Wednesday’s Book Review: “Matty—An American Hero”

MattyMatty—An American Hero: Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants. By Ray Robinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Ray Robinson is a sports journalist and editor, and this book is very much in the genre of many other conventional sports biographies. It is a good, serviceable biography; but it is far from great. In it, we learn about one of the earliest stars of major league baseball. Christy Mathewson had been born in 1880, attended Bucknell University and gained fame there as both a football and baseball player. He signed with the New York Giants and played sixteen seasons with them; arguably the most dominant pitcher in major league baseball during his time in the Majors.

While with the Giants, Mathewson won 20 games thirteen times and 30 games four times. During that same period, he won at least 20 games twelve consecutive years (1903-1914). A power pitcher, Mathewson had the most wins in Giant franchise history (372), and had more than 2,500 strikeouts. Perhaps his most dominant performance came in the 1905 World Series when he pitched a record three shutouts in six days against the Philadelphia Athletics, leading the Giants to the championship.

Robinson does a credible job telling the story of Mathewson’s remarkable career. He expends considerable effort narrating the dramatic events of his various pitching performances. He also delves into the story of Mathewson’s close relationship with his Giants manager, the legendary John McGraw, who is credited with working effectively with a sensitive and talented player to make him more dominant than he might have been otherwise.

Robinson also explores the role Mathewson plays in helping to remake the image of major league baseball from one of rowdy hooliganism into one of the “national pastime.” Mathewson served as a model of clean living when the sport was known for its hard-living, hard-drinking players. He became a role model for young boys, and MLB exploited his lifestyle to remake its image. He enthusiastically aided this process, and even wrote a series of boy’s books advocating a moral, strenuous lifestyle.

Of course, Mathewson served as the perfect example of “clean living” for MLB because of his dominance on the mound. Accordingly, in 1936 he joined four other MLB legends–Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, none of whom exemplified “clean living”–as the first class of baseball players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was a posthumous induction because Mathewson had died in 1925, at age 45, of tuberculosis.

Ray Robinson has written a solid, readable biography of Matty. I give it three stars because it fails to go beyond the basics of what we already know about him, and has no references or even a bibliography with other works to read on the subject.

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