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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, December 22, 2003
Baseball Primer Reviews: The Player: Christy Mathewson, Baseball, and the American Century
Mark reviews Philip Seib’s book about Christy Mathewson and society at large.
Philip Seib teaches journalistic ethics at Marquette University. He describes himself as a Washington Senators fan, which certainly should give him the character to qualify for his profession. The Player, a biography of Christy Mathewson, appears to be his first baseball book. Seib had expert assistance in writing it - his list of acknowledgments includes Eric Enders.
Seib shows no interest in statistical analysis or even statistics, though he apparently has read the BJHBA (he quotes James on an historical point). He mentions only a few traditional stats (BA, ERA, W/L), and then only in passing. I think it fair to say that baseball itself is mostly a backdrop for the real purpose of the book: providing a moral lesson with Mathewson as the exemplar. Seib says in the Preface that he “was drawn to [Mathewson’s] story partly because today sportsmanship is becoming obsolete, replaced by taunting, showboating and worse. Being a sports star used to be accompanied by a sense of responsibility to team and fans, but many of today’s athletes don’t want to be role models…. That’s a shame. We could use some more heroes….”
Mathewson certainly is a good choice for this role. He was widely praised during his career (1900-16) for embodying “manly” virtues of fair play, hard competition, and honesty. Here’s the New York Herald as quoted by Seib: “[T]he qualities of character Mathewson displayed outside of his professional skill were widely recognized. ... The simplicity and genuineness of his disposition, his unaffected candor, his natural devotion to clean living, and his high conception of right conduct enabled him to impress the desirability of manly virtues and fine ideals on many youngsters.” This tribute fairly encapsulates Seib’s thesis.
That thesis leads him beyond the confines of baseball in order to put Mathewson in the overall context of his times. How many other baseball biographies list such authors as Philip Bobbitt, Herbert Croly, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Keegan alongside Lawrence Ritter, Fred Lieb and Charles Alexander in the bibliography? While Seib does provide highlights of Mathewson’s career and insights into Mathewson’s theories about pitching - he believed control and a good curve were a pitcher’s best weapons - Seib clearly enjoys the opportunity to discuss the social life of America in those years. The book is well worth the read for that alone, though I didn’t always agree with Seib’s social or political analysis
I’m a big Giants fan and I knew quite a bit about Mathewson before reading this book. Seib provides new and interesting material on Mathewson’s early years. Mathewson was unusual in those days in coming to baseball from a prosperous family and in being college educated (though he didn’t graduate). His mother wanted him to be a Baptist preacher, and Seib says Mathewson promised her that he would never pitch on Sunday. Whether this provides a moral example is not entirely clear. Keeping a promise to one’s mother surely shows good character, but refusing to play on Sundays deprived working people and those who worshipped on other days the opportunity to see Mathewson play. To their credit, Seib and Mathewson both recognized the dilemma here.
Seib and Mathewson showed less interest in another issue, though. “In addition to pitching for the college team, [Mathewson] continued to make money at the game. The rules governing collegiate amateurs were loose enough to allow Christy to play for pay during the summers.” This might be true, but it seems inconsistent with what I remember of the Jim Thorpe situation.
Seib claims for Mathewson two significant moral effects on the game. Baseball in the 1890s was a rowdy sport and the players were widely perceived as ruffians. Mathewson was the perfect contrast for a sport trying to improve its image. He didn’t carouse, he didn’t fight, he rarely even argued with the umpires. He maintained his dignity while still competing as strongly as anyone. He was the biggest star in the biggest city, playing for one of the three best teams in the league at that time.
Unfortunately, Seib tellsthis more than he shows it. When he does provide an example, it’s problematic. For example, Mathewson was coaching first base when the Merkle play occurred (a new fact for me). Seib says that in the following controversy, Mathewson’s affidavit admitting that Merkle failed to touch second was the deciding factor in the denial of the Giants’ appeal.
It has been awhile since I read the Merkle appeal affidavits, but Seib’s description is inconsistent with my memory of the issues. The big issue was not whether Merkle touched second, but whether under all the circumstances - lack of prior enforcement, fan interference, delayed call - the rule should have been enforced in this case.
Seib has stronger, but still problematic, grounds for crediting Mathewson with opposition to the gambling which threatened to destroy the integrity of baseball in the years up to and including 1919. When Mathewson’s playing career ended, he became the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. While there, Mathewson had the misfortune to manage Hal Chase. Chase may not have been the great talent that Seib claims, but he did have his best season for Mathewson in 1916, leading the league in OPS+ and being widely recognized as an unparalleled defensive first baseman.
Despite Chase’s seemingly great year, Mathewson realized that Chase was corrupt. He gathered evidence of gambling and bribery and took it to the league office. Unfortunately, the NL President, John Heydler, worried that the evidence wouldn’t stand up in court and refused to discipline Chase. This failure to take advantage of an opportunity to clean up the game may not have caused the Black Sox scandal, but it certainly perpetuated the conditions in which it could occur.
Chase continued to play for Mathewson, awkward though it must have been, until Mathewson volunteered for service in World War I. He got to Europe in September 1918, but wasn’t discharged until February 1919. The uncertainty over Mathewson’s return forced the Reds to hire Pat Moran as replacement manager, so Mathewson took a job coaching with the Giants. Ironically, during the winter McGraw traded for Chase, a deal that led the Reds to the Series in 1919 and forced Mathewson to deal with Chase for yet another year.
The Chase trade was peculiar, to say the least. McGraw knew of the allegations made by Mathewson and Mathewson was like a son to McGraw—the two shared an apartment in NY and their wives were best friends. Seib offers no explanation for the deal except that McGraw “thought he could control” Chase and needed him to win (?!). Whatever this may say of McGraw, or of Mathewson for failing to force the issue, McGraw eventually realized that Chase and another Giants player, Heinie Zimmerman, were crooked. Both were later banned for life.
Mathewson may deserve less credit than Seib gives him, but there is no doubt he stood publicly on the right side of 2 very important issues facing baseball in the early 20th Century. But since Seib is writing an avowed morality tale, it’s also fair to ask if there were other moral issues facing the game in those days on which Mathewson could or should have made a stand.
There were, of course. The players may have gambled, but the owners also behaved despicably. Mathewson’s own career began under the shadiest of them all, Andrew Freedman, and Mathewson was an unwitting participant in a smelly transaction. Mathewson pitched for Norfolk when the Giants first scouted him. The Giants offered Norfolk $1500 for Mathewson. The purchase price, however, was contingent on Mathewson sticking with the Giants. He didn’t pitch very well, and the Giants returned him to Norfolk without paying the $1500. What happened next exemplifies the behavior of the times. Over the winter of 1901, Cincinnati bought Mathewson from Norfolk for $300. They then traded him to NY for aging star Amos Rusie. The deal has all the aspects of a fraud: Rusie was finished as a player (he hadn’t even pitched in 2 full years and appeared in only 3 games for Cincinnati), and Freedman was obviously cheating Norfolk out of $1200. To make matters worse, the owner of Cincinnati was John T. Brush, who 2 years later bought the Giants, including Mathewson, from Freedman. Nowhere in the book does Seib or Mathewson comment on this or other corrupt or abusive behavior by baseball’s owners, some well-known instances of which were perpetrated by Brush and McGraw.
All this pales in comparison, however, to the real scandal of the day: baseball’s ban on players of color. The ban was less than 20 years old when Mathewson joined the Giants. McGraw, to his credit, tried to circumvent the ban. Seib says Mathewson never publicly addressed racial issues, though they must have come up when McGraw tried to pass off a black man as Native American. Since Mathewson was silent on this subject, Seib mentions it only in passing, which is fair enough…...
Except that Seib repeatedly praises Woodrow Wilson for his idealism, directly comparing Wilson’s idealism to Mathewson’s character:
“Wilson’s persistent idealism legitimized the views of others who embraced a high-minded approach to personal standards. ... Twenty years earlier, professional sports and idealism would not have been a good match. Mathewson would have beena lonely champion of sportsmanship and of the compatibility of baseball and personal virtue. But in Woodrow Wilson’s America, principle mattered, and Mathewson was in the mainstream. Wilson’s pledge ‘to cleanse, to reconsider, to restore’ and his insistence on a ‘high code of honor’ found an acolyte in Mathewson, who set his own work ethic and personal code on the highest plane.”
Woodrow Wilson was the most racist President of the 20th Century. Character has many facets.
I’ve never understood the claim that someone has “Character”. The only assertion that makes sense to me is that someone acted rightly in a particular situation. Specific actions make good examples; individuals considered as a whole - messy, complex, contradictory - may not. The search for heroes, rather than heroic actions, leads eventually to disappointment when, inevitably, a flaw appears in even the best person.
Mathewson died young, of tuberculosis. He spent his last few years at Saranac Lake in New York, a famous sanatorium founded by the great grandfather of Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau. His record alone reserves his place as one of the greatest pitchers ever. Whether he was, as Seib claims, a “transforming presence” in “wider realms of American life” is up to the reader to judge.
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