He was Ruth before Ruth, Namath before Namath, Jordan before Jordan. At the opening of the twentieth century, Christy Mathewson was king of the sporting world. “Matty” was the ace pitcher for the New York Giants, the most popular team in sports before Babe Ruth and the Yankees of the 1920’s claimed that title.
In a sport dominated by street-wise toughs and country boys, Mathewson was an anomaly. He was tall, handsome and college educated, having attended Bucknell before giving in to the seduction of baseball and turning pro. He joined the Giants in 1900 and almost immediately ascended to the top of the sport. In 1905, after winning 31 regular season games (the third consecutive year he exceeded 30 wins), he pitched three shutouts during the World Series to lead the Giants to the championship. In the more than 100 years that have followed, no one has come close to duplicating that feat.
The 1905 World Series gained universal fame for Mathewson and the Giants. They were the first celebrity sports team, toasted wherever they went, their exploits followed in newspapers by fans throughout the country.
While Mathewson’s on-field excellence attracted many of the headlines, some were reserved for the team’s fiery leader, manager John McGraw. Nicknamed “Little Napoleon” and “Mugsy,” McGraw was known for his shotgun temper and willingness to do anything to win. He gained his reputation during his playing days in the l890’s, when tripping and impeding opposing baserunners became his norm. It is said that McGraw’s tactics were instrumental in baseball’s decision to employ multiple umpires during games to police on-field activity.
The relationship between college-educated Mathewson and man-of-the-streets McGraw is at the center of Frank Deford’s excellent book, The Old Ball Game. Deford, long-time writer for Sports Illustrated, weekly commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and regular correspondent for the HBO series Real Sports, chronicles the relationship between these vastly different men, who together reached the top of the sporting world. Despite their differences, the two men crafted a bond that would endure for the rest of their lives (in Mathewson’s case, a life cut short by tuberculosis, likely resulting from his accidental exposure to toxic gas after he enlisted in the Army during World War I). McGraw was, in many ways, a father figure to Mathewson, helping him hone his game during a 17-year career that saw him win 373 games and attain a winning percentage of .665, and hiring him as a coach when Mathewson returned from Europe a seriously ill man.
Yet the relationship between these two giants of the sport is just one aspect of Deford’s book. Deford also chronicles the rise in the sport’s popularity during the early 1900’s, which largely resulted from the Giants’ success, and explores the similarities between baseball then and now, drawing analogies between the gambling issues that plagued the sport at the time and the steroids controversy that has dominated headlines during the early years of the twenty-first century.
More significantly, Deford uses the rise in the sport’s popularity during the early 1900’s to craft a portrait of American society at the time, not dissimilar to that painted by E.L. Doctorow in his classic novel Ragtime.
Perhaps Wes Lukowsky put it best in his Starred Review for Booklist: “Deford effectively weaves the threads of these two touchstone lives into the broader tapestry of an ascendant sport and a rapidly modernizing America. A fine baseball book but just as fine a study of American popular culture.”
The Old Ball Game is one of the finest baseball books of the past twenty years. It rivals Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer in its ability to evoke ghosts of an earlier time and reminds us that the playing fields occupied by men in cotton uniforms chasing balls hit by sticks also link us to our past.
It is a wonderful read and highly recommended.