11 April 2013

Christy Mathewson: From Rogue to Gentleman

Last night I crawled out of a hole and set off for Powerhouse Books in DUMBO to see Will Leitch of Deadspin and Chad Harbach talk about baseball. The sky was ominous already and the backdrop to their discussion was forking lightning over the bridge. If this had been a game, it would have been called.

Leitch has written voluminously about baseball for New York and as the founding editor of Deadspin, a site that is better known for athlete scandals than sports coverage these days. Beyond his debut THE ART OF FIELDING, following the fortunes of a college-baseball player at a small town in Wisconsin, Harbach wrote the introduction to a new edition of PITCHING IN A PINCH, a 1912 guide to baseball written by former Giants and Reds pitcher Christy Mathewson. Mathewson still ranks among the top MLB pitchers and was known in his time as a virtuous gentleman He famously never pitched on Sundays, although Leitch pointed out that at the time his league had very few games on Sundays anyway, so it wouldn't have been that difficult to stand on his conscience.

According to Leitch and Harbach, PITCHING IN A PINCH aimed to do the opposite of what Jim Bouton's BALL FOUR (which they called the best baseball memoir out there) did decades later: It legitimized baseball, considered a "rogues' game," for the thinking viewer and classed it up in print. This was but one of many differences our hosts expounded upon between baseball back then and now, including lower player autonomy and their tendency to take side jobs outside of league play. Mathewson also played pro football for a bit, while other players in his era would be paid $3,000 a week to star in off-season vaudeville shows (which Leitch compared to a Derek Jeter type getting $5 million a week to be on Broadway -- unimaginable!). Some of these economic conditions persisted into the time of BALL FOUR but the idea had already entered the public imagination of the noble sportsman who plays for love of the game -- a Mathewson type for certain.

Now it's fairly common for players to write (or cooperate with someone who is writing) a splashy memoir about their game, but PITCHING IN A PINCH is more about the game than it is about him. Yet it also served as an unwitting memorial to Mathewson's career: Four years after it was published, he retired from play in order to manage; later, he served in France during World War I where he caught the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. He would eventually be one of the first five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with dudes like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.

The event was hosted by Penguin Classics who is publishing the new edition of PITCHING IN A PINCH, and it's fairly rare that classics reissues get readings like this -- but a welcome change. Perhaps the house is trying to distinguish itself in light of the forthcoming Random Penguin juggernaut, a merger that was recently approved by the EU. (I know the new entity will really be called Penguin Random House. Just leave me to my illusions.) 

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