May 2008

Beginnings and Ends


Earlier this week, a centerfielder named Jay Bruce made his highly awaited and eagerly anticipated Major League debut for the Cincinnati Reds.  This hot prospect – the 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft, the 2007 Minor League Player of the Year – took his spot in the left-handed side of the batter’s box in the bottom of the second inning, settled in with his feet planted, body and hands swaying rhythmically in anticipation, waited for the cheers cascading from a standing ovation to flutter away, and proceeded to patiently allow four balls to cross the plate.  Bruce’s four-pitch walk didn’t measure up to the harbinger-of-greatness-to-come that Ken Griffey, Jr. produced in his first at-bat in the bigs (a double to center against Dave Stewart), nor did it contain the immediate, exclamation-pointed thunder of Jeremy Hermida’s initial introduction to the Majors (a pinch-hit grand slam in his first at-bat); instead, Bruce’s first plate appearance (which isn’t even recorded as an official at-bat) served as an introductory, tentative note in a forceful opus that built each successive foray into the batter’s box on this first night.  Each was prefaced with a standing ovation from the hometown crowd and punctuated with another productive conclusion of hit or walk.  Jay Bruce finished the night with an unblemished record:  five plate appearances, three hits, two walks, two runs scored, two runs driven in, one successful stolen bases attempt, and one triumphant shaving-cream pie in the face.  

Of course, no one knows where this will all lead.  Bruce’s bold hello to the rest of the Majors could be the apex.  On the final day of the 1963 season, an 18-year-old named John Paciorek made his Major League debut for the Houston Astros against the New York Mets in a battle between the two worst teams in the National League.  Paciorek went 3-3, drew two walks, scored four runs, and drove in three.  And he never played another Major League game.  Or Bruce’s magical first night in the Majors could eventually stand out in a career most notable for that first flash.  In 1977, Mitchell Page finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting – he slugged over .500, stole more than 40 bases, and put up the fourth-best OPS in the league.  Page would play seven more seasons in the Majors, but never again reached the heights attained as a 25-year old rookie.  Or perhaps (and this is, of course, the hope that anyone watching Bruce in his first game holds onto, quietly, smilingly), Jay Bruce’s perfect night at the plate in his very first Major League game will someday be viewed as the starting gun that announced the beginning of a very special, iconic, once-in-a-generation career.  The beginning.  The lightning flash of the rookie season resonates like few experiences in the game – for over the extended debut season, we are allowed to give full leash to our hopes of witnessing and participating along every step of a Hall of Fame career.  

Tom Seaver and Herb Score.  Dwight Gooden and Bob Feller.  Cesar Cedeno, Johnny Bench, Willie McCovey and Vada Pinson.  Mark Fidrych.  Al Kaline.  Eric Davis and Will Clark.  Fernando Valenzuela.  Jim Bouton, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Black, and Tony Conigliaro.  All cannonballed into the Majors, producing a splash that delighted the amassed audience.  Each created – through outward expressions made up of equal parts talent, youth, and exuberance – the sense of excitement, awe, and hopefulness that attaches itself to any rookie sensation.  And then?  Some fizzled, leading us to wonder, “what if?”  Others continued to build upon that early explosion, using that first step as the building block on a glorious ascent toward baseball’s Olympus.  And many others hung around, grinding our admirable careers, flashing here and there, evoking (but never fully realizing) the brilliance of the beginning.    

Of course, not all stories announce their start with a meteoric, blinding flash that remains imprinted on our collective baseball consciousness.  Sometimes, a career will meander here and there, picking up themes and adding to the totality, until a final moment serves as the refiner’s fire, out of which a true and definitive shape stands before us.  

On June 2, 1998, at County Stadium in Milwaukee, Dennis Martinez took the hill for the Atlanta Braves.  Martinez stood on the mound that day, the winner of 242 Major League games, a 43-year-old pitcher in this third decade, and stared straight into the last vestiges of a career that witnessed glory (a perfect game in 1991) and disappointment (two poor performances in the 1979 World Series that found he and his team on the losing end).  He had led the AL in wins in 1981, won an ERA title in 1991, and pitched in four All-Star games.  Perhaps most importantly, Martinez stood on the mound on June 2 one victory shy of tying Juan Marichal for the most all-time wins by a Latin-American pitcher.  In his start five days earlier, Martinez had left the game with a 4-1 lead, only to see the Braves’ bullpen blow the lead and the game and shorten El Presidente’s window for tying the Dominican Dandy.  The Braves and Brewers were wearing the uniforms of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves this particular game, and when Martinez, wearing a blousy #32 on his back, double-pumped his first windup (in a pitching motion more in line with 1958 instead of 1998), his quest to match Marichal began.  I remember watching this game live, hoping for Martinez to get through five innings with a lead, hoping to see this aging pitcher fight off the realities of the years and the wear on the arm, hoping that I would get to share in the magic that springs from the meshing of the past and present.  A walk and two singles against Martinez in the first did not improve my hope, but when the second single (by Dave Nilsson) hit a Brewers runner for the last out of the inning, some of that optimism returned.   

By the time the ninth inning rolled around, Martinez was still on the mound.  Incredibly, he had allowed ten hits but no runs in the first eight frames.  And with the Braves holding a 9-0 lead, Martinez could afford to try and get the final three outs of an improbable shutout.  Following form, Martinez allowed two more hits in the ninth, but still was shutting out the Brewers.  Martinez (from Nicaragua) took the sign from Javy Lopez (from Puerto Rico), and made his pitch.  With 26 outs in the book, pinch-hitter Bobby Hughes chopped the ball over the mound, and was declared out when shortstop Ozzie Guillen (from Venezuela) ranged behind second base, cradled the ball in, and threw on the run to Andres Galarraga (also from Venezuela) at first.  Martinez’s 12-hit shutout (the first in 24 years, and one of only five thrown since 1956) had tied him with Marichal, and as Martinez celebrated with Lopez, Guillen, Galarraga and the rest of his teammates, his career seemed complete.  El Presidente would never make another start in the Majors, but he would pass Marichal on the all-time wins list on September 25, when he pitched one-and-a-third scoreless innings in relief.  Martinez – whose story had begun in 1976 as a 21-year old earning the win in relief in his first Major League appearance – had concluded a 23-year career back where had begun – in the bullpen, pitching in September.

Beauty resides in every story told by a ballplayer, and all stories remain unique.  The sum totals of hits, strikeouts, home runs, wins, and errors read like braille on an always-evolving text, directing and imploring us to read between the lines to truly celebrate and acknowledge.  But no matter what the middle will tell us, there is always a beginning and an end.  Each reflects on the other, lending poignancy to the entire story.  Bobo Holloman pitched a no-hitter in his first Major League start and finished his o
ne-year career with a 3-7 record.  In his first Major League at-bat, Will Clark hit a home run off Nolan Ryan.  In his last 59 games (14 years later), Clark hit .345, slugged .650 with 32 extra-base hits, and drove in 47 runs – all after being acquired by the Cardinals for the pennant race.  At the beginning, Ted Williams was a beanpole, the brash and antagonistic kid who compiled an historic rookie season that still dazzles.  In the middle, he was the man who hit .406, and the man who won the 1941 All-Star game, and then the man who hit .388 at the age of 38.  At the end, he hit a home run at Fenway Park in his final at-bat and then disappeared into the dugout.  

Beginnings and ends.  We have no idea of the finality that awaits Jay Bruce, nor can we imagine when that end may occur.  But his beginning on May 27, 2008 will always reverberate and ring with the excitement and intimation of what may follow.

Back-to-Back

His hands come together as the arms begin to rise over the head.  As the arms elevate, the head bows, and the connection between the eyes and the catcher’s target breaks.  The head continues its descent, anticipating the full bend at the waist, which spurs a break in the connection between the hands as they fly to either side of the pitcher’s torso.  And then, the momentum of the arms swinging forward carries them up and over the head of the now straightened-up pitcher, and the eyes reconnect with the catcher’s glove.  As the motion continues, the right leg, bent, is raised to the “Cincinnati”  in blocked letters across the jersey.  Gloved right hand and right shin almost touch, while the left hand (cradling the ball) remains hidden behind the lower portion of the pitcher’s torso.  From the batter’s perspective, the pitcher’s midsection twists just enough so that the outer portions of the “57” on the back of the jersey become visible–just a flash of number before the motion enters its final stage.  The delivery – almost overhand – reintroduces the ball to the equation.  The pitcher uncoils, moving in direction from first base toward the plate, head on a perfect line with the target, and the right leg kicks out.  The fastball, now free, explodes across the last part of its journey, and pops into the catcher’s glove.   

Over the span of two starts through five June days in 1938, this motion (and its shorter, less complex, more contained version – the stretch) baffled hitters and led a pitcher previously known more for his bouts of wildness than for his artistry and accomplishments toward a unique, rapturous, and omnipresent niche inside the baseball hall of records.  Before this magical run finished its breathtaking course, 63 consecutive batters* had failed to get a hit against this unique and artistic pitching motion.  On June 11th in Cincinnati, and then on June 15th in Brooklyn, Johnny Vander Meer commanded the stage and played the leading role in what can only be described as the baseball equivalent of being twice struck by lightning.  In back-to-back starts – in a day game at Crosley Field and then in the first night contest at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field – Johnny Vander Meer contested the definition of impossible, restructured the bounds of the believable, and twirled back-to-back no-hitters.  

When Johnny Vander Meer strode to his home mound on June 11, he was 5-2 on the season, and his club – the third-place Cincinnati Reds – was 23-20, five-and-a-half games behind the front-running New York Giants.  His opponent on that day was the team from Boston (called the Bees that year), just a half-game behind the Reds in the standings.  The Bees would finish the season at the bottom of most offensive categories, and on this day, Vender Meer’s blazing fastball and controlled curve rendered the bats especially ineffectual.  The Reds would score a run in the fourth, two more in the sixth, no Bee would make it to second, and before 10,311 fans, Johnny Vander Meer – nicknamed the Dutch Master – claimed a definitive spot in the baseball ledgers and concluded this one hour, 48-minute affair by inducing pinch-hitter Ray Mueller to bounce to third.  It was the first no-hitter in the National League since 1934 and the first by a Reds pitcher since Hod Eller turned the trick on May 11, 1919 (Eller would go on to claim more fame later that season, when he – on his way toward a three-hit shutout – struck out six straight White Sox batters in Game Five of the 1919 World Series).  Vander Meer’s no-hitter was the 48th in National League history, and like Eller’s, faced the very real possibility of fading into the dusty recesses of boxed-up memories and mythologies.

Johnny Vander Meer pitched in three All-Star games.  He lost two seasons when he served in the Navy during World War II, and missed more time because of arm injuries.  He threw three scoreless innings in relief in Game 5 of the 1940 World Series – a game which the Reds lost 8-0.  Johnny Vander Meer fought wildness throughout his days in the Majors (leading the league in walks on two separate occasions), struck out a bevy of batters throughout his career (leading the league in three different seasons), and finished his 13 years in the Major Leagues with a 119-121 record.  In the ninth edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, his career is delineated on page 2311.

The depth of Vander Meer’s story – a tale told with broad strokes in the encyclopedia and given additional texture by his no-hitter in Cincinnati on June 11, 1938 – becomes altogether unique and resonant because of the chapter written when he took the mound in Brooklyn, four days after his performance against the Bees.  It was there that the lefty ensured that his performance at Crosley Field would always stay fresh and unboxed.  Paradoxically, he began the night as a footnote to a different sort of historical precedent, just one of many players participating in the first wave of a new, wobbling, tentative milestone in the history of the game.  On June 15, 1938, Vander Meer pitched in front of the second-largest crowd in Ebbets Field history.  The majority of the crowd had not chosen to attend the game because of the starting pitcher for the Reds; most were not there to see a 6-2 pitcher for a third-place team  take on the batters for their seventh-place hometown Brooklyn Dodgers.  Johnny Vander Meer did not begin the game as the main focus for the fans, whose attention was directed somewhere above the pitching mound, trained on the lights illuminating the field, stands, and men ready to find their positions.  This particular contest marked the first ever night game in Brooklyn baseball history, and 38, 784 men, women, and children had descended on the ballpark to both witness and impinge themselves on the proceedings.  

And so on this night, Vander Meer added the shadows created by night baseball to his already impressive arsenal of blazing fastballs and sharp curves.  But if the curves were breaking more, and if the fastballs were popping with greater intensity, the Dutch Master’s control was less.  Eight Brooklyn Dodgers would earn a free trip to first base on this summer evening.  But seven others would also trudge back to the dugout after failing to even make contact in their at-bat.  And all failed to hit safely.  Future Hall-of-Famer Kiki Cuyler would go hitless.  As would a power-hitting first baseman named Dolph Camilli.  And so too, Brooklyn’s weak-hitting shortstop named Leo Durocher.  Durocher, whose name and presence litters and contextualizes so much of what was important in baseball between 1925 – 1973, found himself at the plate, facing Vander Meer with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning on June 15, 1938:  found himself, once again, in the middle of baseball history – a  history at this moment defined and sculpted by a 23-year old left-hander named Johnny Vander Meer.

On this upcoming Sunday afternoon, sometime after four pm (Eastern Time), a 24-year-old lefthander named Jon Lester will stride to the mound in Oakland, California.  Lester will be following his Red Sox teammates onto the field, and will be shadowed by the  indiscernible, but very real shadow of Johnny Vander Meer.  The walk will mimic one taken by every pitcher who has thrown a no-hitter since Vander Meer pitched his back-to-back gems, and will connect Lester with every  mounds-man who had taken a shot at duplicating Vander Meer’s handshake with immortality.  Unlike Lester’s previous outing, the expectancy and tension will live from the outset of the very first pitch.  Each fan in the park, every television viewer and radio listener, all of the teammates and opponents, and perhaps even Lester himself, will be anticipating and wondering.  And as Lester begins his windup for his ve
ry first survey into the possibility, the past and the present will collide and then dance together on the ballfield.  

Over a span of five days that occurred sixty years ago, Johnny Vander Meer did his own dance with the impossible and emerged from the performance as an unlikely definition of the attainable.  No pitcher has matched Vander Meer since, but this weekend we will all have the opportunity to watch the newest member of the no-hit club try to join him at a table reserved for one.  And as we watch Lester’s dalliance unfold, we’ll also be treated with an opportunity to peer back toward the past, when there was a team in Boston nicknamed the Bees, when the Reds played at Crosley Field, when nighttime baseball was a controversial new concept, and when a young left-hander named Vander Meer rode a powerful, twisting, winding delivery on an ageless and unforgettable wave toward the impossible.

* A Note:  After his back-to-back no-hitters, Vander Meer’s next start took place on June 19, and his dominance continued.  He got through the first three-and-a-third innings without allowing a hit before Boston’s Deb Garms singled.  Starting with the first batter on June 11, Vander Meer threw 21.1 hitless innings.  The 63 batters figure referenced above includes just the hitters Vander Meer faced in the two no-hitters.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, baseball-almanac.com, and No-Hitters, by Rich Westcott and Allen Lewis, for information that helped with this piece.  The book by Westcott and Lewis is a fun read, filled with interesting facts and anecdotes (not to mention box scores and line-scores for all of the no-hitters thrown between 1893 – 1999), and comes highly recommended for any of you wanting to learn more about the history of no-hitters.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke

The lefty came from California, just another face in a sea of baseball prospects bobbing here and there among the rolling tide of a vast and expansive farm system.  The righty came from the south, plucked from playing fields of the Negro Leagues.  The switch-hitter – named for a Hall-of-Fame catcher – came from the Midwest, an unpolished jewel full of jaw-dropping potential.  Each would find himself inextricably connected to baseball’s story in his first season in the big leagues and emerged as a footnote in a larger and more dramatic essay.  The switch-hitter would play alongside Joe DiMaggio in the Yankee Clipper’s final campaign in the Majors, a rookie quietly deferring to the icon and waiting for his chance to roam centerfield.  The righty would be waiting in the on deck circle with a unique vantage point for Bobby Thomson’s home run that gave the Giants the pennant.  The lefty would make his Major League debut just two days after his teammate Jackie Robinson trotted out toward first base for his first game in the Majors.  Each would struggle in that first season, too.  The switch-hitter famously considered leaving the game after failing in his first taste of the Majors.  The lefty batted only 89 times in his debut season, and failed to hit a single home run while striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances.  And the righty would start off hitless in his first 12 at-bats before homering off Warren Spahn for his first big league hit.  Each would patrol centerfield in a ballpark in New York.  Each would blast out home runs in prodigious quantity.  Each would be held up by his fans as the best the town had to offer.  And each would settle into a magnificent playing career whose chapters would find a permanent home in baseball’s Hall of Fame.  Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

In the nineteen-fifties, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider stood at the epicenter of the baseball world.  In ballparks as famous and iconic as the players would someday become, they ran down long fly balls, hit searing line drives, and led their teams to pennants.  Willie Mays flew around a playing field in Manhattan and exhibited a style, grace, and innate sense of baseball-ness that made it seem as if he were born to play the game.  Over in the Bronx, Mickey Mantle turned his unique and unprecedented blend of power and speed into the focal point of a dynasty that placed his image atop a totem of greatness and dominance.  And Duke Snider, overseeing his kingdom in Brooklyn, followed a path of quieter consistency and demeanor, issuing resounding thwacks with his sweet and powerful swing, offering counterpoints to the cowbells and ringing instruments; the Duke, the regal centerfielder always pushing to elevate his team to the golden promises of next year.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.  In 1956, Mantle led the Majors in batting average (.353), home runs (52), and RBI (130).  The triple crown season remains an apex and symbol of all that could be accomplished when this man was healthy and able to mesh his vast talents and abilities in a concentrated drive toward excellence.  In 1957, Willie Mays became the first player in Major League history to steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in back-to-back seasons.  The accomplishment represents the total package of Mays on the ballfield – the running and hitting, the power and the speed, the promise of any given moment flashing and resonating with wonder.  As Leo Durocher once said, Mays could do it all.  In the nineteen-fifties, Duke Snider hit more home runs (326) and drove in more runs (1031) than any other player in baseball.  Day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out – the remarkable resume of a remarkable ballplayer fulfilling his responsibilities and making manifest the magical qualities that could turn a power-hitting centerfielder into a magnetic and smile-inducing paragon.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.  The summers were their stage.  And the autumns, their encore.  Mickey Mantle hit more home runs than any other player in World Series history.  Willie Mays used up every inch of his centerfield to run down a drive by Vic Wertz.  Duke Snider remains the only player in World Series history to hit four home runs in two different series.  In every year from 1951 – 1964, at least one was playing in the Fall Classic.  Each brought a title to his team, and each became a little more special for that contribution.

Every ballplayer has his own unique story to tell.  For Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, those stories resonate like few others, and sturdily stand on their own myths, facts, numbers, and anecdotes.  Still, their juxtaposition to one another expands their legacies, and adds depth and color to their mythologies.  Without the others, perhaps they don’t shine as far or with as much wattage.  There are numerous combinations like this that texture the baseball timeline.  When geography and timing exert their influence, certain pairs, trios, or quartets become so linked that they forever stand together.  And when that does happen, we are left with a sum that stands above its parts.  Tinker, Evers, and Chance.  Ruth and Gehrig.  Raschi, Reynolds, and Lopat.  Trammell and Whitaker.  Mathewson and McGraw.  Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey.  Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine.  And of course, Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.  As the Hall of Fame writer Red Smith once quipped, Snider, Mantle and Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best.  Thanks in part to a song by Terry Cashman, the three names have become one – a rolling, effluent, harmonious combination that immediately speaks to a different era when three of the greatest to ever play the game shared the same city and magnetized the same baseball universe.  A trio of ballplayers – forever linked, forever resonant,  forever connected in a perpetually sparkling centerfield of their youth.  Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

To be continued…

Thanks to baseball-reference.com and baseball-almanac.com for information that helped with this piece.

Time Machine

Did you ever play the time-machine game? As in, if you had a time machine, what date would you punch into the dials? Where would you go? Why? Have you ever played this particular wish-casting game with baseball at the center? If you could jump into a time machine right now, armed with a blackberry that had baseball-reference on-line, ready to spit out any date, what game would you visit? I have so many answers to this question. Maybe July 2, 1963 – for Warren Spahn versus Juan Marichal over 16 innings. Perhaps I would type in August 22, 1936 and watch Satchel Paige, Biz Mackey, Josh Gibson and Hilton Smith battle during a Negro League All-Star game. Or just maybe I would pocket a small transistor radio and journey to September 9, 1965, take a seat at Dodger Stadium, plug the earpiece into my right ear and listen to Vin Scully call Sandy Koufax’s perfect game. All justifiable choices, no doubt. And there are hundreds more. But if pressed for one final, definitive answer, I would grab a heavy sweater, climb into the capsule and answer, “October 8, 1908.”

Nearly 100 years ago, on October 8, 1908, the Chicago Cubs found themselves at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, preparing – in the most hostile environment imaginable – to play the New York Giants in a one-game, winner-take-the-pennant contest. The intrigue, controversy, permutations of circumstance, and combinations of coincidence that forced the scheduling of this game are mind-boggling, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, and just plain absurd.

On September 23, 1908, the Giants and Cubs met at the Polo Grounds for the third game of four-game set. The Cubs had swept a doubleheader the day before to virtually tie the Giants for first place in the National League. The Giants — due to numerous postponements earlier in the season – had 17 games and a slew of doubleheaders remaining on their schedule. The Cubs – just percentage points behind New York – only had 11 games left to play. So on Wednesday, September 23, 1908, the Giants and Christy Mathewson squared off against the Cubs and Jack Pfiester in a game that would have much to say about the eventual National League pennant winner. And when the Giants’ Al Bridwell hit a two-out single to drive in Moose McCormick in the bottom of the 9th to win the game 2-1 and give Mathewson his 34th win of the season, the Giants looked like they had regained their status as favorites for the pennant. But as McCormick was crossing the plate, the Giants’ runner at first – Fred Merkle – was running toward the clubhouse, anxious to escape the mob of fans already invading the field. Merkle would never touch second (a not uncommon practice of the time in this particular circumstance) and his negligence would be spotted by the Cubs’ second baseman, Johnny Evers. Evers (after trying, and failing, to get hold of the game ball to step on second and force Merkle out) would confront umpire Hank O’ Day with the situation, and O’Day (who was also watching Merkle intently because the exact same play – although without Merkle – had taken place in a Cubs’ game weeks before, and O’Day had been forced to admit at that time he hadn’t been watching the baserunner) would eventually rule Merkle out when Evers (with another baseball in his hand) stepped on second. Which meant that the third out of the inning had been recorded by forceout, which meant the winning run didn’t score, which meant the game was still tied, which meant the teams were still tied in the National League. League president Harry Pulliam would eventually rule the game a 1-1 tie and announced that if the outcome of the game played a role in determining the pennant winner, it would be replayed from the start. Of course, the Giants and Cubs would finish the regular season with exactly the same record, and on October 8, 1908, the two teams readied themselves for one final contest.

This is the game I would visit if I had a time machine. And I would sit somewhere in the stands and watch two of the game’s greatest pitchers – Christy Mathewson and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown – duel. Brown did not begin the game for Chicago, however. Mathewson started against Pfiester in a reprise of the September 23 match up, but the Cubs’ left-hander never made it out of the first inning. With a run already in, manager Frank Chance called on Brown to come in for relief. And then, two of the game’s greatest pitchers resumed their one-on-one battle that had begun in 1903.

Over the course of 14 seasons, Mathewson and Brown faced each other on 24 separate occasions. Each would win 12 games. At one point, Brown won eight in a row- a streak that ended on September 24, 1908 (the game following the 1-1 tie), when Mathewson, a day after pitching a complete game, relieved and threw three innings to earn the win. For the baseball fans of today, imagine if Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez – in their primes in the mid to late 1990’s – started facing each other two or three times a year, and continued these marquee match ups for a decade. This was Mathewson versus Brown.

1908 witnessed the apex of the Brown versus Mathewson confrontations. When Brown relieved Pfiester on October 8, the game marked the fourth time that season the two great righties squared off. Mathewson was the winningest pitcher of the decade. Brown owned the lowest ERA of the 1900’s. Each was the ace of his staff. Brown’s right hand was a gnarled mess – he was missing most of his right index finger and two other fingers on his pitching hand were either bent permanently or paralyzed – which enabled him to throw devastating pitch whose movement bewildered batters. Mathewson was a heroic, mythic figure. With matinee-idol looks, an appearance that connoted (and cultivated) a certain superiority, and a fadeaway pitch that was unparalleled for its effectiveness, Mathewson was perhaps the most beloved and highly respected ballplayer of his era.

But on October 8, 1908, Brown emerged as the superior pitcher. With the Giants’ offense held at bay by his assortment of pitches, the Cubs exploded against Mathewson in the third inning. Matty – who later admitted that he “never had less on the ball” – allowed four runs on a triple, two doubles, and a single. It would be the only inning in which the Cubs scored (Mathewson shut them out for the next four innings before being lifted), but it was enough. The Cubs won the game and the pennant, 4-2. Brown earned his 29th win. Mathewson – who had pitched in nine of the Giants’ last 24 games – was saddled with his 11th loss of the season. Brown would go on to win two games over 11 scoreless innings in the World Series that year, helping his club win their second consecutive title. As of May 1, 2008, the Cubs still have not won another World Series. In 1908, Mathewson led the league with 37 wins, a 1.43 ERA, 34 complete games, 44 games started, 390.2 innings pitched, 259 strikeouts, and 11 shutouts. He and Brown were also tied for the league lead with five saves (Mathewson’s teammate, Joe McGinnity, also had five saves).

After October 8, 1908, Brown and Mathewson would pitch against each other nine more times in their Hall of Fame careers. The last match up came on September 4, 1916, when both pitchers, far past their prime and struggling to record outs, pitched complete games in a 10-8 slugfest. Mathewson would win that game, giving him a National League record 373 career victories. Neither man would ever pitch another game in the Major Leagues. Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown lives on as a connection to a time and era when the Cubs were perennial contenders for the pennant. From 1906-1910, Chicago won 530 games (the most wins over a five-year stretch in history), four pennants, and two World Series. And they had the infield that not only inspired the Franklin P. Adams poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (These are the saddest of possible words/”Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance“), but also created the always-fun trivia question, “Who played third in the infield with Tinker, Evers, and Chance?” (answer: Harry Steinfeldt).

Christy Mathewson was elected to the first class of Hall of Famers in 1936. His 373 wins remains the most in National League history (tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander). His feat of three shutouts in the 1905 World Series has never been duplicated. Mathewson’s mythological status – burnished by some of the most heart-wrenching and inexplicable losses in baseball history, an untimely death at the age of 45, his performances on the field, and his association with the New York Giants and John McGraw – remains strong to this day. His perch on baseball’s Mt. Olympus seems assured.

Christy Mathewson and Three Finger Brown. Beginning in the early 1900’s, they pitched at the top of their profession and led their respective teams to a total of nine pennants. They remain at the top of baseball’s all-time leaderboards in multiple categories. They are among the greatest pitchers in history-each illuminating their performances on the field with tales and elements often seen in books of mythology. For me, their stories are intertwined, each lending poignancy, texture, and significance to the other.

Worth a trip back in time, don’t you think?

Grateful acknowledgment and thanks to a few sources that helped immeasurably with this piece:

baseball-reference.com
Baseball Dynasties, by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
Christy Mathewson: A Game-By-Game Profile of a Legendary Pitcher, by Ronald A. Mayer

If you’re interested in learning more about the 1908 Season (the greatest season in baseball history, in my estimation), Christy Mathewson, or Mordecai Brown, here are some recommendations for further reading.

Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, by Cait N. Murphy

Matty: An American Hero: Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, by Ray Robinson

The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball, by Frank Deford

The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg

Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story, by Cindy Thomson & Scott Brown