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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Christy Mathewson and His Brothers: A Story of What Might Have Been

Right-handed pitcher Christy Mathewson was one of the greatest hurlers of all time, starring for the New York Giants for nearly 16 years in the early part of last century. He is still third all-time in wins with 373, and perhaps the greatest postseason pitcher who ever lived, posting a 0.97 ERA and completing 10 of his 11 Fall Classic starts. He also had two younger brothers who were also quite accomplished as pitchers. Sadly, neither attained the baseball success of their big brother, and through separate twists of tragic fate, both died way too young.

If everything had gone according to expectations, Christy might not have even been the best pitcher among the Mathewson boys. Two of his younger brothers, Henry (also known as Hank) and Nicholas, were both stars during their prep careers, and perhaps only circumstance prevented them from attaining the success of their big brother.

Christy rose to the major leagues following a stellar career at Bucknell University. Six years his junior, Henry followed him to the same alma mater, graduating around 1906. His proud older brother was exuberant, stating, “He now has as much speed as I had when I broke into the game. He has control and a splendid assortment of curves. All he wants is experience, and with that I am sure he will develop into a star.”

Hoping to double down on their Mathewson good fortune, the Giants signed the college lad to a deal in January, 1906. He had a rather dubious start to his professional career. Christy came down with a case of diphtheria so severe it nearly killed him, and Henry knocked out several of catcher and future Hall-of-Famer Roger Bresnahan’s teeth during warm-ups prior to a spring training game when he accidentally let go of his bat while taking practice swings.  

Realizing that he was raw, the Giants handled Henry with kid gloves for much of 1906, having him just practice with the team in New York and allowing him to occasionally pitch for local independent teams.

Giants’ skipper John McGraw was optimistic but reasonable when discussing the prospect with the press. “Henry has learned a lot about the pitching game and by next spring will be ready to make his appearance in fast society as a promising debutante. I would not say that he is going to be as great a pitcher as brother Matty, but from the form he has shown us so far, I feel I am justified in predicting that he will win more games than some of the twirlers who now are posing as stars.”

Despite the initial announcement that his debut would be held back until 1907, Henry joined the big club by the end of the 1906 season, impressing in his first game by tossing a scoreless inning to earn a save. However, his next game would tarnish his baseball reputation forever and define his career.

On October 5th, Henry made what would be his lone major league start, facing Boston Beaneaters the last game of the year. Although the Giants had won an impressive 96 games, they were eons behind that year’s National League pennant winner, the Chicago Cubs, who finished with 116 victories and a 20-game cushion. With nothing at stake, fewer than 400 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to see the hometown team off for the year. By the end of the afternoon, most of them probably regretted coming out.

Perhaps wanting to see what the young Mathewson was made of, McGraw let the young hurler pitch the entire game. It wasn’t pretty, as he gave up seven runs, largely on the back of the 14 walks he issued (then a major league record). This was no ordinary squad he was facing either. Boston was ,to put it quite plainly, putrid. Even with the win, they finished dead last with an abominable 49-102 record, and also brought up the rear of the league in team batting average, runs scored and ironically, walks drawn.

For all intents and purposes, that miserable start marked the beginning of the end for Henry’s career. He pitched one scoreless frame for the Giants the following year and played in a few minor league games over years but that was it. McGraw later quipped, “Pitching talent was hardly an inherited Mathewson characteristic.”

Not surprisingly, Christy later defended his brother against those who were disappointed with his career. “He was brought up before he was ready because I got the diphtheria at the start of the ‘06 season. The Giants’ management thought they could sell tickets if there was still a Mathewson pitching at the Polo Grounds. But they should have waited. It cost them a good ballplayer. Hank just wasn’t ready.”

By 1917, Henry developed tuberculosis and was living in Arizona in an attempt to benefit from the dry air. In what proved to be a bad choice, he went back east to Pennsylvania that summer to visit his parents. Sadly, he died on July 1st from his health complications, just 30 years old. The Mathewson brothers combined 373 wins (all by Christy) still rank fifth all-time among baseball pitcher siblings. If not for one wild day by Henry, who knows how high that total might have been.

Adding to the speculation of what heights the Mathewsons might have reached in baseball might is Nicholas. The youngest of the three, he very well may have been the greatest hurler of them all. He never lost a game during his high school career with Keystone Academy, and went unscored upon during his senior season.

During Christmas of Nick’s senior year, the Mathewson household was visited by Hughie Jennings, the manager of the Detroit Tigers, and an acquaintance of Christy (who was also on hand for the holidays). The skipper offered the youngest Mathewson pitcher a $3,000 contract to sign. By all accounts, the youngster was so gung-ho to start his professional career and play with the likes of Ty Cobb that he would have signed for less. Despite Jennings’ promise to keep Nick tied to the bench during his first year while learning the finer points of the game, his father Gilbert and Christy were opposed to him giving up his schooling and wouldn’t permit him to ink a contract.

Christy had always regretted leaving Bucknell early to join the Giants, later writing, “I would advise a boy who has exceptional ability as a ballplayer to sign no contracts and to take no money until he has finished college.” Both he and his father believed baseball would still be there for Nick once he graduated, but if he went immediately into baseball, he would never return to his education.

Nick begrudgingly obeyed the will of his family and went off to college but returned home in January, 1909, complaining of feeling ill and tired—all seemingly classic signs of depression. On the surface, he was doing well—pitching for the school’s varsity team as a freshman, and planning on playing for Nashville of the Southern League later that summer. However, he felt uneasy and was particularly concerned with falling behind at school. On January 15th, he told his family he was going out to tend to some horses, and climbed up to the hay loft of a neighbor’s barn, wrote a brief note and shot himself in the head with a pistol. He was found by Henry, who carried him home and summoned a doctor. Unfortunately, it was too late and he died the next morning in the hospital. He was only 19 years old.

Although Christy achieved baseball immortality, he also suffered a similarly sad fate as Henry and Nick. After surviving 17 major league seasons and service overseas during World War I, he succumbed at the age of 45 from the effects of gas poisoning he had suffered in battle.

The Mathewson brothers were a combination of talent and tragedy. Baseball has never seen anything like them before and likely never will again. It’s impossible to predict what may have happened if they managed to avoid some of the bad breaks that wound up determining their fates but they will always be a prime example of what might have been.

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1 comment:

  1. I've read the original news articles about Henry and Nicholas, but I've never seen anyone write about them online. The story about Nicholas is something I've never heard any of my baseball friends talk about. Fantastic post!