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Giants Among Men
Frank Deford
August 25, 2003
Exactly 100 years ago, Christy Mathewson and John McGraw rescued the woeful New York Giants and helped make baseball the true national pastime
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August 25, 2003

Giants Among Men

Exactly 100 years ago, Christy Mathewson and John McGraw rescued the woeful New York Giants and helped make baseball the true national pastime

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By now Mathewson was referred to as Big Six. The origin of this nickname remains in doubt—perhaps it was simply that Matty was an overpowering pitcher, taller than six feet back when six feet was big. There are other, more arcane theories, but years later McGraw claimed that it was none other than he who had so dubbed Mathewson. McGraw was pretty good at naming things. It was he who called Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics white elephants (an insult that Mack eventually turned around, putting an elephant on the team's uniforms), and, in Havana, he gave a bar the famous name of Sloppy Joe's. When, in 1905, he called on Sammy Strang to bat 14 times "in the pinch," he created another term.

By now the Giants were effectively the McGraws—"imbued with all of their energetic leader's resourcefulness, gameness and aggressiveness," as one newsman wrote. This meant they were everywhere despised, the target of hurled eggs, produce, rocks and bricks. In Philadelphia the Giants took to carrying rocks in their carriages, the better to fire back at their tormentors. In Brooklyn the bleacher cranks preferred to fling spears fashioned from umbrella tips. McGraw loved it. As best he could, he had reconstituted his old team from his Baltimore days, when he had been, according to a Georgia newspaper, "a rough, unruly man, who is constantly playing dirty ball.... He adopts every low and contemptible method that his erratic brain can conceive to win a play by a dirty trick."

Even that impeccable Christian gentleman Mr. Mathewson sometimes fell under the McGravian spell. In April 1905, before a crowd of 20,000 in Philadelphia, a near riot broke out, and as the Giants were mobbed, Matty knocked down a young lemonade vendor. He split the lad's lip, loosening some teeth. The Sporting News quoted a shocked Philadelphian who saw in this act the very Fall of Man: "It's just to show that his association with the old Baltimore crowd had made a hoodlum of [even Mathewson]."

But then, as Doyle observed, "Matty was no namby-pamby." Certainly he was never averse to brushing back hitters.

When the Giants prepared for their first Series, Muggsy tabbed Matty to start the opener against Mack's Athletics on Monday, Oct. 9. Days of the week in America then were called by the appointed household chores. Monday was for laundry. And in a way, big-time American team sports as we know them may be dated from this Washing Day.

McGraw, who enjoyed changing the Giants' uniforms, had decked his men out in black, with white lettering. As befitted the age, odds were openly discussed, and there was even considerable speculation that the southpaw Rube Waddell, the Athletics' ace, had not really injured his shoulder clowning around, as reported, but had been reached by gamblers. Anyway, even without Wad-dell, McGraw got $400 down at even odds. Although the Series winners were granted 75% of the players' share, various A's and Giants paired up and agreed to split their prize money down the middle.

And now: Time for the game! Gentleman Jim Corbett, the ex-heavyweight champeen, came out with Roger Bresnahan, the Giants' wily catcher, waving an Irish flag. Then, at home plate, Connie Mack, the A's gaunt, ascetic manager, presented a delighted McGraw with a small white elephant to commemorate his famous remark of three seasons past. It was something of a peace offering from the new league, and McGraw wowed the enemy crowd by accepting at his most theatrical, bowing deeply, sweeping his cap low and then dancing a little Irish jig. Play ball!

Alas, for the home crowd the game was anticlimactic. Matty shut up the Philly fans by shutting out the A's 3-0 on four hits. Back in New York, where the cranks "watched" the game on large blackboards that posted the action relayed via telegraph ticker, cheers for Matty rent the air. Thirty thousand made their way up to the Polo Grounds the next day, Tuesday—Ironing Day—to see the Iron Man, McGinnity, take on Chief Bender. The A's turned the tables as the Chief pitched a 3-0 shutout, and back the Series went to Philadelphia.

Although Mathewson had had only two days' rest, and this Thursday—Market Day—was raw and cold, McGraw sent him back to the mound. This game was a rout, 9-0, as Matty whitewashed the home nine again. On Friday, Cleaning Day, back at the Polo Grounds, McGinnity pitched yet another shutout, 1-0, giving the Giants a 3-1 Series lead. "Goose eggs are becoming as staple an item of Father Penn's diet as scrapple," the Sun observed smugly.

Pressing his advantage, McGraw called on Matty again the next afternoon, Saturday. It was Mathewson's third start in six days, and he had to face Bender. The throng that spilled over Coogan's Bluff, filling the Polo Grounds, came loaded for bear. "Clinch it today, Mac," the crowd screamed at McGraw when he ambled onto the field before the game. "Nothing but the championship!"

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