The Baltimore Sun introduced the new season on April 28, 1869: “Base Ball – The season for this invigorating field sport has again arrived. The Maryland Base Ball Club opened at the Madison Avenue Grounds yesterday afternoon by playing a match game between the first senior nine and the first junior nine of the club. The score stood at the ninth inning Juniors 3, Seniors 28.”[i]
Eighteen Sixty-Nine was the dawn of official professionalism, as the National Association of Base Ball Players[ii] recognized two statuses of clubs for the first time, amateur and professional. The Maryland club[iii] was one of twelve to claim professional status; to compete on the new level, they brought in the first waves of players born outside Baltimore. The other professional clubs included: Red Stockings of Cincinnati; Athletics and Keystones of Philadelphia; Olympics and Nationals of Washington, D.C.; Eckfords and Atlantics of Brooklyn; Mutuals of New York; Unions of Lansingburgh, New York; Forest Citys of Cleveland and Irvingtons of New Jersey. The New York Times in July noted the Maryland uniforms – “blue pantaloons and check shirts and caps.”[iv]
Maryland was 14-13 in professional matches, 3-1 versus the Olympics, 1-2 versus the Keystones, 1-2 versus the Athletics, 1-2 versus the Eckfords and 1-1 versus the Mutuals to name a few. On June 24, the Red Stockings took on the Marylands at Madison Avenue. Cincinnati was amid their acclaimed winning streak which extended all of 1869 and well into 1870. Maryland was the reigning southern champions. The grounds were packed with attentive onlookers. The mighty Reds led 21-1 after three innings. Cincinnati finished with a 47-7 victory.
With professional comes the strain of meeting payroll. A sign that the professional era had indeed arrived took place in Philadelphia on July 6. “The game of base ball proposed for today between the Athletics, of Philadelphia, and the Maryland club, of Baltimore, did not come off. The latter club before commencing the game claimed half of the gate money, which was refused, and they declined to play.”[v] Maryland had played the Keystones the day before without incident.
The Marylands again claimed the championship of the South with a victory over the Nationals, 23-12, on September 16. Maryland topped the Pastimes[vi] three out of four contests in 1869. The Pastimes maintained their amateur status and in essence continued their fall as one of the top area clubs. As expected, they were dominated by the professional nines.[vii] On June 29, the Pastimes’ catcher Hazlehurst broke his leg after a collision at the plate with Davy Force of the Olympics of D.C. who was stealing home. The accident called a halt to the game in the fourth inning in Washington.
New York Times 8/1/1869
Bobby Mathews, nearly forgotten today, was one of the top pitchers of the early professional era despite his small stature (5 feet 5½ inches tall, weight about 140 pounds). Between 1871 and 1887, he won nearly 300 games, 297 to be exact – more than any pitcher not inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Robert T. Mathews was born on November 21, 1851, in Baltimore, Maryland, the only son of Irish natives John and Mary Mathews. He learned to play ball as a teenager on the Belair Market lots in the Old Town section of the city. At the age of 16, Mathews, a right-hander, joined the junior team of the Marylands of Baltimore in 1868. In August 1869, he moved to the senior club, which had claimed professional status, replacing Elias Cope as the club’s main pitcher.
Mathews’ made his first start as a pro on August 19 against the Orientals of New York, a 28-15 victory. The Marylands were not among the elite clubs of the NABBP; Mathews and third baseman Tom Carey were the only two whose careers would stretch into the National League era. But the roster was eventually strong enough to form the crux of one of the initial franchises, Fort Wayne, in the game’s first professional league, the National Association, in 1871.
The game was still in its genesis in 1871. It was played barehanded and pitchers hurled from 45 feet, underhanded. The previous winter, standout catcher Nat Hicks had gone to Baltimore to work with Mathews. Historian Peter Morris surmises that this was the point at which the pitcher developed, or perhaps gained control of, a curveball. Only one other pitcher in the game, Candy Cummings, could make that claim.
Fort Wayne included several other Baltimore players: Robert Armstrong, Charles Bierman, Bill Barrett, and Henry Kohler. The club was formed as a cooperative, meaning that the players shared in the gate receipts in lieu of a salary. Dwindling attendance plagued the team nearly from the start. A Fort Wayne game scheduled for Washington on July 8 was moved to Baltimore in order to spark interest and increase the gate. On July 25, Bill Lennon, Mathews’ primary catcher since he turned pro, and Frank Sellman were released for excessive drinking and related offenses.
The players’ bitterness over this and the meager paydays took its toll on team morale. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Pastimes reorganized under manager Albert H. Henderson, who quickly signed Lennon, Mincher, and Sellman. Henderson also added Bill Stearns from the Washington Olympics and George Hall from the Brooklyn Atlantics. At the end of August, the Kekiongas disbanded amid financial troubles. Mathews had started and complete all the club’s 19 games. He joined the Pastimes with Carey and first baseman Jim Foran. The men played out the season in and around Baltimore.
Mathews continued with the Pastimes, now calling themselves the Lord Baltimores, in 1872. The team adopted a colorful black, white, and bright yellow uniform, which led some to call them the Baltimore Canaries. Well-known ballplayers Bill Craver, Davy Force, Dick Higham, and Lip Pike, among others, were brought in to fill out the roster. Cherokee Fisher was hired to sub for Mathews in the box. The Canaries finished second in the National Association to the extremely strong Boston Red Stockings.
In 1873, Mathews became the main pitcher for the New York Mutuals, taking his battery mate, Dick Higham, with him. Nat Hicks was New York’s main catcher and this may explain why Mathews jumped clubs. He stayed with the Mutuals through 1876.
Mathews was a small guy, nicknamed Little Bobby; he couldn’t overwhelm the batters with a blazing fastball. As a consequence, he relied heavily on the curveball, alternating it with a fastball, changeup (called a “slow ball” at the time) and even a spitter. Like all good pitchers, he delivered each pitch with the same fluid motion, ensuring that the batter wasn’t tipped off. Sporting Life claimed, “Robert Mathews was the first to introduce a slow raise [a rising changeup], as far back as ’72.” He was one of the few to master the various deliveries as the rules of the game changed over the years from underhand to side-arm and eventually overhand. Throughout his career, he consistently posted strikeout-per-nine-inning ratios that were among the best in the league; he was in the top two in 1871-73, 1879, 1882-83, and 1885.
It’s thought that Candy Cummings and Bobby Mathews were the only two professionals to have mastered the curveball through the 1873 season. After the spitball came into vogue in the early 20th century, several baseball men stepped forward to claim that it was not, in fact, a new delivery. While it is true that Mathews never claimed to have been the original spitball pitcher (he died before it became an issue), quite a few did, including Cap Anson, Jim Corbett, 1880s pitcher Ted Kennedy, umpire Billy Hart, Phonney Martin, Tim Murnane, Hank O’Day, and William Rankin.
Mathews’ 131 wins in the National Association rank third behind Al Spalding of Boston (205) and Dick McBride of Philadelphia (149), quite a feat considering that the latter two played for stronger clubs and Mathews’ nines were typically weak with the bat. Over the final four National Association seasons, Mathews amassed more than 2,050 innings on the mound. He was the career National Association leader in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings.
Mathews remained with the Mutuals as the club moved into the upstart National League in 1876. It was a poor club, though. New York refused to finish its schedule, ignoring a road trip in mid-September, and was consequently ousted from the league over the winter. Mathews then joined Cincinnati with his battery mate Nat Hicks for 1877. The club was extremely poor and folded in mid-June amid financial trouble. Mathews then joined Janesville in the League Alliance. He wouldn’t become the main pitcher on a major-league club again until 1883.
He pitched for the Brooklyn Chelseas and Worcester Live Oaks in 1878 and joined the Providence Grays in the National League the following year. Providence won the National League pennant in 1879 under manager George Wright by five games over Boston. Mathews won 12 and lost 6 subbing for John Montgomery Ward on the mound.
In May 1880, Mathews joined the San Francisco Stars of the independent Pacific League and re-signed with Providence for the ’81 season. He was released in mid-July for drunkenness, a malady which plagued him throughout his life, and then joined Boston as an outfielder. Boston’s rotation changed in 1882; Mathews alternated with Jim Whitney.
Mathews’ career took an upward turn in 1883 when he joined the Philadelphia Athletics in the American Association, a rival major league in its second season. Immediately, he reassumed his ace status after six years, at age 31. He started 44 games and posted a 30-13 record. He was happy in Philadelphia, which wasn’t far from his Baltimore hometown, and played out his career there. He won 30 games in each of his first three seasons with the Athletics, pitching 1,234 innings. Philadelphia took the pennant in 1883 behind Mathews’ right arm but finished in the middle of the pack in 1884 and ’85.
His arm started giving him trouble in 1886, signaling a steady decline, and he lost his main starting job. With an ailing arm, he was released after seven games in 1887, ending his major league career. He had developed a fine reputation as a college coach and pursued that line of work. He also umpired off and on.
After his umpiring career ended, Mathews, who never married, moved around the East Coast from job to job. By early 1892, he was living in Trenton, New Jersey, hitting the race track and bottle daily. By the middle of 1895, he was virtually penniless, living and working at a roadhouse outside Providence owned by his ex-teammate Joe Start.
Mathews fell ill by 1897 and became hospitalized with a brain disorder attributable to syphilis. On April 17, 1898, Bobby Mathews, 46 years old, died at home “after a long and painful illness” from “advanced syphilis.”
[i] Baltimore Sun, 28 April 1869, page 1
[ii] No other Maryland clubs joined the NABBP in 1869.
[iii] Per Marshall Wright’s National Association of Base Ball Players, the 1869 Maryland club included: Reese; Goldsmith; Sellman; Buck; Mincher; Armstrong; Hooper; Lennon; Cope; Worthington; Mathews; Wilson; Lucas; Keerl
[iv] New York Times, 30 July 1869, page 8
[v] Baltimore Sun, 7 July 1869, page 1
[vi] Per Marshall Wright’s National Association of Base Ball Players, the 1869 Pastime club included: Lucas; Popplein; Annan; Bailey; Doyle; Chenowith; Armistead; Keerl; Turnbull.
[vii] A partial listing of games can be found in Marshall Wright’s National Association of Base Ball Players