AN EVENING WITH CHRISTY MATHEWSONBy Robert Palazzo
On July 26th, about two weeks ago, my friend Scott and I visited Cooperstown to witness what I consider one of the best individual stage performances I have seen in a long time. What we saw that evening can only be described as captivating; perhaps the most captivating live performance I've ever had the pleasure of viewing. Eddie Frierson, about 40 years old, immerses himself into the character and persona of one of baseball's greats, Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants. Mathewson was inducted posthumously into the inaugural class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. Frierson began his research on the life and career of Mathewson in 1984 and has taken that research and created a stunning portrayal of the man.
Using the character of Mathewson, dressed in the clothing of the era, Frierson stimulates our sense of life's ironies, as this performance is about more than baseball, more than the life of Christy Mathewson, but instead about Life, with a capital 'L'; its odd twists and turns, how people's actions affect other people, intentionally, as well as, unintentionally. It's Matty as philosopher, reflecting on life as described in a musical lyric of a contemporary and colleague of his, George M. Cohan: "Life's a funny proposition."
The play is divided into two acts, which are further divided into thirteen scenes. Act one consists of: Bonehead, Umpires, Opportunities, Repercussions, The Alibi, and The Giant Jinx Killer. Act two consists of: The Early Days, Practical Jokes, McGraw, Factoryville and Nicholas, Fears, Deception, and Consumption. Rather than change scenery or lower the curtain, Frierson/Matty instead transitions from one scene, one phase in his life, to another, without any break. Introducing almost thirty different characters to assist Matty in telling his story, Frierson morphs from one character to another effortlessly, creating the illusion that there really is more than one person on stage. Frierson has a way of looking into, and speaking directly to, the audience, almost challenging you to prove that it isn't really Christy Mathewson standing in front of you. During one of the scenes, since we were sitting in the front row, he asked a rhetorical question, looking me square in the eye and I almost answered him; never out of character, even to the point of keeping his fingers clenched while holding an imaginary ball, this guy is good!
The first act (containing six scenes) opens with Frierson on stage already in the Matty character, wearing a NY Giants jersey, trousers and cap, under a wool sweater and scarf; surrounded by an assortment of props - a reading chair; a small table next to the chair, with a pipe rack, glove and baseball on it; a desk and chair; several pieces of luggage that have old advertising pieces propped against them (Mathewson was quite the product endorser in his day); a small green stool; a picture of George M. Cohan; and sheet music scattered all over the floor. Matty tells us how he was raised in a pleasant but strict home. He was taught never to smoke and to always honor the Sabbath; he was true to his mother in one of those cherished rules, as he never participated in a game played on Sunday, at any level of ball. As for smoking, well, that was another story.
In the first scene, he tells us about Fred Merkle, a rookie teammate whose base running at the end of a game against the Cubs resulted in a controversial ruling by then National League President, Harry Pulliam. Matty unknowingly played a part in this, with the game being declared a tie and forcing a one game play-off with the Cubs at the end of the season. His teammates on the NY Giants felt they had been cheated and had already won the NL pennant. Matty knew the players would follow his lead and either play or not play, depending on his decision. With every intention of telling the team owner they would not play, Matty suddenly changed his mind and told him they would play.
The results of NL President Pulliam's decision was that, hounded and ridiculed by the press and fans, he became a broken man and soon committed suicide. Matty, reflecting on this, tells us, "Some men can accept their decisions while others cannot. He was a good man who only wanted to be a good league president; it's only a game!" As for Matty's decision to play, well, he tells us four fans died at the game that day, two as they were struggling with each other, still embraced as they plummeted to the concrete below. "I could have prevented all this" Matty tells us. "It was only a game!"
Matty tells us about Charlie Faust, legendary good luck charm of John McGraw's Giants from 1911 through 1914. Was it true; were the facts as presented by Matty accurate? Many baseball historians and SABR members have questioned the story but one thing is clear, to hear Matty tell it to you, you become a believer. As act two opens, Matty is wearing a wool suit and hat. Leaning against the desk, he strikes a match on the sole of his shoe and lights his pipe. The smell of tobacco reaches out to the audience adding to the realness of the performance (I'm sure the HOF management did some soul searching prior to approving this).
When talking about John McGraw, his manager with the Giants, Frierson becomes McGraw and gives one of the plays top performances. Walking into the audience, Frierson/McGraw confronts them, as if they were members of the Giants. To one unsuspecting person, he yells, "I don't want to see the back of your heads when I'm talking to you. Turn around and look at me!" To another, "Are you thinking son? There are only two possible answers - Yes, Mr. McGraw or No, Mr. McGraw. So, I ask you again - are you thinking son?" The confused gentleman responded, "Yes, Mr. McGraw", only to have Freirson/McGraw bellow back, "You're not paid to think!!"
There is a touching moment when Matty tells us about how he advised his brother Nicholas, who "was a better player than I ever was", to get a college education; that baseball would still be there afterwards. Without giving away the scene, let's just say that five to ten minute scene showed the extent to which this actor had put his own emotions into this performance. At that moment, Frierson and Matty became one.
Through the story of Jake Beckley, a ball player who he unintentionally hit during a game, Matty addresses the vulnerability fear causes in all of us. Will we conquer fear or will we let it control us, and overtake the decisions we make in life? Using Hal Chase as an example, Matty shares with us the 'underbelly' of the game, the gambling and cheating, culminating in the ultimate fix, the 1919 World Series. After a season of coaching the Giants (he had retired in 1916), Matty was asked to sit in the press box and cover the 1919 World Series. At first, he thought it was strange hops, or coincidences, but soon he knew - the Sox were throwing the Series. He filed his report with baseball and the rest is history.
Matty tells us that he and his wife retire to Saranac Lake, NY. But Frierson/Matty begins to cough more frequently as he speaks now, setting the stage for his disclosure that he has contracted consumption, now known to you and me as Tuberculosis. As he slouches in his reading chair, his coughing becoming increasingly more pronounced, one knew we were entering the final scene. At one point, probably not seen by more than a handful of us who were sitting next to the stage, Matty coughed into a hankie and shoved it into his pocket, but not before I saw the red blood on it.
As he sat in that chair, becoming weaker, he described how he lay on his back for months as he was dying. (My mother had TB prior to my birth and this scene was especially riveting for me as I know the pain she suffered, lying on her back for two years while her lungs healed). He rose from the chair, took a few steps, and as he looked back at the empty chair, the lights dimmed and we knew Matty had passed on.
Moments later, the lights brightened, and still in character, Frierson/Matty took some questions from the audience. While we thought was somewhat risky, no one threw him a curve and asked a question that Matty would not have been able to respond to. You see, he had truly convinced everyone that he was Matty. Wrapping up, Matty had a message for all the young people in the audience to leave with: "Always do the right thing, treat others as you would want to be treated, character is important and be conscious of how your actions, words and decisions impact others; because life's a funny proposition."
For more on Frierson's act, see his webpage:
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