Review of Christy Mathewson, The Christian Gentleman

Gaines, Bob. Christy Mathewson, The Christian Gentleman: How One Man’s Faith and Fastball Forever Changed Baseball. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. x+218. Illustrations, notes, appendices, works cited, and index. $38.00 hardback.

Reviewed by Paul Putz

Renowned for his pinpoint accuracy and his “fadeaway” pitch, Christy Mathewson’s baseball exploits are well known. He ended his seventeen-year career in 1916 with a sparkling 2.13 ERA and 373 wins (the latter stands as the third-highest total all-time), and in 1936 joined four other players selected in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. His off-the-field reputation is not exactly a secret, either. A bright student and three-sport star at Bucknell University from 1898 to 1900, Mathewson seemed to be the embodiment of the All-American athlete. Like the fictional character of Frank Merriwell, a popular Progressive Era dime novel hero, Mathewson was handsome, polite, God-fearing, and clean-living. In the rough-and-rowdy world of professional baseball, Mathewson seemed to be the ultimate Christian gentleman.

Mathewson Cover

Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Mathewson’s faith-based public image has been noted to varying degrees by all of his previous biographers. From Ray Robinson (Matty) to Michael Hartley (Christy Mathewson) to Philip Seib (The Player), all have made sure to mention his devotion to the Bible, his reverence for the Sabbath, and his work as a role model for boys. More recently Amber Roessner, in Inventing Baseball Heroes: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and the Sporting Press in America, contrasted the “saintly” image of masculinity that Mathewson and his sportswriter friends cultivated with the “sinner” image associated with Cobb. But even if Mathewson’s Christian identity has long been acknowledged by scholars, it usually stands on the peripheries of their analysis. No author has made Mathewson’s religion and his place within the American religious landscape a central focus of their work. With The Christian Gentleman, Christy Mathewson: How One Man’s Faith and Fastball Forever Changed Baseball, former sportswriter Bob Gaines has attempted to fill that gap. His book aims to offer something for both the casual reader and the sports historian, but this review will focus mostly on the latter.

Gaines’s narrative is organized around eighteen quick-moving chapters that chronologically explore Mathewson’s life and cover 218 pages of text. It is in the first two chapters detailing Mathewson’s childhood and college years that Gaines claims to add the most new information. There, he discusses Mathewson’s upbringing in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, where for the first nine years of his life Mathewson attended a Baptist church pastored by John Howard Harris. In 1889 Harris left Factoryville to become president of Bucknell University, the college that Mathewson eventually attended. Gaines places a greater emphasis on this connection than any previous biographer of Mathewson (only one previous biographer even mentions Harris), arguing that by understanding Harris’s religious sensibilities we can better understand Mathewson’s.

Along with the Harris-Mathewson connection, Gaines gives Mathewson’s faith a central place in the book by discussing the religious atmosphere that pervaded the Baptist-affiliated Bucknell when Mathewson attended. Gaines also attempts to provide a sense of religious context when explaining Mathewson’s faith. Thus, he takes time to discuss fundamentalism, the social gospel, and other elements of American Protestantism in the early twentieth century. By emphasizing religion, Gaines’s biography differentiates itself somewhat from previous efforts. To be sure, Gaines spends plenty of time covering the ups and downs of Mathewson’s baseball career. But he is less interested in the intricate details of game action, particularly compared to Robinson’s Matty and Hartley’s Christy Mathewson.

Gaines’s efforts towards a more detailed account of Mathewson and his faith are to be applauded. Unfortunately, the execution of his aims suffers from three flaws. First is his tendency to reach for the hyperbole when describing Mathewson. In Gaines’s telling, Mathewson was a “man who quietly lived within the word of God, never once to falter” (p. x) and who “followed the Golden Rule without fault” (p. 88). “The American pastime had found its moral center, its hero,” Gaines writes elsewhere. “For there, in the belly of the monster stood Christy Mathewson, sword and shield a glimmer” (p. 74). It should be noted that these sentiments are not the whole of the picture. Gaines attempts to demythologize Mathewson at points. For example, he notes the role of the press in puffing up Mathewson’s reputation, and he acknowledges that many stories about Mathewson – like the time an umpire lost sight of a tag at home plate, and turned to Mathewson to make the correct call – were of questionable veracity. Yet even then, Gaines ultimately concludes that Mathewson’s public image was “basically true because even the myths defined his values” (p. 89).

A second problem is Gaines’s tendency to use quotations out of context. For example, when discussing the way that American Protestants were unified in support of the U.S. war effort during World War I, he cites as evidence a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt. The quotation — which includes the line “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord” – was actually uttered in 1912 at the Progressive Party convention (p. 182).

This problem is not an isolated issue. Earlier in the book Gaines writes about Mathewson’s disappointing 1899 season while pitching for Bucknell. Mathewson, Gaines’s writes, “had issues” with his teammates after the season. Gaines then quotes Mathewson saying “No pitcher can win games when his men don’t field well behind him or when they refuse to bat in any runs.” Gaines uses that quotation as evidence of Mathewson’s “moral candor” and “brutal honesty” (pp. 20-21). But Gaines does not indicate that the quote itself comes from a 1912 book published more than a decade after the Bucknell season ended. While there are certainly examples of Mathewson’s willingness to speak candidly and confront teammates, in this particular instance Gaines plays fast and loose with his narrative evidence.

Perhaps most damaging for Gaines is his treatment of the connection between John Howard Harris and Mathewson. Much of what might be considered “new” in this book is the attention that Gaines gives to Mathewson’s relationship with Harris. Yet while the potential influence that Harris might have had on Mathewson’s religious outlook is intriguing, Gaines provides nothing more than circumstantial evidence for what that influence might have been. Take, for example the following passage: “Perhaps baseball was not [Mathewson’s] best path. Then again, John Howard Harris had always said that every man should ‘rise as far as his ability and energy will carry him'” (p. 4). There is no evidence that this was something Harris “had always said.” Rather, the quotation comes from a passage in a 1908 baccalaureate sermon, years after Mathewson had departed from Bucknell.

There are other occasions in which Gaines cites a quotation from Harris as if it was spoken in Mathewson’s presence, when in fact it was spoken after Mathewson had departed the school. For example, Gaines writes that Harris frequently spoke at Bucknell’s chapel services while Mathewson was a student, and that Harris “had plenty to say, particularly regarding the engagement of moral character.” But as evidence of this, Gaines quotes a passage from Harris’s 1903 baccalaureate address, delivered a few years after Mathewson had joined the New York Giants (p. 19).

Most of the quotations from Harris that Gaines uses throughout the book come from a collection of Harris’s speeches and recollections titled Thirty Years as President of Bucknell (1926). In that book not a single mention to Mathewson is made, and yet Gaines uses it repeatedly to illustrate Harris’s relationship with Mathewson. Put simply, when it comes to Harris’s relationship with Mathewson, Gaines’s cited evidence does not back up his narrative claims. While it is certainly plausible to suggest that the religious ideas articulated by Harris might have had an impact on Mathewson, Gaines goes far beyond this modest claim, instead misleadingly presenting Harris’s quotations as if they were embraced by Mathewson.

The third and final problem for this book is the lack of historical depth and context when it comes to religion. While he at least makes an effort, Gaines provides only cursory analysis of topics like muscular Christianity, the social gospel, and other developments in early-twentieth-century American Protestantism. To his credit, Gaines does on occasion draw from the work of expert scholars of American Protestantism like George Marsden. On the other hand, he also relies on books like Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (2010). While Gonzalez’s book is fine for its genre, it is a sweeping overview of five hundred years of global Christian history, and is hardly an authority that one should use to place Mathewson’s faith in the context of its times.

The lack of expertise in American religious history is apparent in other ways. There are places throughout the book where Gaines makes observations that, from a religious historian’s perspective, cry out for further exploration. For example, he writes that Mathewson could “quote William James” (p. 35) and that Mathewson “annotated notes in his Bible and kept a chronicle of scriptures, prayers, and personal spiritual thoughts” (p. 67). But these statements are not expanded upon. If a scholar wants to adequately analyze Mathewson’s faith, these are precisely the sort of statements that need to be further explored.

From an academic perspective, then, Gaines’s book does not succeed. While it is an entertaining read that may provide inspiration for Christian baseball fans or “Matty” enthusiasts, it does not illuminate in a scholarly way. Perhaps there is some irony that none of Mathewson’s biographers have been able to take religion as seriously as Mathewson himself supposedly did. It may well be that the sources are simply not available for such a task. Whatever the case, the definitive scholarly account of Mathewson as a Christian athlete awaits its author.

Paul Putz is a PhD Candidate in history at Baylor University. His research is focused on religion, sports, and region, and he is writing a dissertation on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. You can follow him on Twitter @p_emory.

 

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