1894 – More from Bob on Bobby Mathews

I’m trying very hard to stay clear of promoting Mathews too much. In many ways it is an emotional attachment I have to him. I’m doing research on the Kekiongas with the intent to writing a book about them, and how it became that Fort Wayne hosted the first ever professional league game (perhaps one of the greatest baseball trivia questions of all time – no one gets it right). And Bobby Mathews is a major character in that story (but not the only one). So I do tend to over-blow his positives and discount his many negatives. I don’t think I could do a full 200-page biography of him (nor would I want to), but I bet I could do a 100-page one (but I still don’t want to). So I really don’t want bore you guys with details, but let me address a couple of modest misconceptions in Patrick’s remarks. I’ll try to keep the hyperbole to a minimum. Try, I said. (And, by the way, Sutton is not a horrible comp.)

Mathews was a prima donna of the first order, a self-promoter of the first rank, a star of the first magnitude, a Reggie Jackson of sorts of the 1870s (what? me hyperolize? never). You have to remember, until 1880, every player, every year, was a free agent. And Mathews ALWAYS went to whichever team offered him the most money, even if the team had no prospects for championships. For him, baseball was strictly about the money. You also have to remember that there were no individual awards yet, no MVP, no Cy Youngs, no Hall of Fame. There was nothing (to Mathews) to be gained except money. He didn’t always make wise decisions chasing the dollar. At least not wise for posterity’s sake. Which is one of the reasons his record from 1877 to 1881 isn’t good.

After the 1876 season, when the Mutuals were expelled, he went to Cincinnati, a team that had gone 9-56, because they offered him more money than anyone else. And he hurt his arm. So you are right, Patrick, Mathews would not have won 30 games that year.

There was a bidding war among the various teams for his services in 1878. He followed the money (and remember that there were only 6 teams in the NL that year), to Lynn in the International Association. Would Mathews have won 30 games in 1878? I don’t know. He wasn’t injured. If you’re not injured, and pitch 60 games for a decent team, you got a shot at 30. He was perfectly capable of reaching 30 wins. Let’s call this season a wash. At least, don’t dismiss this season out of hand.

In 1879, George Wright, the new manager of the Providence Grays, realized that with the schedule expanding from 60 to 84 games, he needed two pitchers. And he needed another star pitcher. He chose Mathews. Another thing to keep in mind, teams during this period barnstormed quite a bit. The Grays didn’t play 85 games, like the encyclopedias say, but rather closer to 115. On their way from Providence to Buffalo, they might well have stopped over in Albany and Rochester and Syracuse and played some games. Or on their way to Cincinnati, they might have stopped off at Pittsburgh (altho it was spelled Pittsburg back then) and Cleveland and Columbus, and then on their way to Chicago, they might have played a game in Indianapolis. Mathews, an attendance draw (bigger than Ward at that time), started most of these exhibition games, quite often to larger crowds than the NL games. Was this a season Mathews might have won 30 in the NL with the right team? Absolutely.

Before the 1880 season, the magnates imposed the Reserve Clause. McVey left Organized Baseball over this issue. As did Mathews. He was offered about twice the money to barnstorm in California. Could he have won 30 this year? I don’t see any evidence that he couldn’t have.

From what I gather, Mathews, being a bon vivant, didn’t particularly care for the wilds of California. For 1881, he still held out over the Reserve Clause, barnstorming in the East instead. Details of 1881 are a little foggy in my memory. I can’t remember if Mathews finally signed with Providence in the spring to replace an injured Ward and went barnstorming after Ward returned, or barnstormed until Ward got injured and then signed. Either way, while with Providence, Mathews didn’t pitch very well. But still under the right situation, he might have won 30, but this season is problematic.

So for the 5 seasons, 1877-1881, Mathews didn’t win 30, but there is no reason to think that he WOULDN’T have in 1879; there is no reason to believe that he COULDN’T have 1878 and 1880; there is even reason to believe that he MIGHT have in 1881.

Shoulda woulda coulda! I’m not saying that one has to add a lot of wins to Mathews record. In fact I’m not saying you should add any (except the wins from 1969 and 1870 against professional teams). What I’m saying is, like Bill did in his Historical Abstract, there is a sixth element in his rating system, The Subjective Element. And I give him some extra credit for these early NL seasons. His missing and partial seasons are not like the WWII generation of ball players who lost time because of forces beyond their control. What I am saying is that Mathews did have control over where he pitched, and he didn’t always CHOOSE to pitch in the NL. He didn’t pitch in the NL, not because he was unwanted or not good enough, but he found more money elsewhere. That he chose to follow the money (like many of us would) seems like an odd reason to keep someone out of the Hall or GOR.

* Okay, okay, okay, I pontificated longer than I meant to. But at least it wasn’t the 100-page book I COULD have done!!! You’re welcome!

Edit: Don’t pick apart my defense of Mathews too much, or else I’ll feel compelled to write other lengthy posts about him. And no one wants that.

Let’s play a game of “Let’s Pretend”. It’s not to be taken seriously. Just a flight of fancy.

Let’s suppose that Mathews’ career looked exactly like it did thru 1877: 155 wins, 158 losses, ERA of 2.77. Let us further suppose that Mathews’ record looked exactly the same from 1881 to 1887: 130 wins, 84 losses, ERA of 3.03. He has totals of 285 wins, 242 losses and an ERA of 2.87, which works out to a 106 ERA+. This is Mathews actual record minus his 1879 season.

Now let’s suppose that an average team, average in every way, offered Mathews a three-year contract for the 1878-1880 seasons. What might his record look like? The 1878 schedule was 60 games. I’ll be conservative and say he starts only 50 of those games. Staying conservative, let’s say he pitches at a 90 ERA+ clip. That means in he’d have a 23-27 record, with a 2.57 ERA. Do the same for 1879. The schedule was expanded to 84 games. Nobody pitched that much. The top 6 pitchers averaged just under 65 games started. Staying conservative, let’s say he pitched 60 games, and again had a 90 ERA+. That gives him a record of 27-33 with a 2.77 ERA. Doing the same for 1880 works out to 29-35 with a 2.63 ERA. Adding the three seasons together gives Mathews a 79-95 record and a 2.66 ERA.

Let’s add these three hypothetical seasons into his real record: 364 wins, 337 losses, 2.82 ERA.

Quoting Bill from his Historical Abstract about the Subjective Element: “Adjustments for Undocumented Parts of a Player’s Career…I don’t make adjustments for players who are injured; I don’t make adjustments for players who are suspended or who voluntarily retire, no matter what the conditions. I make adjustments for any player which is clearly a major league player, but who is prevented form playing in the major leagues by forces beyond their control.” (Bill’s emphasis)

I can see someone posting that “beyond their control” doesn’t apply to Mathews; he made the choice to play outside the NL. True, however, what constituted a “major league” is an iffy thing in the 19th century. Only after the fact, almost 100 years, the powers-that-be decided that the International League wasn’t a major league (nor was the National Association), altho for some reason the Union Association and the Federal League were. Mathews also chose to accept a position with the Grays in 1879 where he’d be used as the change pitcher. In 1880, Mathews refused to play for a mandated salary cut and instead found another option that paid him what he felt he was worth. I am not saying that we need to give Mathews a huge Subjective Element break. I’m just saying that it is very likely that, given those three years, Mathews’ record might be indistinguishable from Pud Galvin’s.

And speaking of Galvin, he also is missing some years, and for some of the same reasons as Mathews. He also played in the IL, in ’77 and ’78, and went to California in 1880 (but only for a month or two). He also played for St. Louis in the NA in 1875 and stayed with them in 1876 even when THEY decided not to join the NL. Lots of teams wanted no part of the NL throughout the 1870s. You have to remember that the NL was not a major league, as we think of one today, in its earliest days. It was only well after the fact that they were deemed “major”.

I was re-reading everybody’s posts, and this one caught my eye. I’ve already answered it, but I didn’t do a great job of it. Let me take another stab at it.

I don’t really do hypotheticals. It’s a bad road to go down. But sometimes it seems warranted with some guys. First off, Mathews DID win some number of games against professions in 1869 and 1870. Not might have…did. I’m not sure how many; but more than 2, less than 10, which puts him at or over 300. For those of us who put extra weight on career milestone numbers, that’s a large plus in Mathews’ record. As to 1878 and 1880, I’m not guessing that he COULD have pitched, I’m saying he DID pitch. And that he could have pitched in the NL just as easily as not. It wasn’t the league saying he couldn’t pitch: it was other teams who were willing to pay him more. And I am not saying that one has to give him substantial credit for these two years. I have no idea what he would have accomplished. He might have gone to some sad-sack team and posted gaudy records like 10-40 or 20-50. Or he might have gone to good teams and gone 40-15 a couple times. I just took what I thought was a happy medium. So what I’m saying is that Mathews didn’t just win 297 games, he won 300-305 with ’69 and ’70. That is not speculation or hypothetical. This is a fact. But I think it is also reasonable to assume that he would have won another 50 or so in ’78 and ’80. This is speculation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s