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Needing escape from the disappointing escapism of midsummer 2019 Philadelphia Phillies baseball, I read of happier times two hours north as obligingly recorded by the pitcher for the pennant-winning turn-of-the-20th-century New York Giants.
The name might be new to some, but as journalist John N. Wheeler writes in his 1912 preface to Pitching in a Pinch, “Introducing a reader to Christy Mathewson seems like a superfluous piece of writing and a waste of white paper. Schoolboys of the last 10 years have been acquainted with the exact figures which have made up Matty’s pitching record before they have heard of George Washington, because George didn’t play in the same League.”
So fresh and personable is this inside baseball book that once in a while I had to remind myself of what Mathewson didn’t know: He didn’t know about World War I (he would later suffer a chemical gas accident in training, which would cut his life short). He didn’t know about the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. He mentions the Singer Building as the tallest in the world (the 41-story Lower Manhattan office skyscraper would be torn down in 1968 to make way, eventually, for One Liberty Plaza). Ty Cobb is referenced on scattered pages as merely “the Detroit outfielder,” a man and not a god.
Here is how Mathewson mentions en passant the British luxury liner whose sinking by a German U-boat would turn popular sentiment toward America’s entry into “the war to end all wars.” Speaking of Fred Clarke’s purchase of Marty O’Toole for the Pittsburgh Pirates for the unheard-of sum of $22,500 in 1911, Mathewson writes:
“The newspapers of the country were filled with figures and pictures of the real estate and automobiles that could be bought with the same amount of money, lined up alongside of pictures of O’Toole, as when comparative strengths of the navies of the world are shown by placing different sizes of battleships in a row, or when the length of the Lusitania is emphasized by printing a picture of it balancing gracefully on its stern alongside the Singer Building.”
But ignorance runs both ways, and I had to redress large gaps in my knowledge of contemporary cussing lexicology for depicting the likes of famed Giants manager John (aka “Mugsy,” aka “Little Napoleon”) McGraw. Describing a game situation in which third-base coach Arthur Wilson misjudged a hit and stopped the runner on second from going all the way home, Mathewson writes that McGraw “promptly sent a coacher out to relieve Wilson, and his oratory to the young catcher would have made a Billingsgate fishwife sore.” (The allusion is to London’s traditional fish market, and the wives of fishermen famed for being loud and foul-mouthed.)
In this regard I appreciate Mathewson’s restraint in not oversharing. And indeed, “the Gentleman Hurler” and Hall of Famer was reputed by his colleagues to be well mannered and is credited with elevating the status of America’s national pastime at a time when it was still associated with ruffians. Recalling a Saturday pennant game against Pittsburgh at Forbes Field, he tells without superfluous explicitness how the Pirates’ Fred Clarke protested a call at home plate. “Brennan was dusting off the plate and paid no attention to him. But Clarke continued to snap and bark at the umpire as he brushed himself off, referring with feeling to Mr. Brennan’s immediate family, and weaving into his talk a sketch of the umpire’s ancestors.”
The Christian life is better than baseball but should be at least as practical as baseball. Pitching in a Pinch reminded me how the brief human strut on this stage should be focused on victory, should engage all the mind, and should make the most of what we’ve got and not lament what we ain’t got.
A case in point is Mordecai “Three-Fingered” Brown, pennant-winning pitcher for the Chicago Cubs who parlayed a physical deformity acquired in “an argument with a feed cutter” into a hard-breaking curveball that batters were lucky to get a grounder off of.
Did I mention that Christy Mathewson, who sat out Sunday games, is one of us? And you can ask him any stats your heart desires when we meet up yonder in that diamond in the sky.