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Starting Nine: A study in No. 41, Eddie Mathews

With a swing praised by Ty Cobb, he was one half on the most lethal home run-hitting combination ever. The Starting Nine’s deep dive into the Braves’ retired numbers continues with No. 41, Eddie Mathews. 

Milwaukee Braves
Eddie Mathews hit 47 home runs in 1953, a National League record for third basemen that would stand until Mike Schmidt hit 48 in 1980.
SetNumber: X3628

The Braves’ first young superstar in Milwaukee, Eddie Mathews would later be eclipsed by the player he’d hit in front of for more than a decade, but he was far more than Hank Aaron’s valet.

During the franchise’s stay in Wisconsin (1953-1965), it was Mathews, who arrived in the big leagues a year before Aaron, that led them in home runs with 452 to Aaron’s 398, which included an MLB single-season record for third basemen set in that first season in Milwaukee that would stand for 27 years.

“I pride myself in the fact that I worked hard,” Mathews said of his career. “I was sitting with Musial at the Hall of Fame ceremony one year, and the talk got around to Pete Rose being called Charlie Hustle. He said, ‘What’s the big deal? I hustled all my life,’ and I said I did, too. That’s the way we played in those days.”

Mathews made his mark as a Brave in the franchise’s version of the Bash Brothers, and after retirement he bounced around as a hitting instructor. From 1981-83, he was with the A’s, and his top pupil was an A-ball outfielder who would hit 462 career homers largely as part of a home-run smashing combination: future Rookie of the Year and MVP Jose Canseco.

He had a swing that would gain praise from Ty Cobb and a resume that landed him — even if it took longer than the numbers say it should have — in the Hall of Fame. Said then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig when Mathews did in 2001 “When you saw him play, you knew you were seeing greatness.”

With his No. 41 hanging alongside the other Braves greats, Mathews is this week’s focus in the Starting Nine’s deep dive into the franchise’s retired numbers.

A study in No. 3, Dale Murphy

A study in No. 6, Bobby Cox

A study in No. 10, Chipper Jones

A study in No. 21, Warren Spahn

A study in No. 29, John Smoltz

A study in No. 31, Greg Maddux

A study in No. 35, Phil Niekro

1. An underrated icon

Inexplicably, it took five years on the ballot for Mathews to earn election into the Hall of Fame. In 1974, his first year of eligibility, Mathews received just 32.3 percent of the vote — ninth on that year’s ballot — and three years later, he sat at 62.4 percent and finished second, while former National League rival Ernie Banks was made a first-ballot selection at 83.8 percent. Never mind that their career slash lines — .271/.376/.509 for Mathews, .274/.330/.500 for Banks — were nearly identical and both hit 512 home runs and Mathews had a 143 OPS+ to Banks’ 122. Mathews got his due a year after Banks, appearing on 79.4 percent of ballots, and, legendary sportswriter Dick Young would admit that Mathews’ reputation and demeanor may have clouded judgment. As Young wrote in response to a reader’s question in a Feb. 2, 1977 Daily News, column “There is, hard to believe, more to baseball than home runs. Banks was, through much of his career, a fine shortstop who hit home runs, a rare combination. But yes, popularity does count, in baseball, in voting, in life.” In 1960, after the Reds’ Frank Robinson slammed into him at third, Mathews pummeled Robinson with several shots to the face. “Eddie hit him with three punches that not even Muhammad Ali could have stopped,” Warren Spahn would say years later. Mathews had a reputation for hard-living and also had a difficult relationship with the press, gesturing to a reporter with a fist when he was in court on charges of reckless driving and was upset media was at the county clerk’s office when he was married in 1954. “What can a guy like me tell them that would be worth printing?” Mathews asked. “I’ll try to answer their questions, but they’ve got to realize that baseball comes first with me. I’m not the most pleasant guy to be around after I’ve gone 0-for-4.” Regardless of how long it took to reach Cooperstown, Mathews set the standard for third base play. His 96.2 career bWAR is second all-time at the position behind only Mike Schmidt’s 106.9, he’s 23rd among all position players, and until Schmidt later surpassed him, he had the most homers of any third baseman in their career (512) and in a single season (47 in 1953).

2. One half of the most potent combination ever

On July 14, 1967, Mathews — then a member of the Houston Astros — hit his 500th home off Giants’ future HOFer Juan Marichal, and a year to that day — also against San Francisco — Aaron joined the club, going deep off Mike McCormick. With 370 of Mathews’ blasts coming before he age of 30, he seemed destined to break Babe Ruth’s record, though it would, of course, be Aaron that broke that hallowed mark (more on that later). The duo of Aaron and Mathews played 13 seasons together in Milwaukee and then Atlanta, teaming for 863 home run and taking down another of Ruth’s records, as they surpassed the 859 hit by the Babe and fellow Yankees legend Lou Gehrig. Said Mathews in 1991 ““It’s funny about numbers. When Hank and I set the record for most home runs as teammates, we didn’t even know it for two months. We never thought about it, and there was no fanfare. In today’s world, they’d start a countdown two months earlier.”

3. Eddie Mathews vs. Chipper Jones

With Mathews second with previously stated bWAR and Chipper Jones fifth all-time, the Braves are the lone franchise with two players in the top-five among career third basemen. They’ve been the benchmark with a pair of Hall of Famers at the position, and it’s bound to bring up the question: who, exactly was better? Given Jones’ time in left field — a little more than two seasons — while Mathews logged 2,181 games at the hot corner (Jones’ 1,992) longevity is in Mathews’ corner, but tearing ligaments in his right shoulder in 1962 impacted his productivity. He had a 117 wRC+ in 1964, and while he rebounded with 32 homers and 129 wRC+ in ‘65, in ‘66 he hit a career-low 11 percent above league average and finished his Braves career with a .273/.379/.517 slash line. Chipper never had a lower wRC+ than the worst of Mathews, though he did hit 44 fewer home runs (and by 30, Mathews had hit 370 and seemed destined for a record run). There’s really no easy answer in this debate, further driven home by this: Mathews, with a 94.1 bWAR during his time with the Braves (1952-66), was the best of any third baseman during that period; Jones and his 85.3 bWAR from 1993-2012 was also the best for primary third basemen. Considering Mathews spent just one season with the team after the move to Georgia, it’s fair to say this much: Mathews was the franchise’s best third baseman in Milwaukee; Jones its best in Atlanta. But no matter how you size it up, this duo gives the Braves an embarrassment of riches at third that no other team can match.

4. Controversy and a front-row seat for history

In 1973, Mathews was in his second season as the Braves manager and his former teammate was chasing down the most iconic record in American sports. “I don’t know where Hank Aaron will break Ruth’s record, but I can tell you one thing,” Mathews would say. “Ten years from the day he hits it, three million people will say they were there.” Mathews was among them, manning the bench when Aaron took Al Downing deep on April 8, 1974 for No. 715 and a new all-time home run record, but the build up to that moment didn’t come without its controversy. Aaron hit 714 on Opening Day that season in Cincinnati, and with Braves management wanting the record to fall in Atlanta, Mathews sat Aaron for the second game of the series and had planned to do the same for the finale. “He was getting some miles on him, it wasn’t like he was going to play every day,” Mathews said of his decision. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, though, had other ideas, citing questions about the integrity of the game if Aaron didn’t play in Cincinnati. “He made it clear there were going to be repercussions. He said, ‘I’m going to suspend you, the general manager, the owner and everybody in the Atlanta front office,’” Mathews recalled. “So I played him Sunday.” Aaron would go 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts, setting the stage for that iconic moment in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in front of a record crowd.

5. Three cities and one team

It’s a note you’ve probably heard before, and if not, chamber it for a future trivia night near you. Mathews is the only man who played for the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. He signed with the Braves out of Santa Barbara High School in 1949 for $5,999, turning down football scholarships from the likes of UCLA and USC as a fullback and linebacker, and a $10,000 deal to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He instead chose the Braves — signing on the night of his high school graduation — because it meant a quicker path to the majors, with an aging Bob Elliot plying third base. Three years later, he made his major league debut in what would be the Braves’ last season in Boston and hit 25 homers, though he wasn’t exactly a fan of playing there. “About the only people who seemed to care is the Braves and the 50 gamblers who always met in the first base section,” he would say. A year later, the team was in Milwaukee and a star was born as Mathews won the home run title, going deep 47 times. He’d help propel the Braves to back-to-back World Series in Wisconsin in 1957 and ‘58, making the final putout in the first of those trips to win a title.

6. The original cover boy

On June 9, 1954, photographer Mark Kauffman went to Milwaukee’s County Stadium, taking around 150 shots and turning them over to the editor. Just over two months later — Aug. 16 to be exact — an image from that game would appear on the debut issue of Sports Illustrated, showing Mathews at the plate, along with New York Giants catcher Wes Westrum and umpire Augie Donatelli. There was no cover story about Mathews, and the only mention of him was in referring to him as “Ed Mathews” on the contents page to identify those in the cover’s image. As Mathews was told “The editor chose that particular photograph because he said it was timeless. You don’t really see anybody’s face and it doesn’t emphasize an individual, but rather a scene that’s repeated thousands and thousands of times every year.” But the Braves would lose that day’s game 4-0, and both the Braves and Giants would relocate within the next 12 years. You can call it the original Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

7. Shift happened to this slugger

How’s this for stoking the flames of expectations for a young star. After watching Mathews, the legendary Ty Cobb said “I’ve known three or four perfect swings in my time. This boy’s got one of them.” It was a unique swing with a wrist and forearm snap, and it was helped along by his parents. Mathew’s father was a former semipro athlete, and his mother, well, her impact came more out of fear. “My mother used to pitch to me and my father would shag balls,” Mathews would say during his HOF induction speech. “If I hit one up the middle, close to mother, I’d have some extra chores to do. My mother was instrumental in making me a pull hitter.” In a look that’s very en vogue in today’s game, defenses would enact the Mathews Shift when he came to bat, with the second baseman moving toward first base and the shortstop sliding to the first base side of second.

8. World Series walk-off magic

Mathews hit just one home run in 16 career World Series games, but that lone blast would ring loud in the history of the franchise. In Game 4 of the 1957 Series against the Yankees, Spahn had given up a three-run home run in the top of the ninth, and after the Braves failed to answer, New York took a 5-4 lead off a Hank Bauer triple. But after a strange scene in which pinch-hitter Nippy Jones convinced the umpire that a ball that hit the dirt, went to the backstop and stopped rolling near him had actually hit him (Jones argued it had hit him on the right shoe and it had a mark from the polish to back him up). Jones was awarded his base (and was replaced by pinch runner Felix Mantilla), and after a Red Schoendienst bunt to advance the runner and Johnny Logan double tied it, Mathews came to the plate and smacked a game-winning, two-run homer off Bob Grim as Milwaukee evened the series at 2-2 en route to the title. It was just the third walk-off home run in World Series history. Lew Burdette was named the Series MVP, but Yankees manager Casey Stengel thought otherwise. “Without (Mathews) in the lineup,” he said, “it would have been a different series.”

9. The final chapter and another ring

As previously stated, Mathews hit his 500th home run in an Astros uniform as the Braves dealt him to Houston in 1966, along with Arnold Umbach and a player to be named later, for Bob Bruce and Dave Nicholson (catcher Sandy Alomar, he of a HOF offspring and one of the 1990s top catchers, was the PTBNL in that trade), and the Astros would flip Mathews to Detroit during the 1967 season for another PTBNL (reliever Fred Gladding). Mathews, then 35, was no longer an elite player, though he did post a 120 OPS+ in 128 plate appearances for the Tigers in ‘67, and was a below-average hitter in 57 PAs in ‘68. He made an immediate impact on the clubhouse, seeing a chalkboard on which a player had written “We’ll win it despite (manager) Mayo (Smith).” Mathews erased it and lectured his new teammates, among them HOFer Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Denny McClain. “You don’t appoint guys to be leaders like that,” Detroit general manager Jim Campbell said later. “They either have it in them to take over, or they don’t. And Eddie had it. We knew that when we traded for him. We got him as a player, but we got him to be a leader, too. Even Kaline looked up to him. He took a lot of pressure off Al.” In all, he’d hit just nine homers for Detroit, but he did play in two World Series games that final season for the eventual champions, getting one hit in four trips to the plate, and faced Bob Gibson in both games.

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