August 16, 1954
Much like the fledgling magazine that featured him on its first cover, Eddie Mathews was, in the summer of 1954, young, unpolished and swinging for the fences. The season before, his second in the majors, the lefthanded-hitting Mathews had slugged a National League-high 47 home runs and driven in 135 runs for the newly relocated (from Boston) Milwaukee Braves. At 22 he was being called the next Babe Ruth. "It's funny," remembers Mathews, now retired and living with his wife, Judy, in a seaside suburb of San Diego. "When that picture was taken, I didn't think of it—or myself—as anything special. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and me, we were nuthins."
Mathews, born in Texarkana, Texas, and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., modeled his swing not after Ruth's but after Ted Williams's. "I would practice in the yard for hours," says Mathews, "with my mother pitching and my father shagging." He was all-state in baseball and football, and at 12:01 a.m. on the day after his 1949 graduation from Santa Barbara High he signed with the Braves for $6,000. He later told SI that he had studied to be a ballplayer, not "a doctor, a lawyer or an Indian chief."
The only Brave to play for the team when it was based in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta, the 6'1" Mathews, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978, and teammate Hank Aaron hit 863 home runs while they were playing together—a record for major league duos. The Milwaukee Mauler, as he was known, would finish his 17-year career with 512 home runs, a .271 average and a reputation as a clutch defensive player. His backhanded stab of a Bill Skowron scorcher for the final out of the 1957 World Series against the Yankees, which Milwaukee won in seven games, was, says Mathews, "my proudest moment."
There have been low points, and not just the final day of 1966 when, seven home runs from 500, Mathews was traded to the Houston Astros. (He completed his career in '68 as a pinch hitter for the world champion Detroit Tigers.) He has survived a pelvis-shattering boating accident and a bout with throat cancer. "I walk like a crab and talk like a frog," says Mathews, 68, who managed Atlanta from '72 to '74 and worked for 15 years as a scout and batting instructor. Day-tripping in the family RV—he has three children and eight grandkids—growing his own vegetables and suffering the hometown Padres now fill his days. "But I work out three times a week," he says, "and I'm fighting like hell to feel good again."
Brave words, from an original.