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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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Perhaps because the McGraws were childless, baseball was Muggsy's family. It was only when he reached the bigs at Baltimore in '91 that he found something of what Matty had been born to. Muggsy adored his manager, Ned Hanlon, and his teammates, even when he scrapped with them. Baltimore truly was his first home. It was there that he found the horse races, found friends for life and fell in love. Even after all his years in New York, Baltimore was where he would choose to be buried.

But always with McGraw, there was trauma and tragedy. In '95, when he turned 22, he contracted malaria, and the next year he almost died from typhoid fever, his weight skidding from 157 to 118. Ah, but when he was recuperating, he received a letter with compressed flowers from a pretty Baltimore lass named Minnie Doyle. When he regained his health, Muggsy started courting in earnest, and he and Minnie were married on Feb. 3, 1897. The happy couple honeymooned at Niagara Falls. Only two years later, during McGraw's first season as manager, the Orioles were in Louisville when Muggsy received a telegram that Minnie was "seriously ill." Her appendix had burst, and she had undergone surgery. Rushing home, he learned that Minnie had contracted peritonitis and blood poisoning, and there was nothing that the doctors could do. Muggsy sat by her bed, holding her hand, all her last day and last night. She died on Aug. 31, five days after the surgery. Minnie McGraw was buried in her wedding gown. The Orioles were the pallbearers.

The young widower was devastated. It was not until Sept. 11 that he returned to the coach's box. His friends noticed gray hairs on him. John McGraw was only 26, the toughest ballplayer in all this favored land, but disease had already taken his mother, most of his brothers and sisters and now his young bride.

Seven years later, in 1906, as the Giants proudly wended their way north from spring training wearing McGraw's new uniforms with WORLD'S CHAMPIONS stitched across their chests, Mathewson came down with what he thought was a bad cold. Only it turned out to be diphtheria, which had wiped out most of McGraw's family. Muggsy was beside himself. It did not seem possible. Not again. But this one time he was spared. Big Six recovered and was back on the mound by the middle of May.

It was, though, as if some score was being settled with Matty: After a young life of unfettered success and joy, he must endure commensurate loss and sadness. Three years later, in January 1909, Matty was visiting in Factoryville. His youngest brother, 19-year-old Nicholas, was, like Matty and the middle brother, Henry, a pitcher. Why, there were some who thought Nicholas could be better than Matty. Nicholas was home from Lafayette College and went fishing. He caught two pickerel and gave them to an elderly family friend. A bit later, Matty went out to the barn. He came back in a few minutes and told his parents, "I have awful news, but all of us have to remain calm." Matty had found Nicholas dead, from a bullet he had fired into his own brain.

Then, eight years later, when Henry was 30, he died of tuberculosis. Matty had lost all his brothers now. Shortly after that the U.S. declared war on Germany, and a year later Matty volunteered to fight against the Hun. There was no call for him to go. He was 38, but Big Six thought it his duty to bear arms for his country against the enemy.

Baseball is always played out in the sunshine, where the air is pure and the grass is green, and there is something about the game...which teaches one to win or lose as a gentleman should, and that is a very fine thing to learn.
—CHRISTY MATHEWSON

After the '05 Series the Giants would suffer vexing and bizarre reversals in big games. None, though, would match the one in 1908, when Mathewson had a late-season victory against the Cubs—and possibly the pennant—taken from him because a teenage reserve named Fred Merkle failed to advance from first base to second in the bottom of the ninth on a hit that should have won the game. Merkle was called out, and the game was declared a draw. When those two teams finished the season tied for first, they had to replay that game to decide the pennant. For the contest that ensued—which, Matty said, "stood out like the battle of Waterloo and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln"—100,000 showed up at the Polo Grounds, although only 40,000 made it inside. Alas, Mathewson, who had pitched almost 400 innings and won 37 games that season, had exhausted himself. The Cubs beat him 4-2 and went on to win the Series.

In 1911 the Giants finally got back to the Series, against the A's, but in Game 3 Matty threw a gopher ball to a third baseman named Frank Baker—who ever after was known as Home Run Baker—and Philadelphia took the game and eventually the title. The next year, in the eighth game against Boston (one game in the Series had ended in a tie), Mathewson took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 10th, but his center-fielder, Fred Snodgrass, dropped an easy fly, and Merkle and the catcher, Chief Meyers, missed a pop-up, and the Red Sox won. The tears streamed from Matty's eyes as he trudged off the mound.

Big Six turned 33 the following year, and the cracks were beginning to show. Still, he pitched Game 2 of the 1913 Series against Philadelphia, a 10-inning shutout. But the Athletics won the next three, so Muggsy called on Matty with one day's rest. The Giants managed only one hit, made key errors and lost 3-1. The reporter from the World wrote this valedictory: "They should erect over Matty's grave some hundred years or so from now the epitaph...'He done his damnedest—angels could do no more.' "

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