"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Excerpt: Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball from the Inside by Christy Mathewson

While in the airport on my way to Germany I stopped in one of the bookstores, and like Pavlov’s dog, I salivated and wound up buying another book even though I had taken plenty of reading material with me for the trip.  The book that caught my attention was a book on baseball, but what was fascinating it was in the classics section.  With the baseball season winding down to division races, and my beloved Baltimore Orioles in the race to make a wildcard playoff spot, I picked it up and flipped through it. 

The book was originally written in 1912 by the great pitcher of the then NY Giants (they moved to San Francisco in 1958), Christy Mathewson, who is one of the all time greatest pitchers, and that’s no exaggeration.  I had not known he had written a book.  What was most intriguing was that it was published by Penguin Classics, which is a publisher of more literary works.  This is the book cover.


I bought it.  Of course.  I read about half on my trip and since then finished even though I was in the middle of Dante’s Purgatorio.  So this blog post will present some of the highlights of the book.  I hope this whets your appetite for the playoffs and the coming World Series later this month.

First some background on Christy Mathewson.  You can read his biography on Wikipedia.    There are four things of his life that are striking to me.  First, he was a college graduate when most people never went or even contemplated attending college, let alone a baseball ballplayer.  He was known as a sort of intellectual ballplayer, one who studied nuances of the game.  He was also a world class checkers player, and had he lived longer would probably have made a fine baseball manager.  The fact that he could write this book and write it well attests to his intelligence.  Second, he was religious for a ball player.  He refused to pitch on Sundays, was known as “the Christian Gentleman,” and was so honest that even the umpires looked to him for a call if they weren’t sure.  For a star athlete, his humility is most noticeable, and I’ll have more to say on that later. 

Third, his baseball records are incredible.  You can read about them, but he was a superstar at the Babe Ruth level, which so few can claim.  When the Baseball Hall of Fame was inaugurated, five players were honored as automatic inductees, as “immortals,” and Matty was one of them.  Fourth, his death showed his nobility and Christian stoicism.  When the United States entered World War I, Mathewson signed up and since his college degree was in what would be considered chemistry today he was commissioned in the Chemical Warfare Service.  There was a training accident and he took in gas which damaged his lungs and led to tuberculosis.  He would go on in a weakened state trying to work and attend to his family for five or six years until he died at the age of forty-five.

In the Forward to this book, Chad Harbach frames what Mathewson meant to country

By spring of 1912, when Pitching in a Pinch was published, New York Giants pitcher Christopher Mathewson—a.k.a. “Christy,” “Matty,” or, more obscurely, “Big Six”—had become the nation’s first sporting icon, the original and archetype of the American superstar.  Tall and blond and broad-shouldered, college educated (he earned a 96 in analytic chemistry at Brucknell while staring for the football team), ferociously competitive but always fair-minded (the umpires looked to him on close-calls), Matty seemed too good to be real.  He was the most famous ballplayer in America by far, and one of the most famous people, period.  If you didn’t know Matty, you didn’t know much. 
Much of his fame, of course, owed to his dominance on the mound.  In 1900, while still a teenager, Matty broke in with the Giants.  In 1905, he played the best World Series anyone has ever played, firing three complete-game shutouts against the A’s in six days.  By the time he retired, Matty had racked up 373 wins to go with a handsome 2.13 ERA.  When the Hall of Fame opened in 1936, he was among the celebrated inaugural five inductees—the only one of the five not to live to see that day.  [p. vii]

Excerpts are taken from Penguin Books, published in 2013.

The other key figure in the book is Mathewson’s manager and friend, John McGraw.  McGraw and Mathewson are forever linked as a baseball couple.  In the book Mathewson praises McGraw, who is truly considered one of the greatest managers of the game, but they were as different as night and day.  It’s a curious relationship, and Mathewson in the book repeatedly credits McGraw with much of the team’s success.  From Harbach’s Foreward 

Together, Matty and McGraw make up baseball’s classic odd couple.  Christy was the strapping upright all-American college boy, erudite, temperate, and ethical; McGraw was the abrasive, undersized, hard-drinking Irishman who never an unprofaned sentence and would haggle with the devil for an insurance run.  But their sympathies and commonalities ran deep.  McGraw had been a great player before injuries confined him to coaching; Christy would go on to manage the Cincinnati Reds.  Both men were uncommonly competitive, even among athletes, and endlessly dogged in sniffing out an advantage.  McGraw may have been the undisputed master of in-game tactics, but Matty, one of the country’s best checkers players (he would occasionally play simultaneous blindfold exhibitions) could hold his own.  [p. xi]

So here are some of the excerpts.  Here is Christy on the art of pitching:
A pitcher has two types of batters to face.  One is the man who is always thinking and guessing and waiting, trying to get the pitcher in the hole.  Evers, of the Cubs, is that sort.  They tell me “Ty” Cobb of Detroit is the most highly developed of this type of hitter.  I have never seen him play.  The the other kind is the natural slugger, who does not wait for anything, and who could not outguess a pitcher if he did.  The brainy man is the harder for a pitcher to face because he is a constant source of worry.
There are two ways of fooling a batter.  One is literally to “mix ‘em up,” and the other is to keep feeding him the same sort of ball, but to induce him to think that something else is coming.  When a brainy man is at his best, he is always trying to figure out what to expect.  If he knows, then his chances of getting a hit are greatly increased.  For instance, if a batter has two balls and two strikes on him, he naturally concludes that the pitcher will throw him a curve ball, and prepares for it.  Big League ball-players recognize only two kinds of pitched balls—the curve and the straight one.  [p. 9-10]


In the book Matty talks a lot on the nature of pitching, but not in a way that is overly technical.  He brings it down to a fan’s level.  Here is a great section on the psychology of pitching. 

A pitcher is in a tight game, and the batter makes a hit.  Another follows and some fan back in the stands cries in stentorian tones:

“Take him out!”

It is the dirge of baseball which has broken the hearts of pitchers ever since the game began and ill continue to do so as long as it lives.  Another fan takes up the shout, and another, and another, until it is a chorus.

“Take him out!  Take him out!  Take him out!”

The pitcher has to grin, but that constant cry is wearing on his nerves strung to the breaking point.  The crowd is against him, and the next batter hits, and a run scores.  The manager stops the game, beckons to the pitcher from the bench, and he has to walk away from the box, facing the crowd—not the team—which has beaten him.  It is the psychology of baseball.

Some foolish words once whispered into the ear of a batter by a clever manager in the crises of one of the closest games ever played in baseball turned the tide and unbalanced the pitcher who had been working like a perfectly adjusted machine through seven terrific innings.  That is also the “psychology of pitching.”  The man wasn’t beaten because he weakened, because he lost his grip, because of any physical definciency, but because some foolish words—words that meant nothing, had nothing to do with the game—had upset his mental attitude.

The game was the first one played between the Giants and the Yankees in the post-season series of 1910, the batter was Bridwell, the manager was John Mcgraw, and the pitcher, Russell Ford of the Yankees.  The cast of characters having been named, the story now may enter the block.

Spectators who recall the game will remember that the two clubs had been battling through the early innings with neither team able to get an advantage, and the Giants came to bat for the eighth inning with the score a tie.  Ford was pitching perfectly with all the art of a master craftsman.  Each team had made one run.  I was the first man up and started the eighth inning with a single because ford slackened up a little against me, thinking that I was not dangerous.  Devore beat out an infield hit, and Doyle bunted and was safe, filling the bases.  Then Ford went to work.  He struck out Snodgrass, and Hemphill caught Murray’s fly far too near the infield to permit me to try to score.  It looked like Ford were going to get out of the hole when “Al” Bridwell, the former Giant shortstop, came to the bat.   Ford threw him two bad balls, and then McGraw ran out from the bench, and, with an autocratic finger, held up the game while he whispered into Bridwell’s ear.

Al nodded knowingly, and the whole thing was a pantomime, a wordless play, that made Sumurun look like a bush-league production.  Bridwell stepped back into the batter’s box, and McGraw returned to the bench.  On the next pitch, “Al” was hit in the leg and went to first base, forcing the run that broke the tie across the plate.  That run also broke Ford’s heart.  And here is what McGraw whispered into the attentive ear of Bridwell:

“How many quail did you say you shot when you were hunting last fall, Al?”

John McGraw, the psychologist, baseball general and manager, had heard opportunity knock.  With his fingers on the pulse of the game, he had felt the tenseness of the situation, and realized, all in the flash of an eye, that Ford was wabbling and that anything would push him over.  He stopped the game and whispered into Bridwell’s ear while Ford was feeling more and more the intensity of the crises.  He had an opportunity to observe the three men on the bases.  He wondered what McGraw was whispering, what trick was to be expected.  Was he telling the batter to get hit?  Yes, he must be.  Then he did just that—hit the batter, and lost the game.  [p. 15-7]

Here is Christy giving a remarkably insight on the flow of a game. 

In most Big League ball games, there comes an inning on which hangs the victory or defeat.  Certain intellectuals call it a crises; college professors, interested in the sport, have named it the psychological moment; Big League managers mention it as the “break,” and pitchers speak of the “pinch.”

This is the time when each team is staining every nerve either to win or to prevent defeat.  The players and spectators realize that the outcome of the inning is of vital importance.  And in most of these pinches, the real burden falls on the pitcher.  It is the moment that he is “putting all he has” on the ball, and simultaneously his opponents are doing everything they can to disconcert him. 

Mangers wait for this break, and the shrewd league leader can often time it.  Frequently a certain style of play is adopted to lead to the pinch, then suddenly a slovenly mode of attack is changed, and the team comes on with a rush in an effort to break up the game.  That is the real test of a pitcher.  He must be able to live through these squalls.  [p. 33]

That has altered the way I look at a game now.  Now I look for that moment of pinch, where a pitcher has to knuckle down if he is to win the game.  Today relief pitchers typically come in that moment of pinch, but in Mathewson’s day a starting pitcher went through most of the game.  And later in the chapter he continues about how through his own experience he learned to manage his pitching throughout the game. 

I have always been against a twirler pitching himself out, when there is no necessity for it, as so many youngsters do.  They burn them through for eight innings and then, when the pinch comes, something is lacking.  A pitcher must remember that there are eight other men in the game, drawing more or less salary to stop balls hit at them, and he must have confidence in them.  Some pitchers will put all that they have on each ball.  This is foolish for two reasons.

In the first place, it exhausts the man physically and, when the pinch comes, he has not the strength to last it out.  But second and more important, it shows the batter everything that he has, which is senseless.  A man should always hold something in reserve, a surprise to spring when things get tight.  If a pitcher has displayed his whole assortment to the batters in the early part of the game and has used all his speed and his fastest breaking curve, then, when the crises comes, he “hasn’t anything” to fall back on.

Like all youngsters, I was eager to make a record during my first year in the Big League, and in one of the first games I pitched against Cincinnati I made the mistake of putting all that I had on every ball.  We were playing at the Polo Grounds [NY Giants home field back then], and the giants had the visitors beaten 2 to 0, going into the last inning.  I had been popping them through, trying to strike out every hitter and had not held anything in reserve.  The first man to the bat in the ninth got a single, the next a two bagger, and by the time they had stopped hitting me, the scorer had credited the Cincinnati club with four runs, and we lost the game 4 to 2.

I was very much down in the mouth over the defeat, after I had the game won, and George davis, then the manager of the Giants, noticed it in the clubhouse.

“Never mind, Matty,” he said, “it was worth it.  The game ought to teach you not to pitch your head off when you don’t need to.”

It did.  I have never forgotten the lesson.  Many spectators wonder why a pitcher does not work as hard as he can all through the game, instead of just in the pinches.  If he did, they argue, there would be no pinches.  But there would be, and, if the pitcher did not conserve his energy, the pinches would usually go against him.  [p. 38-9]

It is quite striking how throughout the book Mathewson hardly ever praises himself or builds his stature.  Most of his examples are of his failures, as you can see in the above example.  For a man who won the overwhelming majority of his games and could easily argue being the greatest pitcher in the history of the game, let alone up to his day, Christy shows true Christian humility.

One of the central stories of the book is Mathewson’s retelling of a famous game in 1908 which decided the National League championship.  Behind this game was a previous game of September  23rd where the Giants had the game won, but lost it dramatically on a “bonehead” runningmistake by their outfielder, Fred Merkle. If the Giants would have won that game, the one game playoff against the Chicago Cubs would not have been necessary.  Mathewson starts that chapter with heightened setting. 

The New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs played a game at the Polo Grounds on October 8, 1908, which decided the championship of the National League in one afternoon, which was responsible for the deaths of two spectators, who fell from the elevated railroad structure overlooking the grounds, which made Fred Merkle famous for not touching second, which caused lifelong friends to become bitter enemies, and which altogether, was the most dramatic and important contest in the history of baseball.  It stands out from every-day events like the battle of Waterloo and the assassination of President Lincoln.  It was a tragedy from a New York point of view.  The Cubs won by the score of 4 to 2.  [p. 105]
Three hundred and seventy-three wins is an incredible number for a career, and yet we repeatedly find Mathewson speaking about his failures.  It’s also hard to for us to understand the significance to the public consciousness of that game over a hundred years later, but we have all experienced sporting events that seem to alter the nation.  Christy goes on about that game.

The crowd that day was inflammable.  The players caught this incendiary spirit.  McGinnity, batting out to our infield in practice, insisted on driving Chance away from the plate before the Cubs leader thought his team had had its full share of the batting rehearsal.  “Joe” shoved him a little, and in a minute fists were flying, although Chance and McGinnity are very good friends off the field.

Fights immediately started all around the stands.  I remember seeing two men roll from the top to the bottom of the right field bleachers, over the heads of the rest of the spectators.  And they were yanked to their feet and run out of the park by the police.

“Too bad,” I said to Bresnahan, nodding my head toward the departing belligerents, “they could have waited until they saw the game anyway.  I’ll bet they stood outside the park all night to get in, only to be run out before it started.”

I forgot the crowd, forgot the fights, and didn’t hear the howling after the game started.  I knew only one thing, and that was my curved ball wouldn’t break for me.  It surprised me that the Cubs didn’t hit it far, right away, but two of them fanned in the first inning and Herzog threw out Evers.  Then came our first time at bat.  Pfiester was plainly nervous and hit Tenny.  Herzog walked and Bresnahan fanned out, Herzog being doubled up at second base because he tried to advance on a short pass ball.  “Mike” Donlin whisked a double to right field and Tenny counted.  [p. 115-6]

Isn’t that sumptuous  writing?  It’s not Nobel  prize winning literature, but if you’re baseball fan you will get so much out of this book.  One of my takeaways from reading this, certainly unintended by Mathewson, is that despite how much the game seems to have changed in these one hundred years, it really hasn’t changed much.  In reading Mathewson, I grew to love Mathewson.  As the World Series approaches, this book would make great bedside reading for the baseball enthusiast. 

I think I should also end with a Wikipedia quote on Mathewson’s last words.  I think it sums up his character.  Apparently he knew his fate on that last day.

According to the Ken Burns' documentary series, Baseball, one of Mathewson's last words were to his wife: Now Jane, I want you to go outside and have yourself a good cry. Don't make it a long one; this can't be helped.


"You can learn little from victory. You can learn everything from defeat."
-- Christy Mathewson

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