Eddie Frierson's Notes on Christy Mathewson and "MATTY"

 

I began researching the life of Christy Mathewson in the Summer of 1984. It was August of that year that I made my first trip to Factoryville, Pennsylvania, my first trip to Bucknell University's beautiful campus in Lewisburg, my first trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum and Library in Cooperstown, New York --- my first steps toward compiling my play, "Matty: An Evening With Christy Mathewson."

Years, countless thousands of miles, hundreds of hours, dozens of archives and scores of interviews later I sit here trying to write my thoughts about a man that I've grown to love.

I didn't know Christy Mathewson back in 1984. After all, he had died 59 years earlier on October 7th, 1925 in the remote village of Saranac Lake, New York. Tuberculosis was the cause. "Matty" was just a baseball card to me then. A legend. A Hall-Of-Famer. Oh, yeah, I remembered him. "Wasn't he the guy who invented the screwball?" Yep. That was him. I read some silly "rah-rah" book about him when I was a kid. How ignorant I was. I was to find that Christy Mathewson was much, much more than a legend, a great ball player, a Hall-Of-Famer --- he was an exceptional man. He was more than that.

Matty was a hero. He was an advisor to presidents. He was the toast of New York with George M. Cohan and John McGraw. He was a philosopher. Teacher. Scholar. National idol. International celebrity. Broadway play co-author. Two-reel movie star. "Stiff" actor on the vaudeville stage. Journalist. Forester. Musician. Singer. "The best all-around football player to ever put on a collegiate uniform." Genius. Checkers champion. Practical joker. Shrewd businessman. Major stockholder in the railroad system. Class President. Historian. Author. "Regular fellow." Sermon subject. Bible pedagogue. Manager. Soldier. War hero. Tri-lingualist. T.B. cure activist. Counselor. Big brother. Devoted husband and father. Uncle. Friend.

It's funny, because when I first stumbled across Christy Mathewson, I thought that all I had found was an interesting subject for a one-man theatrical show that I was trying to develop for myself. The "subject" for the one-man show "developed" me instead.

The only reason that I got to know Christy Mathewson was a purely selfish one. It's a long story. Please indulge me . . .

I always wanted to be one of two things when I grew up: an actor and/or a professional baseball player. In 1977, I was fortunate enough to help pitch my team at Hillwood High School in Nashville to a Tennessee State Championship. In the Fall of '78 I got lucky. I headed west to pursue both of my dreams by pitching for the UCLA Bruins while obtaining my bachelor's degree in the Theatre Arts.

While playing at UCLA, it became clear to me that, while I was good, I was not going to make the Hall of Fame as a player. So, I started concentrating on my theatrical career.

Upon graduation in 1982, I started looking for subjects to develop into a one-person stage piece to further my career in the entertainment business. For some reason, I put all thoughts of baseball on the back burner as far as this project was concerned. Looking for potential subjects, I found many interesting possibilities including tragic actor types such as John Barrymore and Edwin Booth. I even toyed with the ideas of General George Custer and Andrew Jackson. All this time, I still remained close to my baseball roots by coaching at Santa Monica (CA) High School.

In 1983, my father found the answer to my search but I wouldn't realize it for another year. My Dad (I didn't know it then) is a lot like Matty. He's an educator. Constantly reads. Spends hours in new and used bookstores to learn about people and this world we live in. In 1983, while on one of his usual "expand my horizons" binges, he came across an old book, written in 1912 titled: PITCHING IN A PINCH: Or, Base Ball From The Inside (As I Have Known It). The author was Christy Mathewson.

I let the book sit on my shelf for over a year before I pulled it down as "reading material" for the plane trip East to our annual family reunion. On that five-hour flight, I was introduced to John McGraw, Honus Wagner, "Turkey Mike" Donlin, Bill Klem, Luther "Dummy" Taylor, Charley "Victory" Faust, Joe Tinker, DOZENS of others --- and Christy Mathewson. It was as if the book were written that day, as if all these man were alive and talking, laughing, spitting and playing. It hit me --- "This is the guy! This is the show. I'll just adapt the book!" Reading cover to cover in that day, I thought I knew Christy Mathewson. In a sense, I did. But, only a very small sense.

Over the following week, I sat with my Dad out by the beach, under the stars, telling him all of my ideas. I was busy yapping away story after story from PITCHING IN A PINCHwhen he asked, "Where is Factoryville? You say that Mathewson grew up there. Does it exist?" I didn't know.

The following day we had maps. And, sure enough, there was Factoryville --- a little speck just northwest of Scranton, Pennsylvania. And, my dad told me, "You should go. Find out if any of the family still exists. Get to know the man. Who he was. What he was about." And, so I did.

It became very clear, very early in my adventure that my own fame was less important than introducing today's public to this extraordinary man and what he was all about. I toured this entire country, visiting all of the places that meant so much to Mathewson during his lifetime. And, from his birthplace in Factoryville to his winter home in South Central Los Angeles to his final home in Saranac Lake, New York to his final resting place in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania I was greeted with open arms. Since 1984, the only night I spent in a hotel during my research was my first night in Lewisburg. The friendliness, hospitality and willingness of everyone I met to introduce me to other facets of Christy Mathewson's life is, truly, a testament to this man's own kind and giving nature. Through the efforts of everyone from Doris Dysinger (the first person I met on my quest --- she was in the Archives of the Bucknell University Bertrand Library) to Howard Talbot (Director, National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum and Library) I was able to uncover the personal writings of "The Big Six." These writings are what became "Matty."

Some of the play's words can be found among the pages of PITCHING IN A PINCH. Some from long-forgotten newspaper articles (many written with the help of writer Jack Wheeler). But, almost every word of what is contained in the show's two hours came directly from Christy Mathewson.

Christy Mathewson was often asked to write his memoirs. He was told, "The public wants to hear what you have to say. They want to know about your life. What you think. What you feel. And, the kids that follow you have a right to know!"

It was never easy for Christy Mathewson to come to terms and accept the roles of "hero," "idol," and "role model." But, he always felt that, because of the amount of people he was able to reach and "talk to" through baseball he had a personal obligation to try and live up to the status that had been thrust upon him (as long as it didn't interfere with his personal life). Once, when asked what he would do, if he could, to help the youth of this country, Matty replied, "First of all, no one can live up to everything that's been written or said about me. And, I keep to myself. I'm a private man. Yet, because I pitch for the New York Giants, I realize that I'm able to reach more young men than the President of the United States. That's not due to the fact that I'm more popular than Mr. Taft (I don't believe) but, it's a fact -- boys would rather read about yesterday afternoon's event at the Polo Grounds. Because of that, I feel very strongly that it is my duty to show those youth the good, clean, honest values that I was taught by my Mother when I was a youngster. That, really, is all I can do."

And, yet, this evening of theatre is not a chronicle of a "goody-goody or a mollycoddle." It is a collection of a man's personal observances during a fascinating time in our history. Observances of his life. His life lived to the fullest.

Using baseball as a backdrop, Mathewson draws his experiences in the Big League as a metaphor for life. He raises many questions. Some are answered, some are not. But, according to him, "That's the way life is. You can sum it up with the title of the Cohan song, LIFE'S A VERY FUNNY PROPOSITION, AFTER ALL."

Christy Mathewson did sit down, many times, to write down his memoirs. He would always write a chapter, then read it over and, after it was all over, the result was always the same. "All I do is talk about myself," he would tell his wife, Jane. "It reads to me like I'm puffing out my chest and strutting down Riverside Drive! Who wants to read that?" And the chapters "collected dust."

I have tried my best to tie all of these writings together and this play is the final result. 95% of the words in "Matty" belong to "The Big Six." I only added some here and there to tie up loose transitions and to give the play some sense of order.

So, this play isn't a conventional one. It is the memoir of a great American life, as it was experienced, by the man who experienced it.

MATTY: An Evening With Christy Mathewson has become a huge success. But, I am certain, that this success has much more to do with the man I chose as its subject than with me and my performance. Through my stage play, I am PROUD to introduce a whole new generation to my dear friend, Christy Mathewson.



Eddie Frierson -- September, 1996

 


For information on the Mathewson Foundation or for "MATTY" booking information, please e-mail Eddie Frierson c/o: The Mathewson Foundation