By T.S. O’Connell
Sports Collectors Digest’s Hobby Royalty Series continues with Christy Mathewson.
Appearing in the August 28 issue of SCD will be Joe Jackson.
My connection to Christy Mathewson is a bit unconventional. I lived in the same town where he died, Saranac Lake, N.Y., and did my banking at the same bank that he did. I even interviewed an old guy who remembered him from the days that Mathewson visited the barber shop in the tiny Adirondack Village. He spoke most frequently about the great pitcher’s unmatched skill at checkers rather than recalling his baseball exploits.
Like so many legendary ballplayers or public figures who died young, the memories that endure tend be more romanticized and untarnished by all of the pedestrian stuff that usually accompanies aging and time out of the limelight. Mathewson seems to be vividly remembered as the heroic member of the first class of Hall of Fame inductees, the only one of the first five who didn’t live to see his plaque installed.
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That early demise and his almost mythical backstory combined to make Mathewson a powerful figure in our hobby. Blessed to have been featured in most of the major early tobacco issues, he was a favorite in the card hobby in the years before the true value of memorabilia took full flower. He appears on virtually all of the classic T cards from the era, the E cards and in the famed Cracker Jack issues of 1914-15. Advertising display pieces (shown here) from the period capitalized on the fame of the great left-hander, arguably the most beloved ballplayer in America.
Perhaps the pre-eminent college-educated, turn-of-the-century ballplayer, he was the subject of countless books and pulp magazines, a player celebrated as no other, with the expanse and breadth of his deeds elevated to the stuff of lore and legend as much as admittedly extraordinary talents on the field. He would have been immortalized simply for things like 372 wins, 2.13 lifetime ERA, 80 shutouts and 12 consecutive seasons of no fewer than 22 wins (and four times topping 30), but all the sanitized literary balderdash only served to make him more of a figure from folklore as much as from the Baseball Encyclopedia.
He won 20 games in his first full season in 1901, then went 14-17 the next year despite lowering his ERA by a third of a run to 2.11 and leading the National League in shutouts with 8. Those would turn out to be something of a specialty at a time when the major league game was much more focused on pitching and the home run was essentially pooh-poohed by the great minds of the game like Mathewson’s manager, John McGraw. In a pitching performance often regarded as the greatest postseason effort in history, Mathewson threw three shutouts in the 1905 World Series as the Giants thumped the Athletics in five games.
Trying to sort out the numbers is an arduous task, in part because what he accomplished was so far beyond what modern fans can comprehend that they lose some of their impact. What we don’t understand we tend to dismiss out of hand. Like averaging 31 wins for three straight seasons, or going 37-11 with a 1.43 ERA and a dozen shutouts in his finest season in 1908.
His iconic status was unrivaled at the time, lending him a credibility and stature perhaps not rivaled by anyone in the game. His persona was reportedly much different than the idealized versions presented in the various books and pulp magazines; he was occasionally charged with being aloof and unapproachable, but the people I talked with in Saranac Lake remembered him fondly and with a reverence that might more traditionally have been reserved for heads of state or popes.
According to the BaseballLibrary.com, Mathewson lent his considerable prestige to the ill-fated effort to create a players union in 1912, with grievances from the on-field talent contributing to defections to the short-lived Federal League in 1914-15.
Mathewson also once suspended now-legendary miscreant Hal Chase for the euphemistically exquisite “indifferent play,” and was also one of the few players to express publicly that he thought that the 1919 World Series had been dumped by the White Sox.
Matty pitched for the Giants until 1916, then was traded to the Reds along with fellow Hall of Famer Edd Roush, where he notched one more win and then managed the team from 1916-18.
The dashing Mathewson then dashed off to enlist as a captain in the Army. Accidentally gassed during training in France, he would later develop the tuberculosis that would send him up to Saranac Lake for the last three years of his life.
And I’ll toss out one more tidbit that is hardly news to folks living in the Adirondacks or even serious Christy Mathewson fans. When he first came to the Upstate New York village, he stayed at the Trudeau Sanitorium, named after Dr. Edward Trudeau, the grandfather of the famed cartoonist and political satirist, Garry Trudeau. Later, Mathewson would build his own “cure cottage” in the village, where he died in 1925 at age 45.
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It’s hardly a surprise that his status among hobbyists is similarly breathtaking. Noted autograph expert Ron Keurajian described the situation neatly in a 2004 column in SCD. “Christy Mathewson is one of the most desired signatures in all of baseball. Only Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth have a bigger following. Matty’s signature is a treasured and priceless jewel of the grand old game.”
Well, maybe not priceless, since there are those who are willing and able to put a price on it, but it’s truly for those able to swim in the deep end of the pool. As the chart on the facing page suggests, anything with his signature is pricey indeed. “I remember buying a 1903 New York Giants payroll check endorsed on the back by Mathewson. I paid $700 for it years ago. At that time I thought I had overpaid, but today that price is a steal.”
Steals involving Christy Mathewson are no more.