I’ve been thinking of Christy Mathewson lately, a great hero who died prematurely from an illness of the lungs that may have been related to a global influenza pandemic.
Matty’s tuberculosis could have been the lethal side effect from an accidental dosing of poison gas during a World War I training exercise in France, an unfortunate incident that Ty Cobb described in detail in his autobiography: “I can recall Mathewson saying, ‘when we were in there, I got a good dose of that stuff. I feel terrible.’ He was wheezing and blowing out congested matter.”
Branch Rickey – like Mathewson and Cobb, an officer in the Chemical Warfare Service – didn’t recall it that way, saying that he’d been through the same training with Matty, and later that day watched the great pitching ace beat everyone in a broad jumping contest, “by a considerable margin.”
It could be that Mathewson’s lungs deteriorated as a result of the flu, which caught up with him (as it did to about 500 million people, killing 16 million) on the cold, damp sea voyage to Europe. Or perhaps the combination of super flu and poison gas gave his lungs a deadly one-two punch that took seven long years to finish him.
What we do know for sure is that Christy Mathewson died on October 7, 1925 of tuberculosis pneumonia. He was 45 and it was 11 at p.m., “only hours after ‘Big Train’ Walter Johnson, whose right-handed pitching feats had constantly been compared to Matty’s, defeated the Pirates in the first game of the World Series,” wrote Ray Robinson in his terrific biography of Mathewson.
The public outpouring was massive. Newspapers in every big city or small hamlet had something to say, some of it a bit overwrought (imagine that, says yours truly, who never saw a sentence that he couldn’t overwrite, including the one you’re being tormented with right now). One claimed that Matty overshadowed George Washington. Mathewson’s longtime manager and friend, John McGraw, put it best (as related by Robinson) when he said, after his friend’s memorial: “I do not expect to see his like again but I do know that the example he set and the imprint he left on the sport that he loved and honored will remain long after I am gone.”
Mathewson the man has always been more interesting to me than Mathewson the pitcher (who may have been the best ever – no one will ever equal his 1905 World Series performance, when he threw three complete game shutouts to lift his New York Giants over the Philadelphia Athletics). He won 373 games (twice as many as he lost) and posted a lifetime earned run average of 2.13 in his 17-year career, relying heavily on what he called the “fadeaway” pitch, which was basically a screwball. He was the face of baseball in the early 20th century.
But something about Matty lured others to him like a gravitational pull. His positivity, his work ethic, his fair-mindedness, and level-headedness. In a sport that employed a lot of rough tactics back in the day, played by tough guys, Mathewson not only held his own, but rose above all of them. Saints and sinners alike respected Big Six (one of his many nicknames, taken from a famous New York City fire engine of the day). He was highly competitive, and all class whether he won or lost.
He was no brute or ruffian, but nor was he a boy scout or lightweight. The idol of millions, including people who hated McGraw and his Giants, Christy was one of those guys that you just wanted to be around. I would have liked to meet him.
Anyway, the picture.
The book is from 1912. It was mostly written by a guy named John Wheeler, from interviews with Mathewson. There are places where Matty’s distinctive voice comes through (and the book has been very popular for more than 100 years), but critics have said it could have been better if it had been written entirely by Christy. The baseball card is a 1911 T-205 (tobacco card). Both of them came into our care accidentally (in other words, I wasn’t actively seeking Mathewson memorabilia, mainly because it’s way out of my price range).
I found the book in a Madison, Georgia, flea market about 30 years ago. It was in a bin with a bunch of other books and it cost me a buck, bargain of the century. The card cost even less, as it arrived in a stack of cards as part of a gift, purchased, no doubt, from someone who had no idea of what he or she was trying to part with. The Mathewson card arrived with a few other treasures (a 1940 card of Connie Mack and 1933 Dazzy Vance, among others). A sweet, unexpected gift.
Honestly, from the looks of them, they’re probably not worth much in the way of dollars. I’m not planning to get rid of them, anyway (although my dear, departed friend, Col. Bruce Hampton, offered to take them off my hands after saying, “Gawd, you have those?”). Anyway, these little scraps of history don’t belong to me. The way I see it, they belong to the four of us – Jane, Samantha, Joe, and I. As the oldest among them, and the one with the most experience as a baseball fan, and also the one who knows where they are kept, I’ll be their steward, whose primary task is to keep these things in a safe place and write about them, sort of like a show-and-tell, every time I do some spring cleaning.
The kids will have control after I’m gone, because Jane is very, “meh,” about it. Don’t get me wrong, she knows most of this baseball lame brain stuff because it’s the kind of stuff I’ll spew on a long ride to keep myself awake (which has the opposite effect on her, oddly enough). So, the kids will get to decide what to do with it when I shuffle off to the green room at the end of the universe, where the beer is cold, imported, and free.
I doubt that the kids will look at these items with the same sense of awe and loss that I get. These artifacts mean more to me than their trade value. They are a direct connection to the past, an imprint from everyone else whoever touched it (a scary thought these days). These little things are a handheld time machine that drive my imagination. I wonder what the world would have been like if Christy Mathewson had never gone to war, or never gotten the flu (or inhaled poison gas), and what would it be like if he had lived a full life. He was, by all accounts, a good dude. What further good, I wonder , could Christy Mathewson have done, either in baseball or outside of it. Also, I can’t help thinking about the irony that this baseball immortal known for clean living appeared on baseball cards that came with packs of cigarettes and then later died young from a lung disease.
But mostly, I imagine what it would have been like in 1912, when these items were brand new and can’t help thinking, damn, Matty has three great seasons left and then a short-lived career as manager of the Reds, and president of the Braves — he only has another 13 years left to live! And it kind of sucks, because when the world lost Christy Mathewson, it lost more than a baseball hero. It lost, in the words of Grantland Rice, “a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains, and personality.”
We can always use a little more of that.