Baseball Digest Birthdays: Christy Mathewson

Let’s kick this one off with a quick poll.

No dwelling on it. Answer with whichever choice comes to mind naturally after hearing the question.

Which Fab Five was more impressive: Chris Webber, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson…or…Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson?

(I’ll wait for you to stop laughing and then we can carry on with the rest of the piece).

The latter group in the poll represents the very first group of major league baseball players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. In 1936, the five men were the first to receive the game’s greatest honor and set the bar for all to follow.  The last name on the list, Mathewson, was born on this day in 1880.

From Factoryville, Pennsylvania, Mathewson grew up playing multiple sports, earning recognition for his skills in baseball and football while attending Bucknell University. Factoryville celebrates Christy Mathewson Day every year on the Saturday closest to his birthday. Bucknell University’s football stadium is named Christy Mathewson Memorial. However, it was his performance on the baseball field that truly cemented his legacy.

Mathewson spent a few years playing minor league ball, including simultaneously during some of his time at Bucknell. In 1900, Mathewson caught the eye of the New York Giants when he posted a 20-2 record pitching for the Norfolk team in the Virginia-North Carolina League. Nowadays, a pitcher that would go on to win a World Series, rank third in the majors in career wins, eighth all time in wins and post seasons with 20 or more victories ten times and 30 or more wins, four times, would cost you a pretty penny. Even based solely on projections and potential. In 1900, Mathewson’s contract only cost the Giants $1,500.

Their relationship would go on to last a very happy sixteen years, however it didn’t start very smoothly. After acquiring Mathewson, he would kick off his time with the squad with a rather unimpressive, not-so-Hall-worthy start of an 0-3 record. The Giants were furious and returned him to the Norfolk team. As his destiny would have it however, Mathewson would still go on to spend those sixteen seasons in a Giants uniform after the Cincinnati Reds picked him up from Norfolk and went on to trade him to New York after all.

In the final act of his career, he made an appearance for a season on the Reds’ roster. His golden years were made up of his time with New York. Over his seventeen seasons in the majors, Mathewson posted an overall win-loss record of 373-188. His career ERA is among the best of all-time and just think about how impressed we all are when watching a pitcher go the distance. When it happens in 2011, a rare feat at that with bullpen pitching strategies and pitch count becoming a larger part of the game with every day that passes, people applaud the effort and begin thinking of ways to keep the pitcher’s locker free of kryptonite. In the early 1900′s? Achieving the feat once would hardly even get a mention in the overall summary of the day’s events. The bar was being set high at an alarming pace as pitchers in this era, known as the ‘dead ball era’ were iron men. Mathewson, for example, threw 79 total complete games in his career.  Roy Halladay, to put it in perspective, is the active leader with 64 complete games thrown. Highlighting the stat helps to put how impressive Halladay is as a pitcher more than Mathewson.   However, the bar is set with players  like Mathewson. Halladay is only impressive because we know the precedent that has been set before him. Mathewson was one of the players who laid the foundation for all others to be compared to. Halladay is the rare example of someone coming any where near what Mathewson accomplished in the game. However, that is only one category.

There is a reason Mathewson was one of the first five to be inducted into Cooperstown. There is a lot more to the story than ‘total complete games’.

Mathewson struck out 2,502 batters in his career (2,502 at least that is, as strike outs weren’t even tracked in the NL until 1910), which was three times the amount of batters he walked In the 1905 World Series, while pitching for the New York Giants against the Philadelphia Athletics, Mathewson was masterful. In games one and three, he pitched the Giants to victory with dual four hit shutouts. In game five, his performance took a couple of steps back. He threw a six hit shutout. That day, on two days rest, he completed what ESPN called the greatest playoff performance of all-time and brought the championship to Giants fans everywhere.

1905 proved to be one of Mathewson’s greatest seasons and that is saying a lot. Almost every season delivered reason to brush up his resume or at least the information on the back of his baseball card. He won the pitching triple crown in 1905 and 1908, was a five time ERA champion, five time strike out champion, threw two no-hitters and did all of this while never pitching on Sunday. A devout Christian, Mathewson had no problem doing his part as one of the greatest pitchers of all time Monday-Saturday. Sunday, however, was God’s day and he refused to pitch.

Baseball fans have continued to respect Mathewson’s performance in the 1905 World Series long after the fact, as shown in this excerpt from the February 1993 issue of Baseball Digest.

When his playing days were over, he enlisted in the armed services in the same newly formed Chemical Service as Ty Cobb. Accidentally gassed while serving, Mathewson developed tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually take his life at the young age of 45.

Mathewson played his last game in 1916, ironically enough in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. The Giants honor him among their retired numbers with his name and old NY logo hanging at AT&T. Cooperstown proudly displays his plaque, naming him the greatest of all the great pitchers in the 20th century’s first quarter. His stats and accomplishments are preserved in baseballs record books forever. Fans can read them over and relive the feats he provided fans in the past. Players can look them up and know what ‘greatness’ means and try their best to live up to the precedent he set.

Good luck, modern-day ballplayers. You’re going to need it. As for the other ‘Fab Five’? Black socks, baggy shorts and not one NCAA championship? They never stood a chance.

Also Born Today:

Matt Clement turns 37 today. Born in McCandless, PA, Clement pitched for the Padres, Cubs, Marlins and Red Sox. He made an All-Star appearance for Boston in 2005. For the Cubs in 2002 and 2003, he finished among the top 10 in the National League in the strike outs per nine innings pitched category.

Bob Buhl was born on this day in 1928 and passed away in 2001. From Saginaw, MI, Buhl pitched in the major leagues for the Braves, Cubs and Phillies. 1957 was his best season finishing fifth in complete games, second in winning percentage, and fourth in ERA.

Ryan Maloney is a staff writer for BaseballDigest.com, author of the popular Chicago Cubs blog titled ’Prose and Ivy, and a contributing writer to MLB.com/Entertainment.

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