Of the thirteen members of the 1921 Orioles that made it to the majors, perhaps none was as unlikely to have done so as Lefty Matthews. Dogged by lack of control over his pitches, Matthews was given several chances by the Orioles before he was released to the low minors – yet somehow Lefty caught a break, becoming one of only some 16,000 ballplayers who could claim they made it to The Show.
John Joseph Matthews grew up on Hillman Street in Baltimore. His father Joseph, a laborer for the Water Department and mother Kate had five children, John being the second oldest. As a teen he pitched for various sandlot clubs around Baltimore, frequently with Mann’s All-Stars. In July of 1915, Matthews, who even then was known around town as “Lefty,” got the chance to show his stuff in a real ball park, three-hitting the Young Men’s Athletic Association at Jack Dunn’s Oriole Park. Since the Orioles owner-manager was always on the lookout for homegrown talent, it’s likely he had heard of the tall teenage southpaw around this time. If he hadn’t he sure did on April 12, 1917. That afternoon the Orioles were playing an exhibition warm-up game against the semi-pro Mount Clare Railroaders. On the mound that day opposing Jack Bentley was Lefty Matthews. The 19 year-old came on in relief in the third, and though the Birds scored seven off the southpaw, newspaper coverage of the game credit most of the runs to miscues by his teammates. It was reported that Jack Dunn was very keen on signing the pitcher, but before any contract could be proffered, world events stepped in.
Like most men his age at the time, Matthews served in the army during World War I. He spent part of his time in the service stationed on the Mexican border playing baseball for his regiment. One interesting event from this period was when he dove into the Rio Grande to rescue the regimental chaplain’s horse. Lefty and his regiment was later sent to France, all in all giving a year and a half to Uncle Sam.
Returning to Baltimore, Matthews continued playing semi-pro ball, this time moving up to the faster industrial leagues. He was twirling for the Landis Tool Company in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania when Orioles scouts caught up with him.
Lefty was one of the many hopefuls that went to spring training with the O’s in 1920. Reports in the newspapers declared that the hometown southpaw’s curves and mystifying “slowball” impressed Dunn more than any other pitching recruit in camp. However, as spring training came to a close, it was evident that Matthews had problems getting the ball over the plate consistently. A newspaper dispatch from the training camp noted that the lefty had a kink in delivery in that he didn’t keep his eye on the plate during his windup. When he gave up four walks, three singles, two doubles and six runs in two innings against the Philadelphia Athletics, Dunn farmed him out for more experience.
Lefty spent most of the summer of 1920 with the Moline Plowboys of the class B Three I League. Working with manager Earl Mack, Philadelphia A’s owner-manager Connie Mack’s son, Matthews went 7-2 in 9 games, keeping his walks down to 34 in 71 innings.
Invited to spring training again, Matthews appeared to have improved on his accuracy and was selected to join the big club when they broke camp and began the season. Once the season started, Lefty’s wildness resurfaced. Dunn used him out of the bullpen in five games. His giving up 13 walks and 8 hits in ten innings earned him a ticket back to Moline.
Back with the Plowboys, Matthews settled down a bit, averaging 5 walks per 9 innings. He went to spring training again with the Orioles in 1922, and again made the team, but a few weeks after the season started he was sent down again, this time to Augusta in the South. Atlantic League.
The demotion didn’t sit well with Matthews, complaining that he couldn’t pitch in the humid southern climate. In June he logged a protest with baseball’s high commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis declared that since Lefty had been optioned out three times, he was now a free agent. While this burned his bridges as far as playing ball in Baltimore was concerned, his bold move is what gave him his cup of coffee in The Show.
Mathews’ trail to the big leagues remains a tough one to piece together. Shortly after his emancipation by Landis, the southpaw was picked up by the Norfolk Tars of the Virginia League. This was a class B circuit, rather far away from the majors. The records for the Virginia League are very spotty, but I was able to find two box scores from games Matthews pitched. The first, August 1, had him giving up 7 walks in 4 1/3 innings of work. The second game was an August 21 loss which he started off by hitting a batter and walking three in the first inning and walked three more to take the loss. This doesn’t seem like the record of a big league prospect, but to the Boston Braves it did. Matthews made his major league debut on September 18 against the Cardinals at Braves Field. Lefty pitched the last inning of a 6-4 loss, facing five batters and giving up one hit and one walk. He pitched the next afternoon against the Cards again, facing four batters in the ninth and relinquishing a walk and no hits in the 8-4 loss. Braves manager must have liked what he saw because three days later he gave Matthews his first start. Facing the Cincinnati Reds, the rookie pitched 8 innings of 4-hit ball, walking four. Unfortunately he gave up a 2-run homer to George Burns along with four more runs, losing 6-0. This would draw the curtain on Lefty’s unlikely major league career.
Matthews surfaced again in the International League in 1924, this time with Rochester. Like he did every spring, Lefty impressed the coaches and made the team, but after several real in-season games he lost control of his pitches. Where he went for the next couple of years has been lost to time. Perhaps he played semi-pro ball around Maryland. There’s a “Lefty Matthews” that pitched in the Virginia League, but it appears that he was local to the area and not the former Oriole. Where ever he was prior to this, 1929 found him toiling for the Hagerstown Hubs of the Blue Ridge League, posting a 4-8 record. This looks to be Matthews’ last season in organized ball. He stayed in Hagerstown, tending bar at a nightclub and establishing a reputation as a champion bowler. Though he had no family, Lefty hosted his former Orioles teammates whenever they came through town and was a popular character in the Hagerstown sporting community. The 1921’s most unlikely major leaguer passed away in 1968, aged 69.
Friday I’ll begin to wrap up my series on the 1921 Orioles – has it really been 20 players already?
You can see the whole 20-card index of players HERE.
The set of 20 art cards are available for pre-order HERE IN MY STORE