The Greatest Cooperstown Find (Updated)

For more than 25 years, Dan Patrick and I have had the same debate.

We’ll be talking about the game’s All-Time Greats, and I’ll throw out the names of Honus Wagner or Buck Ewing or Christy Mathewson, or how we need to give Bobby Mathews credit for having won 300 games at a time when most pitchers didn’t last five seasons, and he’ll always say the same thing: “How do you know they were any good? We have no film of them. We don’t know what they did or how they did it.”
I’d point out that you could say the same thing about the Negro Leaguers, or largely about Ty Cobb, and he’d say these were exceptions, and secretly I’d realize at what a towering disadvantage the pre-1920 stars are, and I’d grieve that a man like Mathewson – clearly baseball’s first idol and considered by the old, old timers as being perhaps its first modern pitcher – might eventually be totally ignored.
It saddened me especially about Mathewson, to whom the kids of 1967 was a tangible memory easily obtained from their grandfathers. One of my earliest baseball-related daydreams was of going back in time to see him pitch, possibly alongside my mother’s Dad, the great Giant fan, who never had enough money to go once to the Polo Grounds while Mathewson still weaved his magic there – or even to go before Mathewson died in 1925, after six years of agony from tuberculosis and lungs scalded in a poison gas training exercise in France just weeks before World War I ended.
And then I was shown something, in the photo library of the Hall, last week. And I gasped.
There is some film of Mathewson – he’s shown warming up on the sidelines, evidently on Opening Day of 1905, arrogant John McGraw’s decision to put “World Champions” on the uniforms (another nose thumb at the American League), the most evident image. But he’s only tossing the ball and if that’s the way he’s pitched, Dan’s right – he won his 373 games because he managed to last for parts of seventeen seasons and both the pitching and the hitting of the time were unscientific messes. At one point a dog runs around on the field, and at another, Mathewson drops the return throw. If he’s cracking 70 on these “pitches” I’d be mighty surprised.
In fact, bluntly, the second or third best “film” of Mathewson in action is from a “flip book” (A Winthrop Moving Picture Post Card, to be precise) – a delightful hand-held series of still pictures from 1907 which when skimmed through with the thumb, create an animated representation of Mathewson’s legendary form. If you grew up on the legend of the hero who died so young and so loved, it can make you tear up. I got one last year – here’s the cover:
Matty1907.jpg
It’s wonderful, but even here, he’s just, well, throwing. He’s a professional, to be sure, and his mechanics would make any pitcher jealous, but, again, where’s the beef? 

Mathewson was famed for one piece of advice to young pitchers, which would cause him to be banned from the field today, as pitching coaches clapped their hands over the ears of their young charges: Don’t put everything you have on every pitch. Save something for the 9th Inning (that might explain his 435 Complete Games). Still, this is ridiculous. He had to have had something more in the way of exertion or form – in an era of contact hitting when a batter striking out 100 times in a season was likely to find himself in Decatur, Illinois the next year, he led the National League in strikeouts five years out of six and ended with more than 2500. But where was the visual, visceral, proof?
In the basement of the Hall of Fame, that’s where.
I was handed a series of glass images, each about four inches by five, that were nothing less than the “magic lantern slides” that used to be projected in movie houses, in the pre-newsreel days. You just couldn’t set up film cameras in 1911 and hope to get anything meaningful in the way of action or highlights. But the box camera did the trick.
And there it all was: the key plays of the 1911 World Series, right down to the consecutive home runs in Games Two and Three that earned A’s third baseman Frank Baker the nickname “Home Run,” and first lit the fire in the public’s imagination about the longball. It can be argued that those two dingers – one which tied up the game in the 9th, the other which won one – set the stage for the next century of Home Run Mania, and the constant alteration of equipment, ball, stadium dimensions, and pitching rules that has ushered in era after era of “The Home Run Era” virtually without interruption.
And there was one other image in there that took my breath away. I originally posted a blurry snapshot taken with an iPhone, but the warm and friendly curators took pity on me and sent… this:
Mathewson Christy 348-65d_Act_PD.jpg
Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

The figure in the middle of the diamond is Christy Mathewson, and what he is doing couldn’t have surprised me more than if the slide showed that he had his 2009 Lamborghini parked behind home plate.
He is clearly delivering at one of those moments when he would have advised the kids to throw as hard as they could. He is firing. And his delivery is precisely that of the modern power pitcher. His frame, 6′ 1-1/2″, is so low to the ground that the back knee is nearly touching it. He is in classic fireballer position, as aware of the physics of pitching as anybody who has followed him. 
In fact, the first thing I thought when I saw that slide was: ‘What’s this picture of him doing mixed in here?’:
Seaver.JPEG
Christy Mathewson had Tom Seaver’s delivery. That’s it. That’s who I thought I was seeing in that slide from 1911. Old Dirty Knees Seaver.
Or, if that’s not enough of a reference, let’s say he had a righthanded version of this guy:
Koufax.jpegMattyCropped.jpg
Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

43 Comments

If Cooperstown had any sense they’d find someone with the technical expertise to reproduce those slides in a way that they could be viewed by the average fan, preferably online. A commercially produced slide made from a photograph first published in 1911 is in the public domain, so Cooperstown can’t claim they own the copyright to it – copyright no longer exists.

May25 Good stuff Ty. Jenn and I went to White Hart Lane five years ago and I too rebemmer the lengthy trek from the Tube station to the stadium and the grungy glory of the arena itself.Its really a wonderful experience live isn’t it?That first Blackppol game was part of a horrible Spurs run that mirrored the ‘Pool run that you mention. I rebemmer looking at the table and seeing four or five straight games that should have been easy wins but because of injuries and exhaustion and just plain old poor play I think Spurs got maybe three points out of a possible fifteen. Bye bye Champions League next season.Its a gutwrenching sport to experience at times.

I agree. I’d love to have this stuff available online.

I remember reading (a few months ago on Tim Marchman’s site) how some enterprising person took some still frames of Three-Finger Brown pitching and spliced them together to make a video. In fact, I thought I first read about it here, but maybe it was Rob Neyer’s blog. I can’t remember. Anyway…that video is available online. And look, here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzkyW7WcybU&feature=player_embedded

LR89L2 Very true! Makes a change to see someone spell it out like that. :)

Keith:

Reading along it made me believe I was there with you as you found these treasurers. The pictures are awesome, thanks to you and the curators. It looks like I will have to make a trip next year.

Keith, you need to get this if you don’t already have it: Fred Lieb’s Baseball As I Knew It. Lieb started covering baseball in New York in 1911 and published the book in 1977–and was still writing winter columns on the hot stove league for a St. Petersburg paper. He talks about Matty in there–and many, many others.

Keith, you need to get this if you don’t already have it: Fred Lieb’s Baseball As I Knew It. Lieb started covering baseball in New York in 1911 and published the book in 1977–and was still writing winter columns on the hot stove league for a St. Petersburg paper. He talks about Matty in there–and many, many others.

I came across a photo not too long ago on the internets of Smokey Joe Wood warming up before his famous game against Walter Johnson. I was shocked when I found it. I assumed none existed. This photo here of Christy Mathewson actually pitching is stunning. As is the flip book. Dan Patrick is right. We never saw them play. All we have to go on are books, score cards, newspaper articles and quotes from witnesses back then, whether it be the fans, managers, teammates or opposing players. Their stories are our lifeline to the past. But they are enough.

Thanks Keith for all you shared with us. It was beautifully done. I can’t think of anyone who would have put so much time, thought and effort into such an undertaking. Your vast knowledge and unique perspective of these players is evident and greatly appreciated by those of us who will never tire of learning all we can about these extraordinary players.

“Honus Wagner was an eight time National League batting champion, with a lifetime batting average of .328. He also led the league five times in stolen bases, five times in RBIs, eight times in doubles and three times in triples. He played nearly 2,800 games during his career, with 3,430 hits, 651 doubles, 252 triples and 722 stolen bases. Along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner was one of the first five inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.”

What’s also fun for me in this picture is to see how low the mound is — looks almost flat, not raised very high … AND to see the word VISITORS in the on deck area grass toward the dugout on the 3rd base side. I’m guessing that not many teams had the 1st base side as the home dugout back then (just as it is rare today).

Eddie Frierson
(www.matty.org)

What’s also fun for me in this picture is to see how low the mound is — looks almost flat, not raised very high … AND to see the word VISITORS in the on deck area grass toward the dugout on the 3rd base side. I’m guessing that not many teams had the 1st base side as the home dugout back then (just as it is rare today).

Eddie Frierson
(www.matty.org)

What is also interesting for me in this photo is to see how low the mound appears to be — very low to the ground … AND to see the word VISITORS written out in the on deck area on the 3rd base side in front of the dugout. I’m guessing it was rare for the visiting team to be located on the 3rd base side back then — just as it is now.

Eddie Frierson
(www.matty.org)

I noticed the way the batter is holding the bat down as the pitch is being delivered. No one would teach those mechanics these days.
I think the low mound would add extra arm stress since the higher mound helps the legs drive the arm toward the plate- the lower mound would force the arm and shoulder to generate more of the force.

Great find.

You do know how to tell a story, Keith — and this was another great one, thanks!

Whoa, Keith — or should I say, “radical sabermetrician Kyle Osterman” — I believe your blog is being gently spoofed by The Onion this week: http://www.theonion.com/content/news_briefs/controversial?utm_source=a-section

…and speaking of pitching styles here’s a bit of classic footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uYfWrSzfBI

More, please!

“…and speaking of pitching styles here’s a bit of classic footage”

Wouldn’t that be great if the balance of power between the pitcher and batter could go back to this? (In reference to your Warner Bros. link).
More Lollipop Curveballs, please!

and speaking of the older leagues, notice how Bugs Bunny’s mitt has the fingers unsewn.

Cool.

Keith, I have a rare (perhaps) copy of Touching Second by John J. Evers and Hugh Fullerton. I obviously know who Evers was, and I also know Fullerton was an early baseball writer, but I can’t find any information on this book other than it was recently republished by McFarland for their historical baseball series. It is a fascinating time capsule and practically a textbook on how the game was played in the deadball era. I got my copy in a local antique mall and it is an original, 2nd edition printing, May of 1910. I’m assuming that it’s absolutely insane that I got it for $3.35, right?

Wasn’t Mathewson a righty? I know the photo is old and grainy but it almost looks like that’s a left-hander on the mound.

I can see him as a righty here. We could see his rear toe pointing toward us which would have to be his right leg to point that way. We can see a lot of his face which looks like he is easily facing to his right more as a righty would, especially with his arm all the way back. And that we are seeing his stomach forward and not his back which would be an awkward twist.

I have been collecting autographs including Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell and other Giants and a few players from these earlier times and this blog gives me a much better appreciation of what and who I have. Great pics. Clearly shows major league torque. We will never see what they really looked like so all we can go by in comparison is stats and reputations or what the sports writers said. It’s all relative. They were the best compared to the rest of their times. People payed to see them like we do. Thanks.

Keith, thanks for mentioning this on Countdown the other night. That is quite the amazing picture of Mathewson! What I was struck with was the fact that the A’s batter in the picture appears to be wearing his warm-up sweater at the plate, which seemed quite odd, as well as the fact that the Polo Grounds, which as you know burned down in April of that year and here we are, approximately six months later, the place was rebuilt to the point where the Worlds Series could be held there.

You are quite right that the known film of Mathewson doesn’t show him to be a power pitcher. However, slight correction. The film of Mathewson warming up on Opening Day at the Polo Grounds, which for years was thought to be the only existing film of him in action, was taken in 1906. The Giants wore the “Worlds Champions” uniforms only during that season. (For some reason, the film apparently has a May 24, 1907 copyright, interestingly issued to the Winthrop Moving Picture Company. Would seem this is the same outfit that issued the flip book that you picked up last year? If so, might there be another Mathewson flip book out there?)

Again, thanks again for mentioning this on the show.

Keith, I’ve also seen the film clips of Mathewson warming up. It’s true that it doesn’t show very much except him basically getting loose and goofing around. A quick search of the internet shows very few pictures of him, and none during a game. I DID run across a picture that may reinforce your observations however. You probably have it, but might have forgotten this photo. In Lawrence S. Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times,” chapter 12 (interview of Chief Meyers) there is an excellent action photo of Mathewson actually warming up on the sidelines. It doesn’t look posed, and he’s without a cap. He isn’t throwing full speed, but it looks like he’s working up to it. Anyone else care to comment on this photo? I’ve never seen this photo anywhere else.

Great post, Keith. I was just at Matty’s grave a few weeks ago while passing through Pennsylvania. This brings him even closer.

Keith, you know sod-all about politics, but boy you’ve definitely got it going when it comes to sports. Christy Mathewson is the original baseball superstar, well unless you count Cap Anson. The photos you’ve posted here are amazing. Thanks very much for sharing.

It doesn’t look posed, and he’s without a cap. He isn’t throwing full speed, but it looks like he’s working up to it. Anyone else care to comment on this photo? I’ve never seen this photo anywhere else. Admission essays | book reports

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In the late 80s at Boardwalk and Baseball Theme park, the Hall of fame ran what was about a 25 minute loop of baseball greats, in which I can remember them showing Tom Seaver and Christy Mathewson’s pitching motion, and showing how almost exact they were. I always remembered this because I was a huge Seaver, and Mathewson fan. That is fewer then 25 years ago, that film hast to still be around somewhere, I would hope.

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