Considered the first great pitcher of the modern era, Christopher “Christy” Mathewson was born in Factoryville, Pennsylvania on August 12, 1880, the oldest of six children of Minerva (née Capwell) and Gilbert Mathewson. He attended high school at Keystone Academy, and then college at Bucknell University. At Bucknell, Mathewson served as class president, played on the school’s football and baseball teams, and he was also a member of the fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta.
In 1895, when Mathewson was fourteen years old, the manager of the Factoryville ball club asked him to pitch in a game against a rival team in Mill City, Pennsylvania. Mathewson helped the Factoryville team to a 19-17 victory. He continued to play with semipro teams until he left for Bucknell.
At Bucknell, though Mathewson pitched for the baseball team, he was better known for his accomplishments as a football player, where he spent three years as the varsity team’s first-string fullback, punter, and drop kicker. It was also at Bucknell that Mathewson met his future wife, Jane Stoughton. After playing ball throughout his time at Bucknell, Mathewson signed his first professional baseball contract in 1899 with Taunton of the New England League. In 1900, he went on to play with Norfolk of the Virginia-North Carolina League, finishing the season with a 20-2 record.
In July of 1900, the New York Giants purchased Mathewson’s contract from Norfolk for $1,500. He appeared in six games for the Giants, compiling an 0-3 record before the Giants sent him back to Norfolk, demanding their money back in frustration. In September of that year, the Cincinnati Reds obtained Mathewson off the Norfolk roster, then traded him back to the Giants that December.
Christy Mathewson won 20 games in his first full major league season in 1901. He then posted at least 30 wins a season from 1903-05 and led the National League in strikeouts five times between 1903 and 1908. In 1908, he set a modern era record for single-season wins by an NL pitcher with 37. From 1903 to 1914, Mathewson won at least 22 games each season and led the NL in ERA five times.
In postseason play, during the 1905 World Series, Mathewson pitched three complete-game shutouts in three starts against the Athletics, giving up only 14 hits total in those three games. In 1911, the Giants won their first pennant since 1905, however they ultimately lost the 1911 World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics. Mathewson and Rube Marquard allowed two game-winning home runs to Hall of Famer Frank Baker en route to the Series loss.
The Giants captured the pennant again in 1912, facing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Though Mathewson threw three complete games in the Series and maintained an ERA below 1.00, the Giants as a team committed a number of errors, including the infamous lazy popup dropped by Fred Snodgrass in game 7, costing them the championship. Though the Giants would win 101 games in 1913, they lost the World Series that year four games to one, again to the Athletics.
Mathewson played with the Giants for seventeen years. After the 1913 season, however, both Mathewson and the Giants as a team began to decline. In 1916, Mathewson was traded back to the Reds and was named player-manager. He appeared in only one game as a pitcher for the Reds, on September 4, 1916 against the Cubs. Mathewson and the Reds won that contest, 10-8.
In his career, Mathewson posted a 373-188 record (.665 winning percentage). His career ERA was 2.13 (8th all time) and he posted 79 shutouts (3rd all time) over the course of said career. Mathewson also recorded 2,507 career strikeouts against only 848 walks.
Nicknamed the “Christian Gentleman,” Mathewson was held in high regard in his time. Mathewson was handsome, college-educated, and temperate, making him an anomaly in the rowdy world of baseball during this time period. It made him, easily, one of the most popular ballplayers of the age. “He gripped the imagination of a country that held a hundred million people and held this grip with a firmer hold than any man of his day or time,” wrote sportswriter Grantland Rice.
Late in the 1918 season, Mathewson enlisted in the United States Army for World War I. He served as a captain in the newly formed Chemical Service along with Ty Cobb. While he was in France, he was accidentally exposed to mustard gas during a chemical training exercise and subsequently developed tuberculosis. Mathewson served with the American Expeditionary Force until February 1919 and was discharged later that month. He returned to serve as an assistant coach for the Giants until 1921, but continued to battle tuberculosis the entire time.
After some time away, Mathewson attempted to return to professional baseball in 1923 when he and Giants attorney Emil Fuchs put together a syndicate that bought the Boston Braves. Initially, Mathewson was to be principal owner and team president, but his health had deteriorated so much that he turned over the presidency to Fuchs after the season. Christy Mathewson died in Saranac Lake, New York of tuberculosis on October 7, 1925. He is buried at Lewisburg Cemetery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, near Bucknell University.
In 1936, Mathewson became one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.