HOW "MATTY" BECAME A PITCHERFrom The Literary Digest, May 11, 1912
But, even then, I would rather play baseball than eat, and that is the spirit all boys need who expect to be good players. When I was fourteen years old, the pitcher on the Factoryville team was taken ill one day, just before a game with a nine from a town a few miles away, and the contest was regarded as very important to both villages. Our second pitcher was away on a visit, and so Factoryville was "up against it" for a twirler. You must remember that all the players on this team were grown men – several of them with whiskers on their faces, and roly-poly bodies – but I had always looked up to them as idols. When the team could find no pitcher, some one remarked to the captain: "That Mathewson kid can pitch pretty well." But the backers of the team and the other players were skeptical and, like men who come from Missouri, "wanted to be shown." So they told me to come down on the main street in Factoryville the next morning, which was Saturday, the day of the game, and take a "try-out." The captain was there.
"We want to see what you've got," said he.
Most of the baseball population of the town gathered to see me get my try-out, and I pitched for two hours, while the critics stood around and watched me closely, to discover what I could do. They sent their best batters up to face the curves I was throwing, and I was "putting everything I had on the ball." After a full hour's dress rehearsal, and when, at last, I "fanned" out the captain of the team, he came up, slapped me on the back, and said:
"You'll do. We want you to pitch this afternoon."
That, I am sure, was the very proudest day of my life. We had to drive ten miles to the opponents' town, and all the other boys watched me leave with the men. And you can imagine my pride while I watched them, as they stood on one foot and then the other, nudging one another and saying, "'Husk' is going to play with the men!" They called me "Husk" in those days.
It was a big jump upward for me, and I would hardly look at the other youngsters as I climbed into the carriage with the captain. If the full truth were told, however, I felt almost "all in" after the hard session I had been through in the morning.
I can remember the score of that game yet, probably because it was such an important event in my life. Our team gained the victory by the count of 19 to 17 – and largely by a bit of good luck that befell me. With my hands crossed on the bat, as usual, I just happened to swing where the ball was coming once, when the bases were full, and I knocked it over the left fielder's head. That hit won the game; and that was really my start in baseball.
That game was played toward the end of the summer and in a few weeks young Mathewson was sent to the Keystone Academy. He played with the Keystone team during his first year at the Academy, but an older boy did the pitching. He continues:
The next year, however, I was captain of the team, and pitched (the natural result of being elected captain, as any of my readers know who may have led baseball clubs!). While I was the captain of this team, I hit upon a brilliant idea, which really wasn't original, but which the other boys believed to be, and so it amounted to the same thing. When we were playing a weak team, I put some one else into the box to pitch, and covered second base myself, to "strengthen the in-field." We had a couple of boys on the team who – like certain twirlers in every league – could pitch, but couldn't bat or play any other position. I caught this idea from reading an article in a newspaper about McGraw and the Baltimore "Orioles." I worshiped him in those days, little thinking that I should ever know him; and it was beyond my fondest dreams that I should ever play ball for him.
I was still batting cross-handed on the Keystone team; but, in pitching, I had good control over my out-curve, which was effective against the other boys. During the vacation of that summer, I pitched for the Factoryville team, until it disbanded in August, which left me no place to play ball. And, remember, at that time I still would rather play ball than eat, and, big, growing boy that I was, I was decidedly fond of eating!
But one fine day the captain of a team belonging to a town about five miles away came to me and asked if I would pitch for his nine.
"We'll give you a dollar a game!" he said in conclusion.
"What! How much?" I asked, in amazement, because it was such fun for me to play ball, then, that the idea of being paid for it struck me as "finding money."
"A dollar a game," he repeated; "but you'll have to walk over, or catch a ride on some wagon."
There was no trolley route connecting the two villages then. I told him he needn't mind how I got there, but that I would certainly come.
So, for a time, I went regularly over to the other town – Factoryville's old rival – and pitched every Saturday; and often I had to walk both ways. But they always gave me my dollar, which was a satisfactory consolation and a good antidote for foot-weariness. By this time I was far ahead of boys of my own age in pitching, and was "showing them how to pitch," and rather regarding them as my inferiors, as any boy will, after he has played with men.
After his graduation from Keystone in the summer of 1898, he decided to go to Bucknell. Before matriculation-time he made a trip to Scranton, and on a Saturday afternoon went to the baseball grounds to see the Y.M.C.A. team play. The regular pitcher was not on hand and he was asked to take his place. The town boys made a good deal of fun of him in a misfit uniform, but he was a hero after the game, for he struck out fifteen men. He was seventeen at that time, and was still playing with teams whose members were much older than himself. For a while that summer he pitched for the Honesdale, Pennsylvania team for a salary of twenty dollars a month and board. In the fall of that year he went to Bucknell and played there during the college term, and the next summer went back to the Honesdale team. In the middle of the baseball season he was offered ninety dollars a month to pitch for the Taunton Club of the New England League, but, he says, about all he got was enough to pay for lodgings and meals. It was at Honesdale that he learned to throw his "fadeaway," and acquired other valuable experience. "Matty's" cross-handed batting was laughed at, and he decided to change his style, a very difficult undertaking. This is how he acquired the famous "fadeaway" puzzler:
In Honesdale, there was a left-handed pitcher named Williams who could throw an out-curve to a right-handed batter. Now the natural curve for a left-handed pitcher is the in-curve to a right-handed batter, and Williams simply exhibited this curve as a sort of "freak" delivery, in practise, over which he had no control. He showed the ball to me, and told me how he threw it, and I began to wonder why a right-handed pitcher couldn't master this delivery, thus getting an in-curve to a right-handed batter on a slow ball, which surely seemed desirable. Williams pitched this ball with the same motion that he used in throwing his in-curve, but turned his hand over and snapt his wrist as he let the ball go. He could never tell where it was going to break, and therefore it was of no use to him in a game. He once played a few games in one of the big leagues, but lasted only a short time. He didn't have enough control over this freak ball to make it deceptive, and, as far as the rest of his curves were concerned, he was only a mediocre pitcher.
But it was here that I learned the rudiments of the fadeaway, and I began to practise them with great diligence, recognizing the value of the curve. I also started to pitch drop balls while I was in Honesdale, and mixt these up with my fast one and the "old roundhouse curve." I only used the drop when the situation was serious, as that was my very best, and a surprize for all the batters. Few pitchers in that set, indeed, had a drop ball.
The part of the summer with the Taunton team apparently did me little good, beyond teaching me the style of baseball played in the New England League, and proving to me that there is sometimes a great difference between the salary named in a contract and that received. As a matter of fact, however, that portion of a season spent in the New England League was going to have a great influence on my future, altho I could not foresee it at the time.
I returned to Bucknell in the fall, where I played full-back on the football team; and, oddly enough, I was much better known as a football player at this time than as an exponent of baseball. Probably this was because I developed some ability as a drop-kicker, and, at college, football was considered decidedly the more important sport. Moreover, I received poor support on the college baseball team; and no pitcher can win games when his men don't field well behind him, or when they refuse to bat in any runs.
In the fall of 1899, the Bucknell football team went down to Philadelphia to play the University of Pennsylvania eleven, and this proved to be one of the most important trips that I ever took. While our players were waiting around the hotel in the morning, a man named John Smith, known in baseball circles as "Phenom John" Smith, came around to see me. He was an old pitcher, and had picked up the name of "Phenomenal (shortened to "Phenom") John" in his palmy days in the box. He had been the manager of the Portland club in the New England League during the previous season, and had seen me pitch with the Taunton nine.
"Mathewson," he said to me, "I'm going to Norfolk in the Virginia League, to manage the club next season, and I'll give you a steady job at eighty dollars a month. I know that your contract called for ninety dollars last season, but you will surely get this money, as the club has substantial backing."
I signed the contract then and there. The colleges weren't as strict about their men playing summer ball at that time. Now I would advise a boy who has exceptional ability as a ball-player, to sign no contracts, and to take no money for playing, until he has finished college. Then if he cares to go into professional baseball, all right.
"I'm going out to see you play football this afternoon," said Smith as he put the contract in his pocket.
I was lucky that day, and kicked two field-goals against Pennsylvania, which was considered to be a great showing for a team from a small college, in an early season game, regarded almost as a practise contest. Field-goals counted more then – five points each – and there were few men in the country who were good drop-kickers. Hudson, the Carlisle Indian, was about the only other of my time. Those two field-goals helped to temper our defeat, and we lost by about 20 to 10, I think. When I got back to the hotel, "Phenom John" was there again.
"You played a great game this afternoon," he said to me, "and, because I liked the way in which you kicked those two field-goals, I'm going to make our salary ninety dollars instead of eighty dollars."
He took the contract, already signed, out of his pocket, and raised my pay ten dollars a month before I had ever pitched a ball for him! That contract is framed in Norfolk now, or rather it was when I last visited the city with the "Giants" on a spring-training trip. The old figures remain, with the erasure of the eighty and the correction of ninety just as "Phenom John" made them with his fountain pen.
As you will easily believe, I went back to Bucknell very much pleased with myself, with two field-goals to my credit in football, and in my pocket a contract to play baseball for ninety dollars a month.
The rest of my minor-League record is brief.
Mathewson went to Norfolk the next summer and won twenty-one games out of twenty-three. One day in 1900, "Phenom John" Smith told him that he had a chance to sell him to either the New York Nationals or the Philadelphia club. Mathewson told Smith that he would like to go to New York. In a short time the youngster belonged to George Davis, then manager of the "Giants." Davis had him report for morning practise to see what he could do, and here is what happened:
"Now," he said, "I'm going to order all our fellows to go up to the bat, and I want you to throw everything you've got."
He started off himself, and I was nervous enough, facing the manager of a big-league team for my try-out. I shot over my fast one first, and I had a lot of speed in those days.
"That's a pretty good fast ball you've got there," declared Davis. "Now let's have a look at your curve."
I threw him the "old roundhouse" out-curve, my pride and joy, which, as the newspapers said, had been "standing them on their heads" in the minor league. He stept up into it, and drove the ball over the head of the man playing center-field and beyond the old ropes.
So was an idol shattered, and my favorite curve wrecked!
"No," he said, "that 'old roundhouse' curve ain't any good in this company. You can see that start to break all the way from the pitcher's box. A man with paralysis in both arms could get himself set in time to hit that one. Haven't you got a drop ball?"
"Yes," I answered; "but I don't use it much."
"Well, let's have a look at it," he said.
I threw him my drop ball, and he said that it was a pretty fair curve.
"Now that's what we call a curve ball in the big league," declared Davis. "As for that other big one you just threw me, – forget it! Got anything else?"
"I've sort of a freak ball that I never use in a game," I replied, brimful of ambition.
"Well, let's see it."
Then I threw him my fadeaway, altho it hadn't been named at the time. He missed it by more than a foot (I was lucky enough to get it over the plate!). I shall never forget how Davis' eyes bulged.
"What's that ball?" he asked.
"That's the one I picked up, but never use," I answered. "It's kind of a freak ball."
"Can you control it?"
"Not very well."
"Try it again!" he ordered. I did, and got it over the plate once more. He missed the ball.
And there, in morning practise, at the Polo Grounds in 1900, the "fadeaway" was born, and christened by George Davis. He called some left-handers to bat against it. Nearly all of them missed it, and were loud in their praise of the ball.
"Now," said Davis, in the club house after the practise, "I'm not going to pitch you much, and I want you to practise on that fadeaway ball of yours, and get so that you can control it. It's going to be a valuable curve."……
The next spring, just before the opening game of the season of 1901, Davis came to me and said:
"Matty, I want you to pitch tomorrow."
This command was a big and sudden surprize to me. I went home and to bed about nine o'clock, so as to be feeling primed for the important contest. And the next day it rained! Again I went to bed early, and once more it rained! I kept on going to bed early for three or four nights, and the rain continued for as many days. But I finally outlasted the rain, and pitched the opening game, and won it. Then I worked along regularly in my turn, and didn't lose a game until Memorial Day. And that brought me up to be a regular big-league pitcher.
Many persons have asked me how I throw the fadeaway. The explanation is simple: when the out-curve is thrown, the ball is allowed to slip off the end of the thumb with a spinning motion that causes it to bend away from a right-handed batter. The hand is held up. Now, if the wrist were turned over and the hand held down, so that the ball would slip off the thumb with a twisting motion, but, because the wrist was reversed, would lave the hand with the thumb toward the body instead of away from it, I figured that an in-curve to right-handed batters would result. That is how the fadeaway is pitched. The hand is turned over until the palm is toward the sky, as when the out-curve is thrown, and the ball is permitted to twist off the thumb with a peculiar snap of the wrist. The ball is gript in the same way as for an out-curve.