Rube Foster and Christy Mathewson

Rube Foster

Christy Mathewson

Rube Foster established himself as one of the great early Negro team pitchers at the very dawn of the 20th century. Foster went on to establish the Negro National League in 1920 as his major contribution to the survival of organized black baseball during the doleful days of wholesale player segregation prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the so-called color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Christy Mathewson was a contemporary younger lifetime peer to Foster. Pitching mainly for the New York Giants, Mathewson went all the way to the Hall of Fame with a 17-year record of 373 wins, 188 loses, an ERA of 2.13, and 79 career shutouts. Much of his hard and clear success Christy rode on the back of his warhorse pitch, the “fadeaway.” That was Mathewson’s name for a pitch that would eventually spread to others and achieve greater identity as the “screwball.”

An ancient legend, one going all the way back to that early time, is – where did the young Mathewson learn how to throw such a deadly pitch at his at his tender age? Most suspicious eyes turned immediately to his New York Giants manager and close personal mentor, the one and only John McGraw.

The story with greatest adhesion centered on McGraw’s character and his history of trying to recruit talented “Negro” players and then passing them off as either Native Americans or Latin American players with the help of a name change. As far as we know, McGraw never got away with this ruse, but it wasn’t hard to hem that history to either the possibility, or the probability, that McGraw finally settled for the next best thing to actual black player recruitment. – “How about bringing in one of the great Negro pitchers and paying him to teach my greatest young white guy how to throw his best pitch?”

Sounds reasonable and doable to me. It’s also reasonable to assume that a hungry Rube Foster could have used the money and been willing to trade his knowledge for cash. Isn’t that what teachers get paid to do?

Accessibility was no problem for the Foster-Mathewson legend either. In 1903, Rube Foster was pitching for the black club known as the Philadelphia X-Giants. In 1904, he moved over to the Philadelphia Giants, another Negro team of that era. Either way, Foster was just a short train ride away from New York City and the home of McGraw, Mathewson, and the famous New York Giants.

The problem here is the same set we always have with delicious legends that most people hope are true: (1) There’s no proof anywhere that it actually occurred; (2) Everyone who could know the truth is long ago dead; and (3) there is some suggestion that something else happened.

Mathewson says he learned the fadeaway in 1898 while pitching for the semi-pro Honesdale (PA) club. He picked it up from a left handed teammate named Dave Williams, a fellow who later had a short-term stay with the Boston Americans in 1902.

It helps to think of a fadeaway/screwball as a curve ball that breaks the other way because of the inverse twist of the wrist the pitcher applies to the ball at its release point. Viewed from a right-handed pitcher’s perspective, a screwball works basically in this way: Instead of breaking in on a right-handed batter, it falls away from the outside of the plate as it reaches the hitting zone. That fading-away motion, of course, is the reason that Mathewson called it his “fadeaway” pitch. Because it messes with a batter’s head, it later became more famously known as a “screwball.”

People who argue that Mathewson needed the fadeaway to even stick in the big leagues haven’t spent much time researching this incredible athlete’s background. As a fullback in football at Bucknell, for example, Christy Mathewson was named to the Walter Camp All American team in 1900. His baseball pitching success prior to the Giants seemed to be doing pretty well too with a superior fastball and his incredible pitch placement control. Had he not learned the fadeaway, he would have added or improved upon his curve to the extent of making a nice career for himself in the majors, anyway. That’s my guess.

The fadeaway may have been the pitch that exalted Christy Mathewson from good to great, but it wasn’t all he had, – and we’ll never know for sure where his total learning experience began and ended.

Personally, and in spite of Honest Christy’s own proclamations, I would not be surprised to know that Rube Foster may have also later taught something to Christy Mathewson. Christy was a very honest man, but he was also human and subject to the way personal perception interprets reality. For instance, I can see Mathewson taking lessons from Foster and also thinking, “Hey! This is what Dave Williams was trying to show me back in 1898!”

We’ll just never know.

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