Monday, September 5, 2011

Flashback, September 1916: Mathewson and Brown, in a Twilight of Mound Gods

The image of Ted Williams clubbing a home run in his final at-bat remains powerful just because it is so different from the way great players normally leave the diamond. Far more typical was the 10-8 game won by the Cincinnati Reds on September 4, 1916, against the Chicago Cubs. Fans hoping for the kind of pitchers’ duels fought the decade before by the starters, the Reds’ Christy Mathewson (pictured here) and the Cubs’ Mordecai “Three-Finger" Brown, were gravely disappointed.

They would have felt far worse had they known that this would be the last time either future Hall of Famer pitched in the major leagues. It wasn’t simply that Mathewson and Brown had once pitched with skill, but with determination and heart. At a time when many baseball players were not just rough around the edges, but even borderline disreputable, these pitchers proved that character counted for something, too.

There’s a sterling post about Mathewson by Callum Hughson on the blog Mop-Up Duty. I particularly like the quote that begins the profile: “Christy Mathewson talks like a Harvard graduate, looks like an actor, acts like a businessman and impresses you as an all-around gentleman.”

It’s possible that no pitcher has dominated his league to such an extent for such a long stretch as Mathewson during his glory years with the New York Giants. Thirteen seasons of at least 20 victories each would leave him with a total of 373 wins for his entire career. Particularly noteworthy was his remarkable control, demonstrated by a ratio of three strikeouts to every walk.

“Matty” may have had his best year in 2008, when he achieved the pitcher’s equivalent of the Triple Crown, leading the National League in wins (37), strikeouts (259) and earned run average (1.43).

We come now to one of the great paradoxes of baseball: how an articulate player deemed the embodiment of the Frank Merriwell ideal of the clean-cut, handsome, noble sportsman could bond with his fiery manager, John McGraw. One quality united the two more than any other, I think: a competitive streak a mile wide. You can see it, along with his extraordinary intelligence, in an off-the-field anecdote related by Hughson: I.e., playing chess at the Pittsburgh Athletic Club against 12 opponents simultaneously--and beating them all!

A number of sources (Hughson included) points to Mathewson’s six-foot-plus frame as the reason for his nickname, “Big Six.“ I prefer an alternate explanation: that, like New York’s famous “Big Six” fire-engine company, Mathewson could end any emergency quickly.

Mathewson’s specialty was his “fadeaway,” what later generations would call a screwball. He saved it largely for tough spots, chiefly because of the wrenching effect its motion left on his arm.
The money pitch of Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown (the middle name an indicator of the year of his birth) was also painful to throw: a curveball that Ty Cobb judged “the most devastating” he ever faced. Brown, however, would grit his teeth and bear the pain to his fingers: after losing two of them in a childhood accident on the family farm, after enduring a youth spent laboring in the mines, he could withstand anything.

“Three-Finger” was the inevitable nickname given to Brown, but given his importance to the Cubs, he might more justifiably have been called “The Neutralizer.” If 2008 was Matty’s best season, so it was Brown’s, as he compiled a 27-9 record. Most amazingly, Brown had Matty’s number, winning six straight games at one point against him. And, in the game that broke Giant fans’ hearts, playing before a Polo Grounds crowd so vociferous that he and his teammates needed a police escort, he shut down Matty and the New Yorkers by getting the victory on the last game of the season.

By 1916, age had taken its toll on the two. Brown had been traded by the Cubs following an injury-plagued 1912 season, then had bounced around among the Reds and the upstart Federal League’s Chicago Whales and St. Louis Federals before returning to the Cubs to finish out the string. After his own subpar 1915 season, Matty was traded to the Reds and became their manager midway through the following year.

As manager, Mathewson inserted himself into only one game: the one against Brown, called by Lee Allen in The Cincinnati Reds “probably the most sentimental hurling duel every staged." The two starters gutted it out in going the distance, but in the modern era of middle relievers and closers, they surely would not have figured in the final score.

But Brown would beat Mathewson in a more important contest: the amount of years left alive. Mathewson’s service in World War I came to a horrifying end when he was exposed to poison gas during a training exercise in France. He died in 1925.

Brown spent much of the last two decades of his life operating a gas station—rather a different fate from the financial nirvana that today’s most mundane hurlers earn--and was dead a year by the time Cooperstown finally got around to enshrining him in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he didn't need that kind of recognition. To his teammates, he was a wonder of guile and guts.

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