An Evening with Eddie Frierson
by Bob Palazzo
Last year, at the Baseball Hall of Fame, I had the pleasure of witnessing what I can only describe as captivating; perhaps the most captivating live performance Išve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Eddie Frierson, immersed himself into the character and persona of one of baseballšs 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 lifešs ironies, as this performance is about more than baseball, more than the life of Christy Mathewson, but instead about Life, with a capital Lš; its odd twists and turns, how peoplešs actions affect other people, intentionally, as well as, unintentionally. Itšs Matty as philosopher, reflecting on life as described in a musical lyric of a contemporary and colleague of his, George M. Cohan: "Lifešs a funny proposition." As I drove home that night, I thought of all the questions I wanted to ask both Eddie and Matty.
Following is my interview with Eddie. And we just might get that interview with Matty also, as Eddie has promised to put in a good word for me with his friend Matty.
In 1982, I began researching several different historical figures, in order to develop a one-man theatrical piece when my father (a renowned educator) came across a dusty book in an antique book store. The book was an old baseball reader written in 1912 by the legendary "Big Six." The title was Pitching In A Pinch: Or, Base Ball From The Inside. The end of the search had fallen in my lap, but I didn't know it yet.
Making the subject for my one-man show an historical baseball figure would be a natural choice, combining both of my worlds. Soon, I found Christy Mathewson more than a "natural choice." His was an important story that needed to be told. Christy Mathewson was in no way an ordinary "historical figure." This was a special man who advised a president, was revered by the public and changed the course of the Nation.
That old, dusty book sat on my shelf for over two years until the Summer of 1984 when, traveling to a family reunion, I picked up the volume to read on the plane. The rest, as they say, is history. Here was a book as great as Mathewson's pitching. There were stories from the early days of the Big Leagues that never made it into the papers. It was a true tale of the turn-of-the-century, of legendary Big League ball-players, and the game of baseball. Springing to life off the page were little Johnny Evers, the great Honus Wagner, the fiery John McGraw and the man himself, Christy Mathewson. But reading the book was only the beginning. By the time my plane touched down in Florida, the launch of a never-ending quest had kicked into full swing. The more I looked, the more I found that Mathewson still had something to say to today's public.
The words from the pages leapt out at me. Here was a man much like myself. His philosophies, size, ideas --- it was as if I were reading my own words, looking into a mirror. But there was so much more. The characters from baseball's early days were written so clearly, so theatrically, that I thought this was a natural place to start with a theatrical project. I knew of Mathewson. I knew he was in the inaugural class of Baseball's Hall of Fame. I knew that he was known as the first man to throw the 'fadeaway' --- today's screwball. But there was no way that I could be prepared for what I was about to learn. This man was so much more than just a baseball player. I had no idea.
2. Did you have the opportunity to speak to any of Christy Mathewson's family in your research? If so, tell us about it.
I met several relatives during my initial trip but most, sadly, have died. I had no idea of what to expect. Here I was, a 24-year old kid, all but fresh out of school, full of dreams --- taking the journey of my life. But it's funny. The purpose of that trip when it started out was a completely selfish one. I was looking to research a vehicle to showcase my acting talents. That vehicle turned out to be Christy Mathewson, the 'baseball card.' But it only took my first stop, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to turn the focus off of myself and on to this wonderful man. He became very real and not a 'card' at all.
I rolled into Lewisburg after a long haul and pulled the car over to the side of the road and the first thing I noticed was the Memorial Gate in Mathewson's honor right there at the entrance of Bucknell University. I thought it odd to learn that every Big League Club at the time it was erected (1927 --- two years after Matty passed away) donated funds to make the memorial possible. It was unheard of. Imagine, every team today donating money to ANY one cause! And as I read on, there were two plaques on the brick and iron structure. One listed all of his baseball accomplishments. But the other listed Matty's many accomplishments at Bucknell and outside of baseball. He was his class historian, class president, member of the glee club, member of two literary societies, a member of two fraternities, a member of the band and he was a played for the varsity football, basketball AND baseball teams. He was the first ever All-American Football player at the position of kicker. Walter Camp called him the 'greatest all-around football player I ever saw.' I was blown away by his accomplishments. Manager of the Cincinnati Reds, President of the Boston Braves, World War I hero --- and tragic figure. It was clear that I had many layers to uncover.
So, I moved on to the logical place --- the Bucknell Library Archives. And when I got down to the basement, I'll never forget it. I was met by a delightful lady, Doris Dysinger, who was actually preparing to close up for the day but I explained who I was and what I was trying to do and she smiled from ear to ear and sighed, 'Oh, Christy!' We set up the time for me to return the following day.
That evening, I got a $14 room at the Lewisburger Hotel on Market Street and walked all over town in the moonlight, imagining where Mathewson may have walked, discovering the spot on the Bucknell campus that used to be Loomis Field, where he played, the gym where the basketball team gathered, the home of hymnist Robert Lowry, the Susquehana River. It was surreal and I threw myself back into a turn of the century time. That night, it turns out, was the only night in all the years of my research that I ever spent in a hotel. The Mathewson Family and his friends opened their arms to me and, I've got to say, those relationships that I have forged are worth more than any fame that I could possibly gather from this project.
The next morning I sifted through baby books, learned that Matty had authored a series of books for boys (with Bozeman Bulger and Jack Wheeler), co-authored a Broadway play (with Rida Johnson Young, acted in the movies and on vaudeville, was a close friend of President Taft (a one-time part owner of the Chicago Cubs), wrote (and proofed all ghosted) articles in newspapers and magazines and that he was STILL, today, loved by Lewisburg and the Bucknell community. Legend has it that if you are a student at Bucknell and you have a special girl that you want to keep forever, you take her up to the Mathewson grave at midnight and give her a kiss! It must work because one survey listed Bucknell as the top University in the country for least divorces to successful marriages!"
After that initial trip, for three years I sat on buckets of research. But, getting back to the question (I can talk for days and can get off the subject!) I made two more cross country trips and met the remaining Mathewson family members including Grace Mathewson Van Lengen, Mathewson's niece (daughter of Henry Mathewson). Knowing Grace and having her as an "adopted grandmother" is the most wonderful and satisfying part of this whole project. What a wonderful lady - and she has taken me in like one of her own. I love her more than I can say.
3. Did you ever visit his hometown?
I went to Factoryville, Pennsylvania immediately after the Bucknell trip. I have been back nearly every year since 1984 and now regularly return to perform MATTY during "Christy Mathewson Weekend" - every August 12 weekend - when Keystone College puts on the show and then sponsors a BIG 6k run, breakfast and parade in honor of Mathewson's birthday. It is the single grandest recurring annual event that I know of.
4. Tell us a bit about the other characters in the performance. How did you research them and how do you know about conversations etc. Were they recorded somewhere?
Sadly, there are no recordings of anyone but John McGraw and those are limited. Well, Judge Landis, of course. What I did was study pictures and film clips and I came up with a physicality for each player and character. How did they walk. How did they hold their shoulders. How big were their hands? Did they have a sinus condition? From the walk and the physicality, voices came out naturally. After all, I make my living from doing voices on cartoons and in film and television. The voices were easy. The other stuff took the work.
As for the specific conversations that I have dramatized in the show, they are taken from a number of sources - newspapers, Mathewson's actual writings, letters, books, the Hall of Fame, etc.
5. Do you have a favorite performance? Where was it and why?
Actually, I have several. The first performance ever in June of 1987 in the Grand Ballroom of the Chrystal City (Washington, DC) Marriot. It was "playtime" and I got the show on its feet for the first time. It was AWFUL! I'm glad that is was for the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) National Convention because they were a very understanding audience and I think that many actually enjoyed that show. It got me going.
Opening night in Los Angeles in November of 1995. After 8 more years of development I felt the show was ready for audiences that actually despise sports of any kind. I found that I was right.
Midway through the run in Los Angeles there was one evening when only 4 people showed up for the performance. I sat on the edge of the stage and really had "An Evening With Christy Mathewson." It was moving for them and me.
One evening after a Los Angeles performance a 9 year old girl waited for me to come out of the dressing room and shyly looked up at me with tears in her eyes and told me, "You touched my life," a line from the show. My director, Kerrigan Mahan was there and if you had been you would have gotten the opportunity to see two grown men cry.
Opening night in New York. The buzz. The excitement. The reality of the years of hard work paying off. The Lamb's Theatre and performing in the building where Mathewson and McGraw actually had dinner several times a week! It was magic.
Performing in 1997 at Bucknell University in their marvelous Weis Center for the Performing Arts as part of their arts season. A sellout of over 1200 people to bookend the show for just 4 a year earlier in Los Angeles. With that many bodies in the theatre . . . you can do no wrong.
6. Did you ever have to cancel? If so, what were the circumstances?
Only twice. Once when a "group" that bought the theatre cancelled so we had no bodies, and another time when my lighting engineer was sick.
7. How long did you prepare before you did your first show? Where was it?
I sat on the initial pile of research for three years before booking the show for the SABR Convention. It was eleven years total before the show was developed into what it is today . . . opening in New York. Again, the first show was in the Grand Ballroom of the Chrystal City Marriott. It was billed as "Lunch with Christy Mathewson."
8. Have you ever forgotten lines and had to ad lib? Tell us about that and what it is like to transform into so many different characters so seamlessly?
What is it like? It's just what I do and I have been working on it for so long it BETTER be seamless or it's time for me to hang up the costume. Like Honus Wagner said, "There ain't much to being a ballplayer if you're a ballplayer." I could say that there ain't much to being an actor if you're an actor. Really, what I do isn't so tough I don't think. Programming computers or flying a fighter jet? Now that is something.
9. Is each performance the same as the previous or do you make changes? What about props? Are they yours? For instance, at the performance I attended at the HOF, there was sheet music scattered on the stage. I know there was a connection with George Cohen, but I would have expected, say, box scores or something baseball related. How do you decide on what props to use?
Pretty much now every performance is the same except for the "Day in Christy History" to start the show and the question/answer session near the end. There's no reason to fiddle with what works, you know? As for props, all the hand props and set dressing are mine but each venue comes up with the furniture based on the list I give them and what they have available. The sheet music is for Cohan but also to show Mathewson's great love and talent for music. It was a huge part of his life. Things like that are there to maybe jog someone's brain to ask a question about it when they get the chance as an audience member. There are a lot of those little things around. But, I have specific things that I need to use and they came out of trial and error during the development of the show: a cigar for Harry Pulliam, the Big 6 letter, cards, pipes, baseballs, gloves, books, scoresheets, etc. Every little thing is used at some point in the show. The audience isn't even aware of much of it. But it helps me to have "Matty" look through personal items while "thinking" of what to say, etc. I have to walk the stage beforehand to make sure everything is in place. I wouldn't be totally thrown if something was out of order but, say, if a match was "missing" from the desk it would completely kill the exclamation point to a Cubs joke at the beginning of the second act!
10. Did you ever get out of character during a performance?
I am reminded of Jane Mathewson being asked once why she never remarried. Her answer? "Never crossed my mind. I LOVED my husband." That being said, when you ask if I ever get out of character - I don't think it's possible for me. I love being this man for two hours every time I get on the stage. Can you imagine? Having folks believe for one small glitch of time that you are a Hall of Famer. What a rush.
11. Tell us about your background and family.
I am native of Nashville, Tennessee and the fifth out of six children (including two sets of twins - I have a twin sister, Julie, who is a big time morning DJ in Indianapolis) I pitched my Hillwood High School Baseball Team to a State Championship in 1977 before going on to throw collegiately for the UCLA Bruins. While at UCLA, I obtained my degree in Theatre Arts and by-passed a professional baseball career in order to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. My Mom and Dad are the greatest two people in the world that I know. My dad is an educator. We always told people he "teaches teachers how to teach." He does more than that. My eldest sister, Suzan, made the costumes for MATTY. She was tragically taken from us on Valentine's Day in 1992 in an auto accident. I have the greatest family in the world.
Now? I'm married to a wonderful gal, Natalie, who sings with the Opera and I have three perfect kids - Suzan (5), Christy (he's 3) and Matty (5 mos.).
For more information about Eddie Frierson's one man show, visit his website: www.matty.org
Read Bob Palazzo's review of MATTY: An Evening With Christy Mathewson.
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