While some athletes over the years have used their fame and fortune in ways that have led to negative press, there is one baseball Hall-of-Famer, with strong Lewisburg roots, who saw it as an opportunity to live out a message that he believed transformed lives.
Christy Mathewson, one of the most well-known names in Major League Baseball, is considered the most famous athlete to have ever attended Bucknell University, and testament to that is a stadium and arch on campus that carry his name.
One of the first five players (including Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb) inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, Mathewson’s first athletic claim to fame was in football as a fullback, punter and dropkicker at Bucknell from 1898 to 1900. Bucknell’s official athletics website reports, “Mathewson practiced his dropkicking hour after hour”, and he became known for exceptional punting, as well as his role as a punishing runner. He also played baseball and basketball at Bucknell and was “well-known as a gentleman and a true scholar-athlete”. In addition to sports, he was president of his class and a member of the glee club.
Mathewson’s primary claim to fame, however, came as a pitcher for the New York Giants.
According to Bob Gaines, former sportswriter, former Bucknell University director of development communications, and author of “Christy Mathewson, the Christian Gentleman: How One Man’s Faith and Fastball Forever Changed Baseball” (2015, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), Mathewson had gained popularity as a football player early on, and everyone expected him to go to Penn State University, whose football team was famous for winning recurring championships. But he chose to attend Bucknell University, instead, where John Howard Harris, his former pastor at a Baptist church in Factoryville, was at that time serving as president.
Gaines said Harris would often share about Mathewson’s strong faith, including how “Christy was always at the front row of the church with a big smile on his face.”
When Mathewson married his wife, Jane, they attended Jane’s family’s church, the Presbyterian church on Market Street.
“Faith was a huge part of his character,” Gaines said. “It always had been.”
He left Bucknell during his senior year, when the New York Giants recruited him to be their pitcher. At the time, few college-educated people played the sport, which was known as a sport for a “ruffian, lower-class of individuals,” Gaines said. “It was a rough and tumble world when he came into baseball.”
Bill Morrow, regional director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and a Bucknell graduate himself, said he has been able to use Mathewson’s legacy as an example for the coaches and young athletes he mentors.
“Christy Mathewson held true to his faith at a time when it was very unpopular,” Morrow said. “There were few Christian men involved in sports. The fact that he held onto his Christian values was not a popular thing to do.”
Like going to church every Sunday and remaining faithful to his wife.
“In addition, he used his notoriety to not necessarily promote himself, but to promote his faith – giving credit where he said credit is due,” Morrow said.
He became known as the “Christian Gentleman” because he did not hide his faith, and he was well-known to be a genuinely kind and moral man.
Morrow said a plaque at the entrance to the Bucknell stadium named for him describes Mathewson as “a man of high ideals.”
He is a good role model, Morrow said, of how to spend the “dash” in our lives — the only symbol that all tombstones have in common.
He represents well the mission of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization, he said, which is “to see Jesus Christ transform our world through the influence of athletes and coaches.”
Mathewson definitely had the influence.
In his time, Gaines said, “He was the most well-known baseball player in the world. He was the most written about…the most popular.”
Everyone knew him as a “good person”, highly intelligent, and someone who got along well with everyone, Gaines said. “His faith was very instrumental in everything.”
“The public thought he was absolutely faultless.”
Glen Bayly, of Mifflinburg, is a retired pastor who also hosts the Lion’s Den University Report radio program, in which, he said, “we regularly encourage our listeners to pray for a revival of the Christian faith on campuses in their community.”
He has been encouraged reading about Mathewson’s faith-filled legacy on the campus of Bucknell, as well as in his professional baseball career. While books about Mathewson often refer to his moral character, Bayly said he was glad to see Mathewson’s “Christian faith and heritage” highlighted in Gaines’s book.
While preaching near Mathewson’s hometown of Factoryville, Bayly found a historical marker and murals recognizing Mathewson. It’s clear that the athlete, and the man, left an impact in his short 46 years.
In 1918, he enlisted in the Army during World War I. The Baseball Hall of Fame website reports that Mathewson, while serving as a captain in France, was accidentally gassed during a training exercise. During the next seven years, he battled tuberculosis. He died Oct. 7, 1925.
Gaines said upon his death, this man who had “won the hearts of America,” was honored on “headlines of newspapers all over the country.”
“They stopped the World Series when they found out,” he added.
The Hall of Fame website describes Mathewson as “the first great pitching star of the modern era, and is still the standard by which greatness is measured.”
But it’s clear his fame goes beyond success on the diamond.
“Christy Mathewson changed the way people perceived baseball players by his actions on and off the field,” the website reads. “His combination of power and poise — his tenacity and temperance — remains baseball’s ideal.”
He is buried in the cemetery behind Bucknell University’s Kenneth Langone Athletics & Recreation Center.