Think you know first Reds player in Hall of Fame? It might just stump you

‘Greatest pitcher who ever lived'
Posted at 12:00 PM, Jun 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-08 12:00:31-04

CINCINNATI -- OK, you pursuers of Reds trivia: Who was the first player who wore a Cincinnati Reds uniform to be inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and in what year?

We’re betting that, like Reds historian and author Greg Rhodes, this question will stump you unless you use the internet to find the answer.

“It’s pretty good, it’s pretty good,” Rhodes said of the query. “There are some guys out there that will know, but not many.”

Forty-year Cincinnati journalist and lifetime Reds fan John Kiesewetter got the first half of the question right after thinking out loud a bit. But he stumbled on its second half. “That’s a really good question,” Kiesewetter said.

Here are three hints for you Reds history buffs to consider before surfing the web for the answers:

1. Cincinnati’s first Hall-of-Famer did not go in as a member of the Reds, and he pitched just one game for them – in September 1916. He went on to manage the team to its first winning season in eight years in 1917, then left to join the U.S. Army late in the 1918 season.

2. Known as the “Big Six” and “The Christian Gentleman,” he is the winningest pitcher (273 games) in the history of the National League.

3. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in its first year, 1936, along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson.

The Answers

Our man is Christy Mathewson (1880-1925), the great New York Giants right-hander. “Matty,” as he was known among the fans who adored him during his 16-year Giants career, came to the Reds in a trade along with future Hall-of-Famer Edd Roush on July 20, 1916. Mathewson managed the team and pitched his final – and complete – game on Sept. 4, 1916, against the Chicago Cubs and their retiring star pitcher, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown.

Mathewson was voted into the Hall as one of the “First Five” in 1936, but he wasn’t inducted (posthumously) until 1939, as were three groups of great players, managers and executives elected in 1937-39. That was the year the Hall opened in Cooperstown, New York.

Christy Mathewson had a 16-year career with the New York Giants but pitched his final game, in 1916, as a Cincinnati Reds player. Public domain image

Ken Griffey Jr. will become the 44th Red to enter the Hall on July 24. Longtime Dodgers and Mets catcher Mike Piazza will be honored as well. Living Reds Hall-of-Famers, all of whom but Pete Rose get invited to the ceremony each year, include Frank Robinson, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Barry Larkin and Tom Seaver.

Great Pitchers' Last Game

The game was set up to be a spectacle, the 25th meeting between Mathewson and the curveball-throwing Brown, an Indiana native whose hand was mangled in a farm machinery accident when he was a boy. With one finger mostly missing and others mishapen, Brown’s grip on the ball was unique, as was the way his spinning pitches curved and dropped.

Neither future Hall-of-Famer was on his game that Monday in September 1916 when an estimated standing-room-only crowd of about 18,000 packed Chicago’s Weegham Park to witness the two great pitchers’ swan songs. Brown gave up 19 hits, and Mathewson yielded 15, many of them for extra bases, including a three-run home run in the ninth inning. But with two men on and two out in the final frame, Mathewson coaxed a fly out and won the game, 10-8.

“This is the only game he ever pitched for any club except the Giants, and it will be his last,” read the game report in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Read the game story in the Cincinnati Times-Star: “That farewell pitching duel of Mathewson and Brown was full of sentiment and pathos. The sentiment, of course, centered round the last appearance of both great veterans upon the firing line, and their working this last game in opposition – the pathos was found in their helplessness against the strong young batsmen of to-day. … In the face of the furious hitting, the old boys showed nerve, science and generalship.”

Matty as Manager

The Reds finished the 1916 season with a 60-93-2 record and in a tie for last place in the National League. But Mathewson, still tall and handsome as he was when he entered the big leagues at age 19 in 1900, guided them to a 78-76-3 record the following year. The Reds were 60-57-1 when he enlisted to fight in World War I, 11 games before Major League Baseball prematurely ended the 1918 season because of the war.

His leadership had impressed the local press from the get-go: “The Reds have had many managers, but none of them has looked so good as Matty does after a trial of two months,” the Enquirer wrote the Sunday after the showdown with Brown. “He has made good with the players right from the start, and no team even with a championship view is working harder than the Reds in this last month of a season.”

The Army, the End

Mathewson’s tour of duty as a captain in the Army Chemical Division was cut short when he accidentally inhaled mustard gas and came down with influenza. He reportedly tried to contact the Reds about returning to manage them in 1919 – the year they won the World Series allegedly thrown to them by the Chicago White Sox – but instead signed on to coach with his old Giants manager, John McGraw.

The New York Times hired Mathewson to report on the 1919 series, and he is said to have recorded evidence of the “Black Sox” scandal in which eight Chicago players were charged but not convicted of fixing games. Two years later, Mathewson was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He returned to baseball as president of the Boston Braves, but could not fulfill his role because of the disease.

Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown's right hand dominates a flier advertising the Sept. 4, 1916, showdown between him and Christy Mathewson in Chicago. Public domain image

Mathewson, a devout Christian who never pitched on Sundays, died at an Upstate New York tuberculosis sanitarium in 1925 at age 45, leaving behind his wife, Jane, and their son, Christopher Jr. He is buried in Lewisburg, Pa., not far from Bucknell University, where he starred more as a fullback and kicker on the football team than as a baseball pitcher.

“Mathewson,” said legendary Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack, “was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had the knowledge, perfect control and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn’t pitching against you.”