In order to comprehend and appreciate genuine greatness we must also understand mediocrity, failure and even tragedy. Baseball is full of examples of this truism but few share the stark irony of the three Mathewson brothers. Born between 1880 and 1890 in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, to parents Gilbert and Minerva, the three Mathewson brothers were raised evenly in a stable, loving environment. Each was athletic, intelligent, and of good character. The destiny each would find, however, ranged from near-immortality to utter catastrophe.
Most fans know the oldest Mathewson, Christy, and his famous fade-away pitch. Fiercely competitive in a rough and tumble era, the New York Giant averaged 21 wins a season over 17 campaigns (seven pitchers in the Hall of Fame have half or less the number of career wins). Christy was the toast of the town for his entire adult life; loved, admired, and emulated. Consider this description of Matty, found in the York Daily (York, Pennsylvania) from 1905: “Alone and by himself he stands out as the modern Hercules of the ball field. A pleasant-faced, fain-skin youth, built-in heroic mould, he is the pitching marvel of the age. In the series just closed he has pitched twenty-seven innings, and not a player has passed third base. No such feat as this has ever been accomplished before, and it is not likely to be duplicated for years.”
Yes, Christy was not only baseball royalty in his time but his reputation has seemed to even increase a century after his glory days.
But if Christy was great, and he surely was, it may be overly kind to describe his brother, Hank, as a mediocre ballplayer.
Born 1886 and six years junior to his famous sibling, Hank dutifully followed Christy’s footsteps through similar semi-pro local and regional teams before attending Christy’s alma mater, Bucknell University. His reputation growing, deservedly or not, Hank continued his advance to strong independent teams. In January of 1906 he signed with his brother¢s club, the celebrated Giants, to great expectations. Manager John McGraw, speaking to the Pittsburgh Daily Post, was a little more reserved, saying: “If Matty says his brother is all right, that is good enough for me.”
Christy may have greased the rails for his younger sibling, but the pitching rubber has its own way of separating the men from the boys. On October 5, 1906, Hank made his first¾and only¾start for New York. It was a disaster for both the team and the 19-year-old hopeful. Pitching a complete game, Mathewson walked fourteen Boston Beaneaters and hit one en route to a 7-1 shellacking. He would pitch just two more innings before being quietly released by the team in the middle of July, 1907. Hank fared no better for the rest of the year. A December item in the Altoona Tribune noted that Hank had retired (the first of several times) after failing in three leagues―the National, the Tri-State, and the Atlantic. Ouch.
Hank may never have enjoyed seeing his picture on a baseball card, but there’s now a T206 style art card for him. One copy of our Helmar Card of the Week is part of the company’s current offerings.
For the next several years Hank moved in and out of baseball with little success in either. Given the number of comeback attempts that he made in smaller and smaller towns, it would be a safe assumption that he held a genuine love for the game. Unfortunately, Hank’s bad luck extended to something far more important that throwing a baseball. Still in his late 20s, he was diagnosed with the scourge of the age, tuberculosis. To ease his symptoms he moved with his wife and four daughters to the dry clime of Arizona. They returned to Factoryville at the end of June, 1917, to allow Hank to die at home. By July 2, he was gone.
Characteristically, Christy felt partly responsible for his brother’s lack of success as a ballplayer, saying, “He was brought up before I was ready because I got the diphtheria at the start of the ’06 season. The Giants management thought they could still sell tickets if there was still a Mathewson pitching at the Polo Grounds. But they should have waited. It cost them a good ballplayer. Hank just wasn’t ready.”
If Henry was mediocre, there was still Nick Mathewson in the wings. By some accounts he may have been the most athletically talented of the three brothers. Among other reports we have this 1908 item from the Pittsburgh Daily Post: “It is reported that Mathewson’s brother, Nick, who is now finishing a course at Keystone Academy, will enter Bucknell next fall. Those who know say that this youngster is a far better pitcher than was Christy at his age. Last summer he played with the Scranton All-Collegians. When this nine played the Scranton league team Mathewson was trotted out in the beginning of the seventh. The Scranton leaguers laughed and then protested against playing kids, Mathewson being only about 16. However, he was kept in the game and succeeded in striking out every man who came up before him during the remaining three innings. Then the All-Collegians laughed.”
Certainly young Nick was a hot prospect. Even Detroit Tiger manager Hughie Jennings, who had won two American League pennants in a row, coveted his services. Jennings was so impressed, in fact, that in December of 1908 he offered Nick a contract for the princely sum of $3000. Christy, for one, advised against it. Instead, on January 6, 1909, Nick returned to Lafayette College but in a few days returned home to Factoryville and his parents, despondent and in agony. Unbearable, inexplicable pains shot through his brain and he was filled with dreadful anxieties about missing schoolwork. He feared that he was losing his mind.
Highly concerned, the Mathewsons had Nick examined first by the family physician and then by a Dr. Wehlau in Scranton. The observations were fruitless; nothing definite could be found wrong and no course of treatment could be advised. The morning of January 14 Nick appeared to be improved. That afternoon, however, after saying that he was going to the barn to attend to the horses, he shot himself behind his right ear with a .32 caliber pistol. He was found by his father, still alive, but it was only a matter of time. The damage done, he died the next day. The event remains somewhat of a mystery today; was Nick the victim of a physical ailment solely, or was it a mental issue? Certainly growing up under the shadow of one of the most beloved personalities of the time must have put great pressure on the young man.