OK, Mathewson isn't 106 years old. But with the Major League Baseball Post Season going full tilt across the country, it is time to make mention of a great new one-man play drawing rave reviews in a theater Off-Broadway in Manhattan.
"Matty" was written by and stars Eddie Frierson, an ex-pitcher who is plainly mad for Mathewson. If you could act your way into Cooperstown, Frierson would be there.
Actor Eddie Frierson plays Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson. "Matty" isn't just a play about one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Talking shutouts for two hours could be dull; so Frierson lets his star swing at life lessons, homespun advice, and baseball lore to make you smile.
"This is a blast," the actors said after a recent afternoon matinee, "and to see the way the show effects people every day is really great." To an appreciative crowd, some in Mariners jackets and Orioles caps, he is correct. "Matty" is a hit with fans and non-fans alike.
A working actor in the 1980s (he even read for parts in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, but was passed over), Frierson said he'd been interested in writing a one-man play for himself, similar to what Hal Holbrook had done with his Mark Twain shows.
"My dad spends a lot of time in used bookstores," Frierson recalls. "He found a copy of "Pitching in a Pinch," a book Mathewson wrote in 1912. He gave it to me and it sat on my shelf for a couple years. Then in 1984 when I was going from L.A. to Florida for a reunion, it was the book I took on the plane with me. I thought, this is great! The dialogue, he's my size, he's a right-handed pitcher... he threw a screwball, I tried to throw one... all kinds of things. It was perfect."
Then he started the research. This would take 12 years of his time, thousands of hours, and countless trips to towns, libraries, and ballparks all over the country.
"When I began, I knew the basic folklore of Christy Mathewson," says the 36-year-old Frierson, a native of Nashville. "He was this golden god, the grand perfect man and everything... He was a special man... I found out that when he died, every big league club donated money to erect this memorial gate at Bucknell University (Mathewson's alma mater). I can't imagine every team donating money to any one cause today."
This was just one of the dozens of discoveries the actor-playwright would uncover in his quest to bring the long-dead Hall of Famer to the stage.
Along the way, Frierson was the head varsity baseball coach for Santa Monica (CA) High School. As he worked in the entertainment industry, in various parts and doing voice-over jobs, he worked up the play that would become "Matty." He performed it as a school fundraiser, making his kids sell tickets.
Trips to Mathewson's birthplace, family home, old schools, and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum also followed. The old pitcher's descendants embraced Frierson, and opened up their family memories to him. As a fellow pitcher, he could understand the feats performed on the field (Mathewson won 30 or more games four times, including a modern National League record of 37 in 1908). But it was at a different level that he understood Mathewson the humanist, which comes out in the legendary hurler's words.
"He was remarkable at getting his visions across --- without doing a Tommy Lasorda type schtick," Frierson says. "He was a tremendous motivational speaker (although he did that sort of thing very seldom). Using baseball as a metaphor for life he could get across the idea that we all have the same kinds of umpires in our lives, we all have the same type highs and lows, but . . . how do we deal with them? He never said, 'I have the answer," but he'd say how he coped with those life situations and the message is powerful. He didn't get in front of people, didn't like to --- although he did speak to kids. That said, he had a really wonderful way of expressing himself on paper."
For "Matty" Frierson broke the play into two acts. First, he covers Fred Merkle and the infamous "bonehead" play of the 1908 National League playoff game (the first ever). He portrays the storied moments at the Polo Grounds just like an ESPN replay. It's tragic is what it is. "Matty" then moves through vintage umpire yarns (something you-know-who should listen to), the legendary manager John McGraw, players Frank Chance and Johnny Evers and the highlight of the show, the story of Charley Faust, "The Giant Jinx Killer." With Frierson acting out all parts, the old ballgame memories spring to life with a switch of a cap.
The second act (some wags would call it a doubleheader) is more about Mathewson the man and how he lived and worked through the twilight of his career. "Big Six" (named for the biggest fire engine in New York City) succumbed to tuberculosis at age 45 in 1925, after retiring in 1916. Frierson wraps up the show with a pep talk, the kind he used to give to wayward boys, and a question-answer session with the audience.
"Matty" is full of the Matty-isms, the sayings, that made Big Six such a name:
"(New York) is where this play --- where MATTY belongs," Frierson said. "One of my aims is to get Christy Mathewson and his whole life back into the public spotlight --- this is the only place where it can happen. We brought the show here on a shoe string budget, and we've been very fortunate to get reviews that most people would kill for. I think that says as much for Christy Mathewson, the man, as it does for me and the play."
Frierson lets his hero cross over in the 1990s, by letting the audience ask him, as Mathewson, his opinions and for stories not in the show. In character, "Mathewson" can field them all (Hint: ask him about Ty Cobb). He even hands out baseball cards to the kids in the front rows of the 120-seat theater. "The guy was so terrific how could you not like him at the end of the night?" Frierson asks.
The show has been a big hit in its short life. "Matty" ran for 36 weeks in Los Angeles. In early August, Frierson and company took the show to Pennsylvania for "Christy Mathewson Birthday Weekend" at Keystone College in Factoryville (formerly Keystone Academy where Matty went to grammar school). He took part in "Christy Mathewson Night" at the ballpark in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the Phillies Triple-A club, the Red Barons. Frierson was there in Mathewson's uniform and threw out the first pitch. He led a big parade from downtown Factoryville to Keystone. The whole town followed along and came into the theater for a show.
"Matty" opened in New York on Sept. 4 and is scheduled to run through Dec. 1. The plan is to take the show on the road across the country to theatres and colleges when it ends its New York run.
Does "Matty" have a place in baseball today, and could Mathewson make it against today's home run-hitting superstars? How would he do in San Diego, Atlanta, or Cleveland? "I think he'd be fine," the actor says confidently. "He'd be a cross between Orel Hershiser personality-wise and Nolan Ryan, where everybody loves you. If you're throwing a no-hitter in the sixth, and you're in Texas and from New York, the fans are going to scream for you to throw a no-hitter. I think he was universally loved and would be now. He would be the grandest of the superstars. He would be a Greg Maddux with a little more personality, the same quietness, where everybody goes, "Man, this guy is great." No question --- I think he'd do very well. He's one of the greats."
|©1998 Kevin Fitzpatrick. All Rights Reserved.|