A sweater for Big Six

Written by: Tom Shieber

The Hall of Fame’s inaugural Class of 1936 featured two of baseball’s most legendary pitchers: Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Nicknamed “Big Six” and “The Big Train,” respectively, these giants of the mound combined for 790 wins, 6,016 strikeouts, and 189 shutouts in 1,438 big league games.

Though their careers overlapped for 10 seasons (1907 to 1916), the duo never faced one another in an official big league game. Mathewson’s 17-year career was spent entirely in the National League with the Giants and Reds, while Johnson pitched 21 years with Washington of the American League. But the pair did manage to square off in one exhibition game, a remarkable yet overlooked contest that took place more than a century ago.

Today, the Hall of Fame collection features a recently donated artifact that tells the story of that tour.

The Johnson-Mathewson matchup took place in the autumn of 1913, just 10 days into an epic barnstorming tour in which the Giants and White Sox traveled around the globe. The two teams, each bolstered with a few “ringers” from other big league clubs, played games against one another in 11 states as they made their way to the west coast. After a voyage across the Pacific, the tourists staged games in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy, France and England, before returning to America.

Hired for the express purpose of facing Mathewson just once, Johnson joined the tourists in Joplin, Mo., where the celebrated game was scheduled to take place on Monday, Oct. 27. But when snow from the previous day’s blizzard melted, the diamond was left a muddy mess, and Giants manager John McGraw decided not to pitch Mathewson, postponing the duel for the next day’s game. Johnson, not wanting to disappoint some 5,000 fans in attendance, pitched the first three innings. A pair of relievers finished the contest for the White Sox in what ultimately resulted in a sloppy 13-12 victory for the Giants.

The next day the tour stopped at Exhibition Park in Tulsa, Okla., and a crowd of at least 4,000 fans prepared for the face-off between Mathewson and Johnson. Once again, however, events conspired to quash the eagerly-awaited contest. Shortly before the scheduled start of the game, the ballpark’s right field bleachers collapsed, sending some 500 fans sprawling amidst the debris. Nearly 50 people were injured and one was killed. Astonishingly, after the injured were carted away and the jumble of seats cleared, local authorities decided to play the game. In fact, the players took the field just half an hour later than billed and, despite a persistent snowstorm, the contest went the full nine innings.

Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson meet prior to an exhibition game in Washington, D.C., April 2, 1912. The duo was billed to pitch against one another that day, but as was the case a year and a half later in Joplin, Missouri, only Johnson took the mound. PASTIME (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Johnson’s speed proved too much for the Giants, as the lanky fireballer tossed a complete-game shutout, scattering eight hits and striking out eight. Meanwhile, Mathewson lasted just four innings, giving up a pair of runs in the fourth before giving way to reliever Hooks Wiltse. There’s little doubt that the bitter cold, the blowing snow, and the shocking effects of the pregame accident resulted in the game being played as quickly as possible, as New York bowed to Chicago, 6-0, in just 70 minutes.

With the much-anticipated contest completed, the clubs continued barnstorming westward. In mid-November, Mathewson announced that he was leaving the ball-playing expedition in order to vacation in California with his wife and son. No doubt the highly-competitive Mathewson was disappointed with his lackluster 3-5 record during the tour, but the real reason behind his premature exit was his fear of seasickness. As he wife Jane later recalled, “It was a great fear. [In 1903] we took a boat trip on our honeymoon, a trip to Savannah where the Giants were training. He was terribly ill all the way down and nobody ever got him on a boat again.”

The Hall of Fame’s collection features numerous artifacts from this world tour, including Mathewson’s tour uniform, donated to the museum by his widow in 1937. And just last year, Geraldine and Tom Walsh of Tupper Lake, N.Y., donated the Giants sweater that Matty donned during the tour, the very one that kept him warm on that blustery and historic day when he faced Walter Johnson.

Tom Shieber is the Senior Curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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