There's only one Christy I know at all, one Christy that I ever saw. He's the one that discovered the fadeaway ball and he pitches for Muggsy McGraw.
It was in 1903, a century ago, that John McGraw and Christy Mathewson were on the Giants for their first full season together. In many ways, that was the start of baseball as we would come to know it. Among other things, Nineteen-Aught-Three was also the year that New York City got a franchise in the brash young American League. Until then the Giants of the mature National League had been Gotham's only team. Well, Brooklyn had become a borough of New York City and had its Superbas, but let's not get into those geopolitics. In America's national pastime, in America's grandest city, the Giants were the team. Only they were dreadful—"the rankest apology for a first-class team ever imposed on a major league city," according to a contemporary newspaperman.
In 1902 the Giants had posted the worst record in the majors. Fewer and fewer Gotham cranks (as fans were known then) would leave work early and take the Eighth Avenue El up to the 155th Street stop and the Polo Grounds to watch the "Harlemites" play. Why, few cranks would so much as bother to stand up on Coogan's Bluff and watch the games for free.
Who would have imagined that in just another few years a rookie named "Laughing" Larry Doyle would utter these words that would become the baseball leitmotif of its time: "It's great to be young and a Giant!" But, you see, it all turned around very quickly in that summer 100 years ago, when two uncommon men, who were so unlike each other, came together as friends and force. Never was there such an odd couple in sport. Nevertheless, it was because of their association that the Giants ascended and baseball bloomed as a signal part of Americana in the bully new century.
The most promising Giant at the start of the 1903 season was Mathewson, a 22-year-old righthander. He was wholesome and handsome, broad-shouldered at a towering 6'2", with a clean-shaven face, bright blue eyes and wavy brown hair that he parted in the middle. At a time when only 6% of Americans had finished so much as high school, Matty was a college man, from Bucknell. One admirer, the writer Homer Croy, summed him up: "He talks like a Harvard graduate, looks like an actor, acts like a businessman and impresses you as an all-around gentleman." Christy Mathewson was a whiz-bang, sports' original ail-American boy.
McGraw, the Giants' manager, and Mathewson came together in New York at one of those rare moments when everything sure and reliable seemed to be in play. The Flatiron Building, then one of the world's tallest skyscrapers, had just gone up on 23rd Street, the gaslights were going out, and somewhere beneath them more than nine miles of subway were being tunneled. For not much longer would there be the need at the Polo Grounds to park horse-drawn carriages behind centerfield.
America, however, remained mostly rural (there were still 1,800 farms within the New York City limits), and by far the most famous athlete in the U.S. was a horse. God in heaven, Dan Patch paced a mile in 1:56�! But that was in 1903, just as the Giants began to win. Soon baseball would replace horse racing in the prime space of the sports pages. Crowds of more than 25,000 began to spill over at the Polo Grounds, and invariably they could count on seeing Matty or "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity twirl. In 1903 the Iron Man went 31-20, winning three doubleheaders in August. Matty was 30-13.
Likewise, it is unlikely that any American athlete has ever been so great the hero, even till now. As baseball became more popular, it needed an appropriate idol. Matty's primacy was heightened by the fact that the few national sports stars who had preceded him had been not only outside the Anglo-Protestant mainstream but also, more important, of dubious ethical grounding. ( McGraw himself, for openers.) Well, yes, everybody liked the Pittsburgh Pirates' Honus Wagner, but he fell between two stools. Germans were the largest immigrant group in the U.S., but Wagner was homely and beer-bellied, so he could never be the first German-American crossover figure. (That distinction would be earned a generation later by one George Herman Ruth.) As Mathewson's biographer Ray Robinson has written, "In the public thirst for a saint among ballplayers, Mathewson became something entirely apart."
As the gentlemanly Matty earned the fans' adoration, there was Muggsy, raising hell in the third base coach's box. " McGraw leaps into the air, kicks his heels together, claps his mitt, shouts at the umpire, runs in and pats the next batter on the back and says something to the pitcher," Mathewson would remember. "The whole atmosphere inside the park is changed in a minute."
Meanwhile, out on the mound, Matty officiated gracefully. Completely unlike his manager and great friend, Matty never complained, rarely even uttered a word out there. "Repartee is not my line," he explained, sans repartee.