I was looking at the list of all-time wins leaders on baseball-reference.com yesterday for a possible post about the active pitchers most likely to win 300 games, and I noticed that in 25th place with 297 wins is 1870’s and 1880’s ace Bobby Mathews. This was more wins than I remembered Mathews having, so I investigated.
Turns out that Baseball Reference gives Mathews credit for his National Association wins between 1871 and 1875. As I’m sure you know (but for those who don’t), the National Association was the first all-professional baseball league and contained the best players of that era, and by those two criteria was the major league of its day.
Matthews won 132 games (and lost 111) in the five years of the National Association, finishing behind only Al Spalding of sporting goods fame (207-56) and Dick McBride (152-76) for most wins in the Association’s brief history.
Spalding was the top pitcher in the National League’s first year in 1876, going 47-13 to lead the new league in wins and winning percentage, but appeared in only four games for the Chicago White Stockings in 1877 before moving into a management role for the team now known as the Cubs. Dick McBride made four starts in 1876, went 0-4, and never pitched in the National League (or any other league now considered a major league) again.
Pitchers routinely pitched 500 innings a season against National Association opponents, which doesn’t count probably an equal number of innings pitched in games against non-league opponents. Not surprisingly pitchers’ arms burned out even faster than they do today.
McBride was either 29 or 31 in 1877 (Baseball Reference says he was born in 1847, but the 1993 ed. of the Baseball Encyclopedia and 2001 ed. of Total Baseball say he was born in 1845), and his arm was likely done. Spalding was only 26 when he ceased pitching, but he was a very bright young man who saw that the future for a player like himself was in management rather than on the playing field.
Anyway, I saw that baseball reference linked their Bobby Mathews page to a SABR biography. SABR credits Mathews as the second pitcher to master to the curveball, after William Arthur “Candy” Cummings. (Here’s the SABR biography on Cummings.)
Because Cummings is the pitcher credited with “inventing” the curveball, he is in the Hall of Fame, while Matthews, who was actually the better professional pitcher, is not. Them’s the breaks.
It’s unknown if Cummings was really the first pitcher to ever throw a curveball. However, SABR gives him credit for being the first pitcher to master the pitch and throw it successfully in competitive play.
The story goes that as a young teenager in 1863, Cummings and his friends were at the beach in Brooklyn (Coney Island or Brighton Beach?) winging clam shells into the ocean. The shells could easily be made to curve in flight, which inspired Cummings to try to do the same with a baseball.
Over the next several years, Cummings diligently practiced his underhand pitching (pitchers were required to “pitch” the ball underhanded in those days, rather than “throwing” it overhand) and experimented to find a way to make a baseball curve consistently. After graduating from what we would call high school in 1865, Cummings quickly became a top amateur and then semi-pro pitcher, even before he developed a successful curveball.
In 1867, Cummings finally developed a motion and release that enabled him to consistently cause his pitches to break. He debuted the new pitch in a game between Cummings’ Brooklyn Excelsiors again Harvard College. To batters who had never seen a true curve before (baseball’s first great pitching ace Jim Creighton famously pitched the ball with a quick jerk of the wrist in 1861 and 1862, before his untimely death at age 21 in the latter year, which gave his pitches movement although almost certainly more in the form of a rising fastball) Cummings’ new pitch was unhittable.
Cummings quickly became the most highly regarded pitcher in the country, so much so that early baseball’s premier sportswriter Henry Chadwick named Cummings the sport’s outstanding player in 1871.
For years, Cummings was the only pitcher in baseball who had mastered the curveball, which made it extremely difficult for hitters to develop a familiarity with the pitch. While Cummings stood 5’9″ tall, which was not short for a pitcher in those days, he was very thin, never weighing more than about 120 pounds. He did not throw nearly as hard as Al Spalding, who at 6’1″ and 170 lbs was the largest of the pitchers discussed in this article. It is doubtful that he would have remained a star once the professional game took over without his signature pitch.
The second player recognized to have developed a curve was Bobby Mathews. Like Cummings, Mathews was a small man (5′ 5.5″ and 140 lbs) who did not throw hard, even of his day, but succeeded based on his ability to “pitch” — i.e., command, changing speed and location, and the ability to deceive the hitter.
Mathews developed his curve sometime in the early 1870’s. He claimed that he developed the pitch by watching Cummings throw his. Mathews also spent time during one off-season working out with star catcher Nat Hicks who had once caught for Cummings.
At any rate, as late as the 1873 season Cummings and Mathews were the only pitchers in the National Association regularly throwing a curveball. Mathews is also credited with having introduced the slow raise (a rising change-up) in 1872.
By his peak season in 1874, when he went 42-22 for the second place New York Mutuals, Mathews was likely throwing at least four different pitches (fastball, curve, change up and spitball). Despite the fact that he did not throw hard, he was the National Association’s leading strikeout pitcher. Cummings was also a top strikeout pitcher in the N.A., suggesting that both Cummings and Mathews used their curves as their strikeout pitches. In fact, Mathews referred to the pitch as his “out-curve.”
Matthews had excellent command and knew how to pitch inside, either jamming hitters with the inside fastball or throwing waste pitches over the batters’ heads. Matthews was notably adroit at hiding the ball from the hitter, both to prevent the batter from seeing his grip on the ball and to disguise his release point.
Matthews was also noted for his focus on the mound and his ability to remember hitters’ strengths and weaknesses. Finally, he was exceptionally good at adopting techniques he saw other pitchers use successfully. In other words, Mathews had all the skills of a modern ace, like, for example, Greg Maddux.
Mathews also had a few less savory qualities, however. Like many players of his era, he was a heavy drinker. His drinking was so heavy in fact, that later in his career when arm problems had limited his effectiveness, he was fired from teams for drunkenness.
Further, after his baseball career ended at age 35, Mathews suffered a rapid mental decline and died at age 46, likely caused by his history of heavy drinking and the long-term effects of syphilis. Another great 19th century star Pete “The Gladiator” Browning, the original Louisville Slugger, likely died of the same causes at age 44. (SABR’s bio for Pete Browning is here.)
Mathews’ New York Mutuals were also at the center of a number of game-fixing allegations during his years with the team. One involving Mathews centered around his leaving a game in Chicago in August of 1874 with a groin injury which the Mutuals subsequently lost.
However, in July 1876, Mathews unilaterally turned over a suspicious telegram sent to him by a known gambler to the National League, which led to a sting operation resulting in numerous additional incriminating telegrams the League then published in the New York Herald to discourage future game-fixing. This incident, along with the permanent banishment of four players from the Louisville Grays in 1877, did much to discourage game-fixing in the National League.
Read Part II of this two-part series here.