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The ruffian and the college boy

Bio paints picture of two Giants who led baseball to modern era

By Todd Leopold

Christy Mathewson
John McGraw
Frank Deford

(CNN) -- The manager was a scrappy, cussed bantam rooster of a man -- "Muggsy" was his nickname -- known for his hard Irish temper, pugnacious personality and baseball wiles.

The pitcher was a strapping, college-educated gentleman whose parents couldn't imagine him making a living at this crass sport of ruffians.

They were also the best of friends, the pitcher like a son to the manager (despite a difference of just eight years in their ages), two men who led the early 20th-century New York Giant teams to five National League pennants and one world championship.

John McGraw and Christy Mathewson also represent something larger, author Frank Deford points out.

McGraw is the immigrant fighting his way to the American Dream; Mathewson is the educated, athletic, well-comported soul, the model -- almost literally, for he personified that early clean-cut literary hero Frank Merriwell -- for the all-American boy.

"That's what makes them so perfect -- they were two different sides of the same coin," says Deford, the award-winning sportswriter and author of "The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball" (Atlantic Monthly Press), an engaging new book on the pair and their era.

"They were such entirely different people, but together they represented the sport and, by extension, the country. That's what intrigued me in the first place, that there's a part of McGraw and a part of Mathewson that does represent the times," he says in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut.

Baseball and the great divides

McGraw was a player before he was a manager, and the team he played for -- the 1890s Baltimore Orioles -- was known as the fiercest, brashest group in the National League. The Orioles played smart and they played dirty, sliding with spikes high and using (and creating) some of the game's cleverest stratagems.

By 1900, McGraw was one of the best-known sports figures in the country (and brighter than his rough reputation would suggest), but that was a mixed blessing, for his sport did not carry the regard it would later gain. The United States was a country struggling to accommodate its agrarian roots with the drive of the city, and major league baseball -- played in bucolic outposts amid urban dirt and clang -- was a sport struggling to put the coarse 1890s behind it.

In the book, Deford frequently digresses from the story of McGraw and Mathewson for reveries on life, circa the turn of the 20th century, to illustrate the point.

Manufacturing -- of cars, of cookies, of entertainment -- increased at a rapid pace. Casual prejudice, stoked by organizations such as the anti-Catholic American Protective Association, was rampant. Immigrants arrived in huge waves; cities grew.

So did leisure time. New industries -- amusement parks, movies, vaudeville -- catered to this newly minted wealth.

Baseball intersected with all of them. Given competition from other entertainment (such as vaudeville), baseball cleaned up its act, with the new American League promising a better quality of ball. (The sport's stars, including Mathewson, also went on the road as vaudeville acts in the off-season.) Religious and ethnic divisions were rife on ball teams -- but the best teams learned to play as one. And the baseball park became a city's secular cathedral.

The sport's popularity grew -- and the honorable Mathewson was a primary reason.

"He was the first prominent college player ... the first star to be associated with college, and in that sense he made baseball acceptable," Deford says. "It wasn't just these crazy Irish guys drinking too much and chasing whores." (Though the sport still had a healthy share of skirt-chasers and alcoholics -- among them Giant player "Turkey Mike" Donlin, whom McGraw was forever rescuing.)

Singing songs

Frank Deford

Baseball's growth was chronicled by sportswriters whose elaborate, often flowery prose bears little resemblance to the language in today's sports section.

But if sportswriters could be overly dramatic -- after Mathewson's third shutout in the 1905 World Series, The New York Times wrote, "[he] bestrode the field like a mighty Colossus, and the Athletics peeped about the diamond like pigmies" -- that was part of the hero worship of the times.

"Everybody loves sports. It's awfully hard to be critical of these athletes -- they're young, they're strong, they're beautiful. You want to celebrate these guys," says Deford, noting that that attitude hasn't really changed.

After all, sportswriters wouldn't wring their hands about fallen idols if they hadn't made athletes idols already. "That shows in the prose of these old-time writers," he says. "They could also be absolutely as critical as the most captious guys today, but they could also sing songs."

Mathewson enjoyed the most beautiful of their melodies. By 1912, he was -- according to the Literary Digest -- the most famous man in the land except for "President Taft, Colonel [Theodore] Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan." When he was actually revealed to be human, the New York papers were beside themselves.

"I about fell out of my chair" upon seeing a headline that read "Mathewson fails," says Deford. It was never that, he says. "Always, it was 'Team lets Matty down.' 'Poor Matty.' 'Bad breaks for Matty.' Nobody wanted to write a bad word about him."

Mathewson died young, in 1925, of effects from the poison gas he'd inhaled during a World War I training session. He was 45 years old. McGraw didn't last much longer. He died in 1934, age 60, a little more than a year after his retirement as Giants manager.

Mathewson's death hit the sport particularly hard. "It was a great tragedy ... an athlete dying young always sets us back," Deford says. "We see them as so strong and handsome. We don't think they'll crumble."

But the two live on, long after they've died, the model player and the model manager. They were early inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and they're together even in death: two baseball-shaped discs that read McGraw NY and Mathewson NY, honoring their service, loom over the left-field corner in San Francisco's SBC Park.

Their bond remains intriguing.

"[One] brought himself up by his bootstraps ... the other was born to comfort, a college man at a time when nobody went to college," Deford says. "Each saw in the other the thing he wanted to be."

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