Exploring A Christy Mathewson Mystery
ALSO: FANS SLOW TO RETURN TO BALLPARKS IN WAKE OF PANDEMIC
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Did You Know?
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Marcus Semien, a shortstop signed to a one-year, $18 million Toronto pact, has not played second base since 2014...
The latest eye-opener from Rowman & Littlefield is Beyond Baseball’s Color Barrier: The Story of African Americans in Major League Baseball, Past, Present, and Future, by Rocco Constantino...
White Sox wunderkind Yermín Mercedes, a 28-year-old catcher/DH, was signed for $20,000 out of the DR by the Nats in March 2011 but played for three independent clubs, signed with Baltimore, but wound up with the White Sox via the Rule 5 draft. He hit .302 in 8 minor-league seasons.
A Baseball Writer's Last Big Story
By J.B. Manheim
JT Willett grew up in Trenton, NJ in the late 1800s. He attended a local Catholic school, but his real education came tending bar at his parents' saloon and playing hands of 25 with the politicians and other local notables who frequented the saloon's back room.
By the time he was 20, JT knew everyone who was anyone in New Jersey politics, and was well on his way to becoming an influential fixer -- the guy you went to if you needed to know the status of some piece of legislation or the whereabouts of the Governor or a state senator.
But JT wanted something different. He wanted a bigger audience.
So JT Willett took the train to New York City and to his future. He landed a job as the first designated baseball writer at William Randolph Hearst's New York Morning Journal, where he covered the Giants, and then the game itself, in ways no one had ever done before. Recruited by Alfred Spink, he then moved to The Sporting News, where he developed into the most influential baseball writer of his era. In 1936, in his 70s but still hard at work, he was writing the biggest story of his lifetime when he died on a train while heading for his last interview.
Not really. JT Willett is fictitious, the central character in my new novel, This Never Happened: The Mystery Behind the Death of Christy Mathewson, published last week by Summer Game Books. But the story he was chasing was real, and to this very day has yet to be told.
Baseball loves its creation myths, its origin stories. And no story is better known than that surrounding the death of Christy Mathewson, the man credited with making the professional game socially acceptable in an era when it was known primarily for its rowdies.
Following the 1918 season, we have always been told, Mathewson, along with Ty Cobb, enlisted as Captains in the Chemical Warfare Service and shipped off to France, where a training accident exposed the pair to poison gas. Cobb was unaffected, but Mathewson's exposure led to his premature death from TB in 1925. He died a hero to baseball, and to the nation.
Perhaps. But some recent analysts have suggested that Mathewson's exposure to gas may have been far more limited, if it occurred at all. And his contracting of TB might have traced to contact with his brother, who died from the disease in 1917.
Still, Mathewson might have been every bit the hero, just in a different way.
A 2003 episode of PBS's Antiques Roadshow displayed documents culled from a collection of old military records that had been found in Georgia. Those records passed unnoticed at the time, but they caught my attention when the episode was rebroadcast some 15 years later.
The papers document the presence at Camp Hancock, just outside Augusta, of Ordnance Depot Company Number 44, led by 2nd Lieutenant Christy Mathewson, whose roster included future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Frank Baker, Frank Chance, Max Carey and Ed Walsh, along with Davy Jones.
By composition, timing, and task, this unit matched precisely the highly-publicized effort of the commanding general of the newly-formed Chemical Weapons Service, William Sibert, to employ prominent baseball players, regardless of age, as role models. He wanted them to demonstrate the safety of the work in order to attract much-needed volunteers for what was popularly referred to as the Gas and Flame Division.
Today we would describe this group as a "propaganda dream team," its celebrity intended as a magnet for recruiting. And yet, there was no propaganda. No hype. No mention in the many histories of the game or of the war, no mention in the countless biographies of the players involved. No attention whatsoever, even in the local newspapers in Augusta, which was by every measure a true "baseball town."
In fact, some of these same men appear in official box scores from major-league games played the very same day when they are documented to have been in Georgia, training with chemical weapons.
How could that be?
That is the story JT Willett was chasing, the story he never had the chance to tell.
JT Willett was not a real person, but the military documents that set him on his fictional quest are very real. They are illustrated in my book, and you can judge for yourself. Then who knows?
Perhaps you'll be the one to unravel the mystery.
This Never Happened offers one imagined explanation that accounts for this seeming historical anomaly. The real question is: If this never happened, what did?
J.B. Manheim is Professor Emeritus at The George Washington University, where he developed the world's first degree-granting program in political communication, and was later founding director of the School of Media & Public Affairs. He was the 1995 DC Professor of the Year. This Never Happened is his first novel. Read more about the book at jbmanheimbooks.com.
Ballparks Remain Deserted As Pandemic Lingers
By Dan Schlossberg
Not a day goes by when somebody doesn’t ask me what it’s like to go to a game these days.
At least the cardboard cutouts are gone, depriving Ronald Acuña, Jr. of the chance to hit an inside-the-cutout home run.
I’ve been to Yankee Stadium twice — once as a fan and once as a writer — and also sat in the press box at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. This month, I plan to get to Fenway Park, CitiField, and eventually to the All-Star Game in Denver.
In 2020, I saw only four games, all spring training exhibitions, before the Iron Curtain of Covid-19 fell on baseball, Broadway, and the immediate world. I was even at a ballpark — Lecom Park in Bradenton — when word came that the game (and my world) were shutting down.
Then I went 0-for-the-regular season and also skipped seeing the postseason in person.
With the pandemic lingering, I missed spring training this year for the first time since 1971. It was just too risky, especially for a senior who secured his shots only after lots of difficulties even making an appointment online.
That being said, I went to the second game of the season in Philadelphia, watching the Braves play lifeless ball one day after the Atlanta All-Star Game patch on their uniform sleeves had been covered over. It looked almost as sloppy as their play.
I found the ballpark eerily deserted, with many concession stands closed and the media dining room operating with a skeletal menu and skeleton crew. Box lunches were provided without charge, while water was the only available beverage. Later, chicken fingers — thankfully warmed up — were offered as a mid-game snack.
Every other seat was left open in the press box, which had no visiting writers or broadcasters, since all were covering the game remotely or via Zoom. Nor were there reams of information or media guides, both provided to press people previously.
In fact, there was just a single sheet of information: the starting lineups.
Citizens Bank Park was also devoid of fans, with capacity limited to 20 percent. They made a lot of noise but it was still possible to hear players talk from the field.
The situation was similar at Yankee Stadium, where I sat in the second deck, on the third-base line, for one game and then in the press box the next night. Fans were few and far between but clustered into groups, while the press was far from the usual crowd the Yankees normally attracted.
The Yankee Stadium stands were empty too, though the team still thought it prudent to blast high-decibel rock music instead of letting its talented organist play. Talking between innings was out of the question, at least in the Bronx.
In the press box, I recognized only Ken Davidoff of The New York Post and official scorekeeper Howie Karpin. Neither team had an obvious PR presence, the media relations workroom was empty, and nobody seemed to have any media guides.
Media dining, usual a pre-game hot spot, was deserted, save for a cold box lunches, a case of cold drinks, and a solitary coffee-maker. No hot dogs, no snacks, and even less tender, loving care for the media than I found in The City of Brotherly Love.
Which makes me wonder whether things will change when capacity increases. The Atlanta Braves are the latest team to announce they will allow 100 percent occupancy by their next homestand, joining the Texas Rangers. And even the Boston Red Sox will increase from the initial 12 percent capacity at ancient Fenway Park.
It was surreal to walk around big-league parks freely, without crashing into anyone and without an ability to go down to the field and into the clubhouse.
My guess is that media people will be allowed back onto the field soon but won’t return to the clubhouse this season, if ever. It is, after all, the players’ sanctuary and they are not at all unhappy about keeping the writers at bay.
Here’s The Pitch weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ also covers baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, Ball Nine, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, and Sports Collectors Digest. E.mail him at email@example.com.
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HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [firstname.lastname@example.org] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [email@example.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [firstname.lastname@example.org] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.