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.
I have observed that baseball is not unlike war, and when you get right down to it, we batters are the heavy artillery.
The Third Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns explores the game during the 1910s. This disc opens with a discussion of fan involvement, and how the setup of the field during this time period gave fans a greater amount of influence in the events of the game. Fans often spectated standing in foul territory or directly on the field behind the outfielders, allowing them not only to yell at players more effectively, but also to potentially become physically involved in some plays. And it wasn’t just fans rooting for their teams who sought to influence the outcome of games. Gamblers during this time period were heavily involved in the sport.
Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics dominated the first half of the decade. Meanwhile, the saga of Ty Cobb continues, from his 1910 race for the batting title against Nap Lajoie to Cobb’s suspension from organized baseball for beating the snot out of a fan in 1912.
Buck O’Neil, who has contributed to the commentary of the documentary series in the first two innings, was born in 1911, and now discusses his experience with baseball as a boy. Baseball’s “gentleman’s agreement,” however, continued to exclude black players from the game, though teams at times undermined this agreement with light-skinned minority players.
The 1912 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants became an unusual eight-game Series when the second game was called due to “impending darkness.” Game eight of this Series was the one in which Fred Snodgrass dropped an easy fly ball, which allowed hitter Red Sox Clyde Engle to make it all the way to second. Engle would later score, tying the game at 2-2, and Red Sox went on to first load the bases, then score the winning run. Poor Snodgrass joined the ranks of dubious fame with Fred Merkle as a result.
The clouds of scandal appear early with the figure of Hal Chase. His willingness to throw games was so well-known that even fans took to chanting, “What’s the odds,” whenever Chase took the field. Players throughout baseball expressed their own discontent with the reserve clause and the complete control of owners over their contracts. The formation of the Federal League attempted to address this discontent in promising players the opportunity for free agency. The new league only lasted two seasons, however, and the players found themselves still without a voice.
On this disc, we meet pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, and we see more of the progression of Branch Rickey’s baseball career. The 1916 World Series went to the Boston Red Sox over the Brooklyn Superbas. The 1917 Series went to the Chicago White Sox over the New York Giants, then Boston returned to win the 1918 Series, this time over the Cubs. When World War I broke out, Major League Baseball as a whole seemingly turned a blind eye. Some players did serve during the war, including Grover Alexander, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson, and Branch Rickey joined the effort as well.
The last half hour of the Third Inning went into detail covering the 1919 Black Sox scandal. I particularly found it fascinating that Burns managed to find a Chicago fan who had been fifteen years old at the time of the scandal. This fan recalled his disbelief that the White Sox had managed to lose the Series, being too young to understand the world of gambling at the time. His shock and disappointment no doubt reflected the feeling of baseball fans everywhere at the time. Though as Buck O’Neil describes at the very end of this disc, while the scandal turned a lot of folks away from the game at the time, it wouldn’t be long before a new hero would draw them back — a man named Babe Ruth.
During World War I, the Cincinnati Reds found themselves unable to get in touch with their manager, Christy Mathewson, who was in France serving in the Army. Thus, on January 30, 1919, the Reds hired former Phillies manager Pat Moran to fill the role. Moran led Cincinnati to a World Series Championship that season (albeit, a somewhat dubious one, given the Black Sox scandal).
World War I broke out in late-July 1914, following the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, though it was not until April 1917 that the United States officially entered the war. America had remained neutral in the conflict, at least until German U-boats began to strike at ships with Americans passengers on them. In retaliation, the United States declared war on Germany mere days before the start of the 1917 baseball season.
As the war raged on, Major League Baseball proceeded with its full schedule, in spite of the fact that most minor leagues shut down for the season. Very few professional players joined the military at first, either through the draft or through voluntary enlistment. This, unsurprisingly, did not sit too well with the American public. Even as owners donated money to the war cause and gathered up baseball gear for soldier recreation, the public demanded greater sacrifices from organized baseball. In response, owners cut down on team travel, reduced the 1918 schedule from 154 games to 140, and trimmed player salaries. When the criticism continued, owners answered with the insistence that baseball played a role as the national pastime. Its contribution to the war effort, they claimed, was in its ability to keep American spirits high.
Early in the 1918 season, however, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that being a baseball player was a non-essential occupation to the war effort. Furthermore, all draft-eligible men employed in “non-essential” occupations were required to apply for work directly related to the war or take a chance on being called into military service. Baseball owners managed to delay the “work or fight” requirement until the end of the season on September 1st, and continued fighting in order to gain a longer reprieve for World Series participants. In spite of its misgivings, the government relented.
Nevertheless, an average of fifteen players per team found themselves drafted or chose to
enlist prior to the deadline. All teams, as a result, sought out replacements, who were often younger, less experienced, and less talented. As the quality of play deteriorated, so did fan attendance in stadiums. The 1918 World Series ended up being a match up between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It remains the only World Series to be played entirely in September (running from the 5th to the 11th), due to the premature end of the regular season, and a number of players threatened to strike due to low attendance.
Game 1 of the 1918 World Series became the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed at a Major League game. Thanks to the war effort, no doubt, baseball seemed eager to continue to prove its patriotic contribution to the cause. (“The Star-Spangled Banner” would become the national anthem in 1931.) The Red Sox went on to win the Series, four games to two, led by a young pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth.
Meanwhile, in Europe, players who found themselves participating in the war had a not-so-enjoyable experience. Grover Alexander, considered to be one of the top pitchers of the time period, suffered from loss of hearing, shell shock, and would later develop epilepsy. He would later be driven to alcohol abuse, as a result of his experiences during the war. Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson were part of a gas defense drill that turned out very badly when a number of soldiers missed the signal to put their gas masks in place. Ty Cobb managed to escape unharmed, but Mathewson inhaled a considerable amount of poison gas. His health deteriorated over time, and Mathewson died of tuberculosis seven years later. Also among those sent to Europe were George Sisler and Branch Rickey. In total, an estimated two hundred and fifty ballplayers ended up serving in the military, while others joined the reserves or found war-related work.
If the war continued into 1919, rumor had it, owners would be forced to cancel the 1919 season altogether. Fortunately for baseball, however, Germany formally surrendered on November 11, 1918, thus ending the First World War.
It seemed like it was back to business as usual for baseball. However, the 1919 season would prove in phenomenal fashion that this was hardly the case. While baseball managed to continue limping along during the war, the racetracks had been forced to shut down entirely. As a result, gambling in baseball skyrocketed. This, combined with the efforts of owners to recoup loss funds as a result of the war, would set off a domino effect that resulted in a metaphorical explosion by the end of 1919.
The Dead Ball Era, as the name suggests, was a period in baseball history characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs. This age in baseball began in 1900 and lasted until Babe Ruth came onto the scene as a power hitter in 1919. Prior to Ruth, the game was more strategy-driven, featuring hit-and-run plays and base-stealing over hitting for power. In 1908, the lowest-scoring year, teams averaged only 3.4 runs per game. “Small ball,” as it’s known today, relied more on speed and quickness than on brute strength. Players like “Smoky” Joe Wood, Eddie Collins, and Sam Crawford flourished during this time.
Many baseball fields of the age were much larger than modern ballparks. Chicago’s West Side Grounds, for example, measured 560 feet to the center field fence. Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston measured 635 feet to the center field fence. By comparison, most ballparks today don’t measure much more than the requisite 400 feet to dead center, which makes a huge difference for a player’s ability to swing for the fences.
The state of the baseball throughout the game also contributed to the lack of home runs. The same ball was used throughout the game — unlike today, when even a tiny smudge on a ball calls for a new replacement. As the game would go on, the ball would become dirtier and dirtier, making it more difficult for hitters to see and hit. No doubt the extra dirt also contributed to the dynamics of the baseball’s movement.
Speaking of which, during the Dead Ball Era, pitcher could still legally throw a spitball. “Doctoring” the baseball in this way would alter the physics of the flight of the pitch, causing it to break or move in unexpected ways and making it more difficult to hit. Naturally, pitchers took advantage of this concession. And it wasn’t just the spitball: the emery ball, shine ball, mud ball, so on and so forth. Got any creative ideas for defacing a baseball? Give it a whirl and see what it does! The umpires won’t stop you.
On top of low-scoring contests, during these years, professional baseball also experienced turbulence through the births of baseball organizations outside of the National League. In 1900, the American League, which had been a minor league prior to this year, declared itself a Major League. Refusing to continuing recognition of the terms of the National Agreement, the AL now moved teams into cities already claimed by the NL, such as Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. By 1902, the NL realized it would be better off accepting the American League, rather than fighting against it. A three-man National Commission was created to resolve the disagreements between the two leagues. Major League Baseball prospered and the World Series was born.
The birth of the Federal League in 1913 threatened this new-found prosperity. It launched an anti-trust lawsuit against the AL and the NL, which drained the two leagues of resources. Like the AL before it, the FL moved into already-established Major League territory, seeking to carve out its own place in Major League Baseball. In the end, however, the level of play in the FL did not match that of the other two leagues, and FL teams merged into the other Major Leagues.
The outbreak of World War I also proved detrimental to baseball. Baseball became viewed as a frivolous, non-essential activity, and seasons were shortened due to the wartime atmosphere. Attendance at ballgames dropped and the leagues lost money. The resulting drop in player salaries made them more susceptible to the promises of gambling, and created an environment in which things like the Black Sox scandal could take place.
The end of the Dead Ball Era came with the end of the factors that contributed to its existence in the first place. The elimination of the spitball in 1920 had a profound effect on players’ ability to hit the ball, as pitches became less lively. The death of Ray Chapman in August 1920 changed the rule about the same baseball being used throughout a game, and clean baseballs became a staple in order to ensure the safety of players. Naturally, clean baseballs were also easier to hit.
Additionally, the rise of Babe Ruth as a power hitter resulted in a change of attitudes in baseball. Ruth proved that a man could be successful in baseball by hitting home runs, and that the game was no longer restricted to “small ball” play. From 1900 until Ruth’s emergence, there were 13 seasons in which the league leader in home runs collected fewer than ten dingers. In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs — a league record. Other players followed his lead, and baseball scores steadily increased as the years went on.
Frankly, the title “Dead Ball Era” seems a bit unfair to me. In today’s game, fans have come to expect home runs. If a player isn’t at least collecting extra-base hits on a regular basis, he receives little or no recognition. However, it seems that a game driven by strategy would be much more captivating than the slug fests of today’s contests. Bunting, the hit-and-run, and base stealing would have their due as meaningful parts of the artistry of a baseball game. Baseball would be more like a chess match and less of a display of muscle and power. Furthermore, because they were so rare during the Dead Ball Era, home runs, when they did happen, were surround by a greater sense of excitement than they are today.
“1900-1919: The Dead Ball Era.” Historic Baseball: Bringing Baseball History to Center Field. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://www.historicbaseball.com/fea/era_deadball.html
“Deadball Era.” Baseball Reference. Sports Reference, LLC, 2013. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Deadball_Era
“The Faces and Voices of Baseball’s Deadball Era.” World News, Inc., 2014. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://wn.com/dead-ball_era
Hannon, Tom. “The Dead Ball Era.” The Baseball Page, 2012. Web. Accessed 24 February 2014. http://www.thebaseballpage.com/history/dead-ball-era