PUTTING FLESH ON THE MATTY MYTH
Actor Eddie Friersons one-man play brings the career of Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson back to life!
by Ray Robinson
Orginally published in
November 11, 1996
In recent years there have been a number of one-man theatricals featuring such idiosyncratic personalities as Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Truman Capote. Now Christy Mathewson, the patron saint of baseballs age of innocence and winner of 373 games as a pitcher, is on display in MATTY: AN EVENING WITH CHRISTY MATHEWSON at New Yorks Lambs Theatre, thanks to the commitment and kinetic energy of Eddie Frierson.
For eight shows a week (two matinees), Frierson, who wrote the 2-hour, 10-minute labor of love, plays MATTY to the hilt. As he sweats under a heavy wool New York Giants uniform, then later appears in a tweedy cap and suit, Frierson, 36, manages to put flesh on the MATTY myth, mostly through a series of anecdotes. In the course of impersonating one of the first collegians to play Big League Baseball Mathewson was a student at Bucknell before leaving to join the Giants Frierson also brings us quick portraits of other baseball characters of the early 1900s. Among them are the dynamic but foul-mouthed John McGraw, the manager of the Giants; umpire Bill Klem, who claimed never to have missed a call in his life; Fred Merkle, who made "bonehead" part of the language; Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner who is also credited with "saving" baseball; and the infamous knave of diamonds, Hal Chase. Frierson, employing broad mimicry makes them all come remarkably alive.
On a night early in the New York run, I went to see Frierson perform. What interested me more than anything was Friersons devotion to his subject. Why had he chosen to "study Matty" and to excavate his history? Why the decade of research, innumerable interviews, trips to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Factoryville, Pa., where Mathewson was born, and to Bucknells campus, in Lewisburg, Pa.? Some might, I said, with no intent to be unkind, regard it as an obsession. "Oh, no," Frierson replied. "Matty is no obsession. Hes become a good friend."
Mathewson played for the Giants when Teddy Roosevelt was President, ceased pitching before America entered World War I and died in 1925, the year Lou Gehrig began his consecutive games streak. Yet Frierson has found this clean-cut, God-fearing athletic genius a true hero in his time someone worthy of being presented to American audiences today.
Even as he continues to play Mathewson, Frierson comes up with fascinating new material on his man. "The other day, I ran across an account of a game at the Polo Grounds, where Matty struck out 16 men and only 300 people were there to watch it!" This serendipitous fragment might work itself into a future show (there is a question/answer session toward the end of the performance and who knows what may come up?). Frierson prefers stories to statistics, but this statistic might fit.
Frierson was born in Akron, Ohio, then his family moved to Nashville. In 1977 he pitched for Hillwood Highs Tennessee State Championship Team. After high school Frierson went to California to pitch for UCLA. He wanted to become a big-league player, but realizing that perhaps that was not in the cards for him, he finished with a degree in theatre arts. However, he has never strayed too far from his first love of baseball. As head coach of Santa Monica High, he guided that baseball team to several championships and picked up "Coach of the Year" honors along the way.
In 1989, while performing in a cartoon voice-over session with Frierson, Kerrigan Mahan, MATTYs director,, learned Frierson was playing MATTY in a benefit performance for his high school squad at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Impressed with Friersons knowledge and passion for the subject, Mahan nonetheless felt that the presentation required a directors eye as well as some work on the script, tightening up the comedic and dramatic tension. So, during the next couple of years, the two men relentlessly pursued the task.
"Matty was a man of integrity and principle," Frierson says, "both as a player and a person. Hes someone who would have been a terrific role model for todays youngsters. In fact, he is a great one. He might have played a significant part in the world that has become cynical and coarsened. In baseball and other sports today, we have too many chronic whiners and complainers. It wasnt perfect in Mattys day but there was more civility, more respect."
In many ways, Frierson is the ideal person to play Mathewson. HE weighs 195 pounds and is a bit over six feet, very close to Mathewsons measurements. Matty had blue eyes and blonde hair, as does Frierson. Like Matty, who was called "Big Six" in his day because he was slightly over six feet tall (although there are other explanations in the show that might be more accurate), large for that era, Frierson is well-coordinated and handsome, in a traditional way.
In presenting MATTY at the ancient Lambs, where, incidentally, Mathewson used to dine with such Broadway icons as song-and-dance man George M. Cohan and cowboy philosopher Will Rogers, Frierson tries to think and talk the way Mathewson did (Mathewsons high pitched voice was never recorded so Frierson has never heard him speak). Many of the lines in the show are borrowed from Mathewsons book, PITCHING IN A PINCH. One of Friersons favorites ins Mathewsons statement that a person is wise to have an alibi for defeat but he should always keep it to himself (this tidbit came from sportswriter Fred Lieb).
Frierson believes he learns more each day about the great pitcher. When Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gandhi, he said: "What was hardest was to empty my mind of everything to play Gandhi."
In his own way, Eddie Frierson is trying to do the same thing with MATTY.
Ray Robinson, a free-lance writer in New York City, is the author of "Matty: An American Hero."