'"
That was his last hurrah. Within two years, the Giants were in
the cellar and Big Six was 8-14, and so, in the middle of the
1916 season, with Cincinnati looking for a new skipper, McGraw
traded Matty to the Reds as a player-manager so he'd have the
opportunity to lead a team, a chance he wouldn't have gotten with
Mathewson cleaned out his locker and bid goodbye to McGraw.
They'd been together 14 seasons. Matty started out of the
clubhouse. No one said a word. Then he saw that a few of the men
were playing cards. So he sat down, played one last hand and,
without another word, put down his cards, stood up and left the
New York Giants and Muggsy McGraw.
He is the incarnation of the American national sport.... There is
no man in American baseball more coldly, cruelly commercial than
John J. McGraw, manager and magnate, and no man more selflessly
engrossed in the game's sake than Muggsy McGraw, baseball artist.
--THE NEW YORKER, 1925
After Mathewson departed, McGraw quickly rebuilt the Giants. They
won the pennant in 1917 but lost in the World Series. They won
the pennant again from 1921 to '24 and the Series in '22. He
should've quit then. He hadn't aged gracefully, and drinking had
begun to get the best of him. Were you drunk? he was asked after
he beat up an actor at the Lambs' Club. "I must've been," he
said, "because I never fight unless I'm drunk." Well, that was
not quite so. After a game in 1917, in Cincinnati, cold sober, he
punched an umpire and avoided arrest only because Matty, as the
Reds' manager, interceded with the police.
In his younger years people who'd known Muggsy only as the
pugnacious player and manager had been amazed at how gentle he
could be off the field. "He was quiet-spoken, almost disarmingly
so," Branch Rickey said. As the years passed, though, Muggsy grew
tiresome, convinced that he had all the answers. Not entirely
with humor, he remarked, "I'm sort of a permanent fixture, like
home plate and the foul pole." And he suffered the fate of so
many old-timers, deciding that the past--his past--was best. "The
men don't get out and fight for the games like they used to," he
groused. "That's what's wrong with baseball."
Baseball had, of course, changed. The Yankees were now New York's
team, but it is instructive that McGraw adapted, winning those
four pennants in Ruth's lively-ball era. Often Muggsy was in
pain. He never recovered from that Dummy Taylor throw in 1903.
His sinusitis plagued him, especially in the spring, when it was
aggravated by allergies. He'd sit in the dugout sneezing and
coughing, sweating profusely. Often he had to manage from the
clubhouse by phone. But he wouldn't quit until '32.
Muggsy was just short of his 61st birthday, in 1934, when the
world finally bested Truxton. At St. Patrick's Cathedral, on a
bitterly cold February morning, he was laid out in a mahogany
casket, holding a crucifix. The place was packed, just as in the
grand old days at the Polo Grounds, when he and Matty and
baseball were still young.
If baseball will hold to the ideals of the gentleman, scholar and
soldier, our national game will keep the younger generation clean
and courageous and the future of our nation secure.
--W.O. McGEEHAN, NEW YORK
TRIBUNE, OCT. 9, 1925
After Matty's second full season with the Reds he went off to
fight in France. He had accepted a commission as a captain in the
Chemical Warfare Service. Other baseball men in it were Ty Cobb,
George Sisler and Rickey. Nothing went right for Matty. He was
violently seasick crossing the Atlantic and also came down with
the flu, arriving in France deathly ill.
There he participated in a drill at Chaumont. In the gas chambers
Matty was one of many soldiers who failed to snap on their gas
masks in time. There was a "hopeless tangle" in the panic to
escape into fresh air, Cobb wrote. "We weren't fooling around
with simulated death when we entered those gas chambers. The
stuff we turned loose was the McCoy." Mathewson survived,
wheezing and congested. "Ty," he told Cobb, "I got a good dose of
Ironically, by the time Mathewson arrived in France, the Germans
were at their hope's end. His volunteered duty served little
purpose. He was in the hospital on Armistice Day, and he never
fully recovered. Cobb would say, "I saw Christy Mathewson doomed
to die. The rider on the pale horse passed his way."
Back in the States, Mathewson was pasty, gaunt--even shrunken. He
coughed often, lost his appetite and, according to Jane,
"developed a strange lassitude." His condition was diagnosed as
chronic bronchitis. At the McGraws', meanwhile, Blanche could
hear Muggsy waking up nights, pacing the bedroom, muttering about
Matty. He sensed it was something worse than bronchitis. In the
summer of 1920 the new diagnosis was tuberculosis, the same
disease that had killed his brother Henry.
The Mathewsons moved to upstate New York, to be near the
sanitarium at Saranac Lake. The mail poured in, often addressed
to just Big Six or Matty. He played a lot of checkers and studied
horticulture, searching for his favorite wildflower, the blue
gentian. McGraw would call regularly, and in 1924 Matty, despite
his doctor's admonitions, went to the Giants-Senators World
Series. It would be Muggsy's last as a manager. It would be
Matty's last. He was stooped and so shriveled that people who had
known Big Six turned away in shock.
He hung on for another year, but in Saranac Lake, on Oct. 7,
1925, the very day that Washington opened the defense of its
championship in Pittsburgh, Matty whispered to Jane, "It's nearly
over. I know it, and we must face it. Go out and have a good cry.
Don't make it a long one. This is something we can't help." He
died that night, barely into his 46th year.
The next day McGraw sat in a field box with Ruth and Cobb. The
flag at Forbes Field was lowered to half-staff, and as the
players from both teams, in black armbands, marched out in
ceremony, many in the crowd spontaneously began to sing Nearer My
God to Thee. Then The Star-Spangled Banner was played, but muffled.
After the game, McGraw left for New York, where he met Blanche.
Together, they went to Saranac Lake, and then, with Jane, they
brought Matty's body back to Lewisburg, where he had gone to
His son, John Christopher Mathewson, was a student there at the
time. He watched with his namesake, who, of course, was one of
the pallbearers, as they lowered his father's body into the
It was the first time America had lost a national sports hero, so
it didn't embarrass anybody to think only good thoughts of the
man and to remember only the good times gone, when, together,
Matty and Muggsy had given the pastime a leg up.
it down with warm blood."
It hardly mattered that Merriwell didn't exist.
success and joy, Matty would have to endure loss and sadness.
Matty's was the one mind in baseball that Muggsy deferred to.