Eddie Mathews: Portrait of the Ballplayer as a Young Cracker

 

For a guy who’s among the lesser-known of the modern Hall of Famers, Eddie Mathews sure blazed a trail of baseball trivia teasers.

For starters, try asking the guy next to you at the bar: Who was on the cover of the debut issue of Sports Illustrated in 1954? Most people would throw out Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays – but no, SI’s first cover boy was, in fact, Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews.

Another great zinger is: What two teammates combined to hit the most home runs in baseball history? The duo of Ruth & Gehrig will usually get thrown out without a second thought, while some thinkers may ponder it a bit and submit Mantle & Maris or Mays & McCovey. You could then cue the obnoxious buzzer and correct them with Mathews & Aaron.

As tough and tricky as those two are, this third one was one of my Pop’s personal favorites: Who is the only guy to play for the Braves in all three cities they called home: Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta? Sometimes Aaron gets the nod, but alas, Hank came into The Show in ’54, two years after the Braves moved west. The answer is, of course, Eddie Mathews.

Now, here’s where I like to put my own spin on my Pop’s fave: Name one player to play in all three cities the Braves called home IN REVERSE? I can almost guarantee you’ll get crickets on this one, but by now I’m sure you can guess who I’m talking about. On his way up to the majors, Eddie Mathews did his bush league time with the Atlanta Crackers (1950-51) and Milwaukee Brewers (1951) before reaching Boston in ’52.

ATLANTA – MILWAUKEE – BOSTON – MILWAUKEE – ATLANTA

How ‘bout that?

OK, one more, but it’s a bit of a no-brainer if you’re from Atlanta: Who are the only two players to hit the Magnolia tree that stood in the outfield of Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Park? The answer to that is Babe Ruth and (you’d better have guessed it by now) Eddie Mathews.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain what a tree was doing in the Atlanta outfield later in the story.

* * *

EDWIN LEE MATHEWS was born in Texarkana, Texas in 1931. His pop, Ed, a telegraph operator for the railroad, moved the family to Santa Barbara, California in 1935. Eddie learned baseball under the warm California sun through the tutelage of not just his father, but his mom, Eloise, who was a baseball fan as well. Many an evening was spent in an empty field, Eloise fogging them in to young Eddie, and Ed shagging whatever his boy caught hold of.

Eddie developed into a strapping teen of 6’ 2,” excelling in both football and baseball at Santa Barbara High. By the time graduation day had arrived, Eddie had a coffee table full of college football scholarships and big league baseball offers to ponder. The college letters went in the trash, football wasn’t even a consideration; baseball was where the real money was at. While several major league teams threw out cash bonuses of ten grand or more, Eddie and his parents fell under the influence of Boston Braves West Coast scout Johnny Moore. Moore had logged a decade playing in the majors, was on three pennant winning Cubs teams and retired with a .307 lifetime average – so when he talked, the Mathews’ listened.

The Braves had just shaken off decades of lousy ownership and non-existent player development and won the pennant in 1948. Looking over the current roster, Eddie could see that their third baseman, Bob Elliott, was well into his thirties and would be ripe for replacement in a couple years.

Moore told the family that he could give them a big check to beat what the other teams were offering, but if he did, 17 year-old Eddie would fall prey to the dreaded “Bonus Baby Rule” and have to spend two seasons in the majors without benefit of playing in the minors. While many kids would jump at making the bigs in one jump, Moore talked turkey with the Mathews: if Eddie went directly to Boston, he could expect next to zero playing time, minimal instruction and a backside of splinters from sitting on the bench. As good as Eddie was, everyone had to admit he wasn’t big league-ready – not yet.

Moore’s sage advice hit home, and at the stroke of midnight on the night of Eddie’s high school graduation, the Mathews’ signed their boy up with the Braves, and a smiling Johnny Moore slid a check for six grand across the table, the maximum allowed without invoking the Bonus Baby Rule.

THE BRAVES sent their prized teen to the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms of the North Carolina State League, their Class D farm team. Getting into 63 games, Mathews finished fifth in batting with a .363 average and led the league with .683 in the slugging category. The latter number was the reason the Braves had wanted Mathews: power. But this was Class D. How would the kid do at a higher level?

For ’50, the Braves wanted to look Eddie over at the big club’s spring training camp then send him to the Evansville Braves, their Class B farm team. Though raw, the 18 year-old impressed the scouts and front office personnel. One of his fans was recently retired Brooklyn Dodgers slugger Dixie Walker. Known as the “People’s Cherce” to Brooklyn fans, Walker had been the undisputed star of the 1940’s Dodgers before his refusal to support Jackie Robinson cost him both his fans and a trade after 1947. Now he was the newly-appointed manager of the Braves Class AA team, the Atlanta Crackers, and he was looking for ballplayers. Walker lobbied hard to get the kid, but the Braves brain trust held firm that he was to progress gradually. An injury to Atlanta’s starting third baseman led to a change of plans, however, and Mathews reported to the Crackers’ training camp to Dix’s delight.

THE CRACKERS were shaping up to be a hard-scrabble club, assembled in the win-at- all-costs image of their new skipper. To counter the youngsters, Dix brought along two of his former good ol’ boy Brooklyn teammates: tough as nails relief pitcher Hugh Casey and dreaded headhunter Whit Wyatt. It was under the mentorship of this trio of two-fisted big leaguers that Eddie learned the brand of ball he’d later be famous for.

Though he was the youngest Cracker in spring training, Mathews made the first big headlines when he took Hugh Casey deep for a home run in his first at bat. Casey’s waistline had expanded considerably since his Brooklyn heyday, and he was only good for a few innings of relief, but he still had a tough fastball and an even tougher demeanor when he was on the mound. If Mathews’ dinger had happened a few years earlier in Brooklyn, the rookie could have expected a fastball to the ribs in his next at bat, but to everyone’s surprise, ol’ Cas let the kid slide.

Even with his fielding rated as crude at best, Mathews’ big bat earned him a spot in the starting lineup. On opening day, Mathews hit a home run in his first at-bat, then didn’t get another hit in the three-game series. A couple of errors compounded the 18 year-old’s anxiety. Fortunately, one of Mathews’ roommates was George Uhle, a veteran with five minor league seasons under his belt. Uhle convinced Mathews not to give up and stick it out. The Crackers traveled to Birmingham where Mathews burst out of his slump in dramatic fashion, belting two home runs in the opening game. He never looked back.

THE SPORTSWRITERS of the Southern Association circuit began calling the Atlanta rookie’s home run blasts “Gorilla Blasts.” Just as he would in the majors, Eddie Mathews was renowned for his massive home runs with Atlanta. In June, Mathews hit a home run at Chattanooga’s Joe Engel Stadium that traveled the 420’ to the outfield wall and cleared it by ten feet. The writers reported it as the longest ever hit in Chattanooga.

Then came the Memphis Blast. Just beyond the right-centerfield wall of Russwood Park was the Memphis Steam Laundry building. The company offered a long-standing prize of $1,000 to whoever hit the smoke stack, about 425 feet from home plate. No one ever did, but Mathews’ June 6 “Gorilla Blast” came closest, missing it by ten feet and landing atop the roof of the laundry. For coming so close, the company gave the teenager a $200 check.

Of all Mathews’ “Gorilla Blasts,” none was more famous than his “Magnolia Tree Home Run.”

ATLANTA’S PONCE DE LEON PARK was built in 1907. At various times it was called “Spiller Park” and “Spiller Field,” but in Mathews’ day it was affectionately called “Poncey” by the locals. Like all old ballparks, Poncey had its own eccentricities that made it unique. Right field featured a grassy slope on which three rows of advertising billboards were positioned. Homeruns to right were ranked by how many rows of billboards it cleared. The most significant fixture of old Poncey was its lack of a centerfield fence. Grass covered centerfield sloped upwards and featured a large Magnolia tree approximately 448 feet from home plate. When Eddie Mathews came to town in 1950, only one man, the great Babe Ruth, had been able to hit the tree with a batted ball – and the Babe did it on a bounce, not on the fly. That would change on April 23, 1950.

Memphis was in town to play a doubleheader. In the first inning of the second game, Mathews came to bat against Louis Grasnick with a runner on first. Mathews belted the ball out over the centerfielder’s head, past the grassy slope and into the Magnolia tree. 11,000 fans (later many times more would claim to have been there!) gasped in awe of what even the great Babe Ruth had failed to do. From then until “Poncey” was torn down in 1966, Mathews is the only player to have hit the famed tree on the fly. A monument to early Atlanta baseball, the Magnolia tree is still standing in the parking lot of the strip mall that replaced the old ballpark.

In Eddie Mathews’ autobiography, co-written with Bob Buege, the Hall of Famer recalls his prodigious bush league blasts, but humbly attributes them to the MacGregor Goldsmith “97” ball used by the Southern Association back then. As he told Buege, “It was the same size, but it was wound differently, and you’d get a little extra distance with it.”

BY MID-SEASON, Dixie Walker’s Atlanta club was tearing up the league, and old-timers were calling this 1950 edition of the Crackers the best ever assembled. Besides Mathews’ home run production, the Crackers featured the hitting of Ralph “Country” Brown, a career minor leaguer and automatic hit machine who’d hit .292 with 19 homers in ’50. Former Boston Brave Ebba St. Claire would match Brown’s home run output while ex-St. Louis Browns second baseman Ellis Clary added his .300 bat to the mix. Clary’s double play partner, shortstop Gene Verble, showcased the flashy fielding that would eventually get him to the Washington Senators. Future Reds pitcher Art Fowler would win 19 games and Dick Hoover added 16. When the All-Star Game ballots were tallied, St. Claire, Clary, Verble, Fowler and Mathews were voted onto the squad.

However, since Atlanta was in first place at the break, the All-Star team was made up of players from all the other Southern Association teams who would then play the intact Atlanta team.

For the game, Dixie Walker surprised everyone by selecting Whit Wyatt to start the game. Wyatt was well into his forties and had not pitched in a professional since 1945. The old Dodger pitched 4 innings of 1-run ball, helping Atlanta beat the All-Stars, 8-2. Mathews contributed a double to the Crackers’ 16-hit offense.

IT WAS WITH THE CRACKERS in 1950 that Mathews first showed the how dangerous he could be with his hands, even without a bat in them.

For some reason lost to time, the Atlanta Crackers had a blood feud going with the Mobile Bears. The powder keg that set off the 1950 edition of the conflict came on May 8. Mobile started Chuck Eisenmann, a 240 pound veteran spitballer. Eisenmann made no secret he was serving up wet ones, which led to both Dixie Walker and Whit Wyatt loudly protesting. Eisenmann beaned the first Cracker to face him, then hit Country Brown, Atlanta’s diminutive slugger and a fan favorite. As he jogged to first, Brown hollered over to Eisenmann, “if you do that again I’ll make you a necktie out of my bat!” A couple frames later the two faced off again, this time Eisenmann firing a ball that went between Brown’s skull and his ballcap as he dived to the ground. Brown picked himself up and dug in again. This time Eisenmenn threw wide of the plate, but Brown lunged, letting go of the bat as it swung towards the mound, making the pitcher jump rope, the bat skidding to a halt on the first base side.

Before anyone could react, Whit Wyatt, coaching first, snatched the bat and threw it at Eisenmann, who jumped the bat a second time. Before his feet touched ground, Wyatt had the spitballer in headlock. The benches emptied as the players commenced a battle royale that lasted the ten minutes it took the Atlanta cops to bust it up. The team’s youngest player got distinguished battle honors for, as Country Brown later said, “ripping up every Mobile hat he could get his hands on” and flooring Mobile manager Paul Chervinko. When all was said and done, Mathews was one of only two players who umpires sent to the showers.

Later that season, on August 21st, the two rivals went at it again. By now the Crackers were running away with the pennant and the Bears going nowhere in the standings. Mobile lost the first game of a doubleheader to Hugh Casey, making his first start in four years. Now humiliated at losing to an overweight, washed up reliever, Mobile’s feelings were running hot. This time Whit Wyatt sparked the flames by exchanging unpleasantries with Mobile pitcher Marion Fricano, who had been heckling the Crackers for 8 innings. Chuck Eisenmann, coaching first base, took a swing at Wyatt and the fight commenced. Walker charged from the dugout, making a beeline for Mobile manager Paul Chervinko, who Dix dropped with a right uppercut. Again, Mathews drew battle honors for his fist work, the free-for-all going down as the most savage in Southern Association history.

IN JUNE, the teenage phenom took a hot grounder to the face, earning him the first of his four broken noses of his career (2 on the field, 2 in barrooms). After a week in the hospital, Mathews rejoined the team, but immediately began having problems with his feet. Painful swelling had developed, causing him to slit his cleats to alleviate the pressure. The problem eventually went away, and it wasn’t until much later that he discovered that it was an allergy to penicillin, given to him when he broke his nose, that caused it.

THE CRACKERS ended the season with a 92-59 record, 4 games ahead of second place Birmingham. While the Crackers were the statistical pennant winners, the Southern Association practiced the “Shaughnessy playoff” system to determine the champion of the league. Under this system, created during the Depression to keep minor league fans interested in the game even if a team ran away with the regular season pennant, the 1st and 4th place teams and 2nd and 3rd place teams played each other in round one and the winners fought it out in round two for the championship. Atlanta swept Memphis and faced Birmingham for the prize. In a hard-fought series – each game was decided by a single run – Birmingham beat Atlanta 4-1. Mathews started the playoffs off strong, hitting two homers against Memphis, but he soon fell ill with a high fever, finally being taken out of the last game with pneumonia.

EDDIE MATHEWS’ STAT LINE from 1950 made people take notice: .286 with 106 RBI, 24 doubles, 9 triples and 32 homers. His highlight-reel home runs had made him the best offensive prospect in the minor leagues.

In the coming years, Eddie Mathews would more than live up to expectations. After spending the bulk of 1951 in the Navy, Mathews split what remained of the season between the Crackers and the Braves top farm team, the Milwaukee Brewers. He would reach the majors in 1952, making the Braves last season in Boston something to remember with 25 home runs. But it was in Milwaukee that he’d become famous. His 47 homers in 1953 started him on a streak of three consecutive seasons of 40 or more homers, a rate of production that made many believe he was a serious challenger to Babe Ruth’s lifetime tally.

The great Ty Cobb remarked after seeing the young Mathews in action, “I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them.”

His renown as the game’s premier slugger earned him the privilege of being Sports Illustrated’s first cover star in 1954. That same year he would hook up with Hank Aaron to hit a combined 863 home runs over the next 13 years, making them the top home run duo, four more than Ruth and Gehrig’s total. When Mathews reached the hallowed 500 home run mark in 1967, he was just the seventh player in the history of the game to reach that plateau.

Besides being known to history as one of the greatest third baseman of all-time, Mathews acted as the fearless protector of his Braves teammates, backing them up with his fists when push came to shove, just as Dixie Walker, Whit Wyatt and Hugh Casey taught him to do back in Atlanta. After he retired from the game he managed the Braves, by then located in Atlanta, bringing full-circle his professional baseball journey that took him from Atlanta to Milwaukee to Boston to Milwaukee and Atlanta again. His inevitable enshrinement in the Hall of Fame came in 1978.

The big, two-fisted third baseman passed away from pneumonia in 2001, leaving behind a trail of trivia Alex Trebek would be proud of.

* * *

IN SEARCH OF EDDIE’S HOME RUN

When I started researching this story, I figured the easiest part would be to find the details of the famous “Magnolia Tree Home Run.” It is legend in Atlanta baseball circles; you can’t read a “remember when” article about 1950s Atlanta without someone saying he or she was there that day. Heck, some of the stories have Mathews hitting several home run shots into the famous tree. One author even wrote that several boys perched on its branches fell out of the tree when Mathews’ ball hit! It was fairly easy to find the specifics of the 1929 exhibition game when Babe Ruth bounced his ball into the tree, so I assumed it would be a cinch to locate the game in which Mathews hit his. Boy, was I wrong!

I read through newspaper reports of every 1950 home game, but failed to find a single mention of the home run. One would think that such a feat would have merited giant headlines in the local paper – but no. Even a year-end Crackers recap published in the Atlanta Constitution failed to mention it – and this article logs everything from the names of the scrubs released in spring training to outfielder Bob Thorpe’s broken jaw!

In fact, the earliest mention I could find of the Magnolia tree homer in print was a widely syndicated article by Joe Reichler on July 9, 1953!

I proceeded to get out my legal pad and manually logged every single homer Mathews hit at home in 1950 AND 1951, including exhibition and playoff games. Remarkably, Mathews sent every single home run at Poncey to right field – all except one. Hit in the second game of the April 23rd doubleheader against Memphis, this particular Mathews shot was estimated to have traveled 430 feet in the game recap published the next day. Though hit in the correct direction of the Magnolia tree, I knew 430 feet wasn’t close to reaching it.

Then, I found a tiny notice in the April 29th edition of the Atlanta Constitution. Crackers president Earl Mann had his park superintendent, Howard Hubbard, go down on the field and re-measure and re-calculate the path of the home run. According to Hubbard‘s revised figures, Mathews’ April 23rd homer traveled a much more impressive 448 feet.

Now I was pretty sure this was THE home run, but still no mention about the Magnolia tree. I tried contacting several authors who included the famous home run in their books about baseball in Atlanta, but received no answer to my inquires. I knew then that I had to find the answer myself.

By now desperate to find the truth, I tracked down an aerial photo of Ponce de Leon Park from the early 1950s, as well as other shots showing the field from different angles. Using the left and right field dimensions I dug out of an old newspaper article, I drew a scaled architectural plan view of the ballpark. In the aerial photo, the Magnolia tree is easily found, located behind and to the right of the scoreboard. I marked its position on the plan view. Next came the moment of truth. Using the 448’ number given by Poncey’s ground keeper in the April 29th Constitution article, I measured the distance from home plate to the Magnolia tree on my architectural drawing: 448’

 

That had to be it, but again, this was just based on my semi-pro architectural drawing recreated from newspaper articles and old photos.

That’s when an Infinite Baseball Card Set Booklet subscriber put me in contact with Bob Buege, Milwaukee baseball historian. Bob wrote the definitive book on Milwaukee’s Borchert Field (the finest work on a minor league park I’ve come across) and was co-author of Eddie Mathews’ autobiography, Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime. My father, a huge Eddie Mathews fan as a boy, had given me a copy of Bob’s book when it came out in ‘94, but I had long ago lent it to someone who never returned it. Besides, I usually stay away from player autobiographies; they’re often dull and I prefer to find contemporary sources. I wasn’t even sure Bob’s book even contained anything on Mathews’ Cracker days. Boy, was I wrong (again).

Via email, Bob not only confirmed my April 23rd date, but graciously provided insightful background from Eddie to go along with it. Talking to Bob made me want to re-read his book, but used copies are quite expensive. I contacted Mike Shannon of Spitball Magazine, and after a trip to the vast Spitball Library, borrowed a copy. I have to say, Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime was a pleasure to read again. I have never experienced another player autobiography that captures the feeling of sitting with the subject like Bob’s book. In an easy, conversational style, he and Eddie bring to life baseball during its Golden Age like nothing I have ever read. There were many passages that even made me laugh out loud – look, you got to get a copy; it’s worth every penny. You’ll thank me later, I promise.

* * *

Thanks again to Bob Buege – without his gracious help this piece would not have been complete.

* * *

This week’s story is Number 26 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.

2 thoughts on “Eddie Mathews: Portrait of the Ballplayer as a Young Cracker

    1. Thanks Thomas. I was originally miffed that no one got back to me when I asked about the date of the home run, but the whole search and re-creating the old ballpark turned out to be an awful lot of fun, not to mention rewarding in the end.

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