Cincinnati Reds Immemorial: The Gift of Legend Edition

With Christmas less than a week away, people are scrambling to find and buy last minutes gifts or they’re working late in the night to try to put just the right amount of finishing touches on a homemade present or two. But in this era of bulk, most of the gifts are bought with the idea of getting your receivers exactly what they want. When you’re buying for your child’s teacher, your boss or even sometimes your city bus driver, the gifts you give are better described as useful more than anything else.

And there are times in all that haste and hurry that presents seem to lose all value, certainly from the person giving them as they’re just trying to cover all their bases. This lack of properly ascribing value to the gifts people some times give each other can lead to some awkward exchanges, where one person is left with an embarrassment of riches and the other is left with just an embarrassment.

Such was the case when the Cincinnati Reds prematurely exchanged Christmas gifts with the New York Giants on December 15th in the year 1900 where they wrapped Christy Mathewson up in a nice and pleasant bow and sent him on his way for Amos Rusie. In this case, people some times keep the best gift for themselves.

The Reds of 2011 just completed a trade for a budding ace in Mat Latos by giving up 1B/OF Yonder Alonso, Starting PItcher Edinson Volquez, Catching prospect Yasmani Grandal and pitching prospect Brad Boxberger, but with the talent that exchanged hands, it’s unlikely that anyone will remember this trade as such an epic gift to one franchise and an undeniable failure to another. In fairness to the Reds of 1900, Mathewson was still an unknown pitcher, unseen, unscouted, untapped, but he was a big time prospect nonetheless. He was purchased by the New York Giants from a Virginia/North Carolina league team based out of Norfolk and they were so thoroughly unimpressed with him after his short six game appearance that they returned him before they had to pay up on the $1,500 purchase price.

So in come the Reds. They draft Mathewson for a reported $100 but he didn’t initially pitch for them as they traded him to the same Giants who had just been so displeased with his performance. In return, they got Rusie. Even without hindsight, the trade was considered a bizarre occurrence. Rusie was entirely washed up and had a damaged shoulder while Mathewson was young and possessed a potential without limit, possibly on the brink of coming into his own right as a masterful wizard on the mound.

So then why would the Reds give up a man who would eventually come to define the term “Hall of Famer,” a first ever ballot first timer, the “Master of Them All” as is written in bronze on his Cooperstown plaque, all for a guy who would appear in three poorly pitched games before retiring from baseball for good? As the saying goes, you always follow the money.

The owner of the Reds in the late 1800s was John T. Brush, not well known as being the most scrupulous business owner of his time. Brush bought the St. Louis Maroons when the National League put the franchise on sale after the 1886 season and he promptly moved them to Indianapolis. When the team folded after the 1889 season, he was given a compensation package that included ownership shares in the New York Giants and a promise at first rights for the next franchise that went on sale. That franchise happened to be the Cincinnati Reds who were in financial disarray after 1890 and the stiff competition between the National League, American Association and Player’s League. He kept the team in Cincinnati thankfully, but did little to nothing in an effort to improve the team. Instead he seemed focused on league matter as throughout the 1890s, he battled in unison with Giants ownership to change the National League as they saw fit.

In reality, there was far more collusion than just the efforts of two mutually agreeable franchises. Brush was preparing to make a move to buy out the Giants ownership and become the majority owner of the franchise. In doing so, he made a cunning move to guarantee himself a future star by acquiring Mathewson and then trading him to the Giants for virtually nothing in return. His move wouldn’t be fully realized until 1902 when he finally obtained majority ownership, but by that time, Mathewson had already gone through a 20 win season, sub-2.5 ERAs, 66 complete games out of 75 started, 13 shutouts and a combined total of 385 strikeouts over those two seasons. More importantly to Brush, and what he had hoped for all along, Mathewson provided a great draw to bring the lucrative New York market out to the ballpark as well as fans of other teams they encountered on the road.

Mathewson shortly became a bonafide star pitcher but his legacy was cemented in legend when in the 1905 World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, he completed three games for the Giants without giving up a single run to the opposing team, all within a six day span no less. He would go on to have his best season in 1908 when he won 37 games, went the distance in 34 of them, had a 1.43 ERA, pitched 11 shutouts, accumulated 259 strikeouts, had a Walks per Nine ratio of 1.0, a Strikeout to Walk ratio of 6.17 and a WHIP of 0.827.

In the tradition of the Christmas season, gifts were originally given as a way of carrying on the tradition of the three wise men bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh as a way of celebrating the arrival of Christ, but I doubt even in a secular sense of the season would anyone find such a manner of “gifting” yourself with a Christy Mathewson as keeping with the spirit. So remember that it’s worse to receive than it is to give, but worse still is to try to be on both ends of the same present. That’s when the gift of a legendary pitcher can itself become a gift of legend, though it’s not always remembered fondly.