The Old Ball Game

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Both of Frank Deford’s fabled subjects in The Old Ball Game have attracted previous biographers, but what particularly interests Deford is the interplay between two men totally different in background, temperament, and appearance. John McGraw, born in the upstate New York village of Truxton, was the eldest child of an Irish immigrant father and a mother who died when John was eleven. Not long afterward, the boy, beaten by a father unable to cope with the demands of five young children, ran away from home and lodged in a local hotel where he earned his keep by doing chores. Small of stature but rough, aggressive, and brimming with athletic talent, he was playing major league baseball at the age of nineteen.

Christy Mathewson emerged from a small Pennsylvania town which Deford describes as bucolic. He grew up in a happy family, earned excellent grades in school, behaved admirably, and gave his mother some reason to hope that he would enter the Baptist ministry. By the time he entered Bucknell College in 1898 he was tall, handsome, and accomplished. He excelled in analytic chemistry, starred in baseball, football, and basketball, and was elected president of his class. As a church elder he could not tell a lie. A story circulated that he once slid into home plate in a cloud of dust so thick that the umpire could not make a call. “He got me,” Mathewson volunteered, whereupon the umpire called him out. He resembled McGraw in one important way: He exuded talent for playing baseball.

Fate brought the two men together in 1902 when McGraw, after a decade of starring as third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, was named manager of a team that had been something of a major league joke up to that time: the New York Giants. Mathewson, then in his second full season with the Giants, won fourteen games and lost seventeen for his new manager but proved his mettle by pitching eight shutouts. For the next dozen years, in perhaps the most remarkable sustained stretch of pitching success in major league history, he would average twenty-seven wins a season. The Giants, still a doormat in McGraw’s initial season at the helm, thereupon proceeded to win five pennants and finish second five times in the following twelve years. Only World Series championships tended to elude the team of Matty and Muggsythe year 1905, when Mathewson pitched three shutouts over Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, being the lone exception.

Mutual success on the diamond was not the only factor uniting the rowdy manager and the upright Christian pitcher. In a time of a social gulf between the few college-educated baseball players and the majority who did not complete high school, McGraw and Mathewson were friends. In 1903 the two men and their wives amicably shared a New York apartment. Blanche McGraw noted that she and Jane Mathewson performed wifely duties together while the two men spent their spare time talking baseball. McGraw, an old third baseman, was fascinated by the art of pitchingan art that Mathewson had mastered at a young age. Also, unlike many of the uneducated players, who tended to resent “college boys,” McGraw respected academic attainments. In the 1890’s, while playing for Baltimore, he had spent four winters coaching the baseball team at Allegany (the future St. Bonaventure) College, and in return was allowed to enroll in English, history, and mathematics courses. Although he never attained a degreefor that matter, neither did MathewsonMcGraw was proud of his own limited college experience. The age difference between the two men, only seven years, cast McGraw into a role somewhat like that of a big brother. Surviving their husbands by many years, their wives continued their friendship.

Deford deplores the fact that great athletes are so often forgotten or remembered imperfectly for single, often uncharacteristic, incidents. Two of McGraw’s players, both named Fred and both ill-fated participants in games that Mathewson pitched, constitute two of baseball’s most famous examples. Fred Merkle’s name has become indelibly associated with the word “boner,” for in a late-season game between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs as the two teams battled for the National League pennant in 1908, this fine all-around player neglected to do a simple thing. As a runner on first base with two outs, and the apparent winning run having scored ahead of him, he neglected to touch second base. With the Giant fans already celebrating the expected victory, an alert Cub called for the ball and stepped on second. The umpire...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 12 (February 15, 2005): 1050.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 2 (January 15, 2005): 97-98.

Library Journal 130, no. 2 (February 1, 2005): 88-90.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (May 1, 2005): 13.