Catching Up With Eddie Frierson After a Thousand One-Man Shows
It's a cold and drizzly night in L.A., and I have to meet Christy Mathewson at the Coffee Bean in 10 minutes. I mean, I know it isn't really him -- Matty, Big Six, the Christian Gentleman, among other monikers -- but something about Eddie Frierson has me unconsciously believing it is.
So I don't want to keep him waiting, and there he is already: sitting outside on a cushy seat beneath an awning, looking ready for reflection in his vintage, hand-stitched New York Giants cap and Atlanta Braves warmup jacket, which he would later shed to reveal a blue Homestead Grays jersey. He's in his early fifties, an easy six-feet tall, hair slightly graying, with an open smile and soulful eyes. Eddie is recovering from an awful head cold, but even in this unusual wintry climate does not want to miss spinning a tale.
He's been working across the street at Sony Pictures most of the day, dubbing his voice and other noises for Kitchen Sink, an upcoming zombie comedy starring John Cusack. Eddie does that sort of work for Sony and other studios as often as possible, sometimes providing sports play-by-play, other times "re-voicing bad actors," as he puts it. It pays the rent, contributes to his single dad life up in Santa Clarita, but even though one of his life dreams was to become a Hollywood actor, it hasn't been nearly as fulfilling as his nearly 30-year journey entering the past and carrying on the legacy of Christy Mathewson.
Since first performing Matty: An Evening with Christy Mathewson at the 1987 SABR convention in Washington, D.C., Frierson has staged the 90-minute one-man portrayal of the Hall of Fame pitcher, national idol, international celebrity, war hero, class president, historian, journalist, author and great collegiate football player (for starters) "around a thousand times." Four months of shows were at the Lambs Theater in Times Square. Two of them were at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown over Fourth of July weekends at the turn of the current century. He's also performed it regularly in Mathewson's birthplace town of Factoryville, PA, where they've been having a "Christy Mathewson Days" festival for 18 years, ever since the show left Broadway.
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A few weeks prior to our Coffee Bean meetup, I catch Matty for the first time at the Valencia United Methodist Church, about a half hour north of L.A. There is no curtain, fancy lighting or shadowy wings for him to ethereally emerge from. It's an open, brightly lit space, the vintage trunks, uniforms, posters and other items Eddie uses in the show carefully arranged on the wide stage. Being a benefit for the local VSP Force Baseball Club, scores of uniformed little leaguers dot the audience.
The real Mathewson was not simply the "Christian Gentleman" the press made him out to be. He enjoyed practical jokes on teammates as much as anyone, was a fierce competitor, or as Eddie puts it, "was just the stud who wouldn't pitch on Sundays." Mathewson himself was even more succinct: "I did not ask to be this chess piece of purity in the game of baseball."
Raised on "good, clean, honest values" by his mother, Christy was known to be a bit shy, but the Mathewson that Eddie portrays on stage is anything but. Strutting back and forth, he passionately regales us with vivid recreations of the famous 1908 Merkle's Boner game; the 1911 pennant they won with the "help" of mentally handicapped mascot and good luck charm Charlie Faust; his experience managing the Cincinnati Reds in the three years before the 1919 White Sox threw the World Series to them.
There are also darker tales, of National League president Harry Pulliam shooting himself a year after ruling for the Cubs in the Merkle incident; of Christy's younger brother Nick committing suicide in a neighbor's barn; of Christy's mustard gas poisoning and subsequent tuberculosis that claimed him and much of his family. Switching voices and carrying on conversations between Mathewson, Faust, Pulliam, John McGraw, umpires and many others, Frierson seamlessly leaps from joy to despair, triumph to tragedy, painting a wild memoir canvas of Mathewson that hangs on you long afterwards.
It certainly does for the little leaguers in attendance. One part of the show features Eddie, as the rough, mind-speaking manager McGraw, stepping into the audience in the middle of a clubhouse tirade to "chew them out" and question their abilities. Later, after the church show winds down with Matty's notorious off-the-cuff question and answer session, he then invites these same little leaguers to come down and have a seat in front of the stage. Crouching before them, he sums up some valuable life lessons that are sprinkled throughout the play.
"You can learn very little from victory, but you can learn everything from a defeat."
"Always throw your best pitch in a pinch."
"We all have umpires in our lives. There are calls that go for and against us."
"Always give a person the benefit of the doubt. His wig just might be crooked."
And, the theme of Frierson's play: "Life is a very funny proposition."
The kids, amazingly behaved and glued to Matty's every word throughout the evening, stare up at the actor with the same awed attention. Eddie hasn't performed the play in a while, but the rust is decidedly off his Hall of Famer's bones by now. It is all comfortable and wonderful, as if it's 30 years ago and he is discovering Big Six all over again...
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You might think Eddie's relationship with Mathewson begins when he pitched for his Hillwood High School team down in Nashville, Tennessee and helps take them to the 1977 state championship. Or maybe when he pitches for the UCLA Bruins in college, or coaches on the Santa Monica High baseball team for eight years.
Not so. Eddie loves baseball, but he also loves acting, and after graduating UCLA with a major in theatrical arts -- and realizing he probably is never going to become a major league pitcher -- he begins snooping around for a worthy historical subject for a one-man show. Andrew Jackson? George Custer? They're both in the running, as are actors John Barrymore and Edwin Booth.
Then in 1983, Eddie's father, a voracious reader, gives him a copy of Mathewson's 1912 publication, Pitching in a Pinch. The book sits on Eddie's shelf for over a year, until the summer of '84. The Olympics have hit town, and like many Los Angeles residents, he looks forward to escaping the congestion that never really happens. Heading to Pompano Beach, FL for a family reunion, Eddie needs something to read on the plane and scoops up Mathewson's book.
Pitching in a Pinch is actually a published collection of "memoir" pieces Mathewson penned for the Sporting News with the help of writer Jack Wheeler, and they continue to be a marvel today. With chapters amusingly titled "The Most Dangerous Batters I Have Met," "Big League Pitchers and Their Peculiarities," and "Jinxes and What They Mean to a Ball-Player", among others, the book's anecdotes, useful tips and charming stories give us a fuller picture of Matty as the smart, good-natured man he was.
Eddie instantly knows that this is the guy he needs to use for his play. He's drawn to the stories in the book, but also the roughly eloquent old language, which is always good for some unintentional humor:
I have seen McGraw go on to ball fields where he is as welcome as a man with the black smallpox and face the crowd alone that, in the heat of its excitement, would like to tear him apart.
He sits with his dad on Pompano Beach, regaling him with the Mathewson stories still fresh in his mind, until his father looks at him and asks if he knows where Factoryville, PA is. They get maps, realize the town is just 15 miles northwest of Scranton, and Eddie settles on a plan. He will go there to find out if any of Mathewson's family members are still around, to learn as much as possible about the man.
The research journey he begins in Pennsylvania lasts three years, and also takes him to his winter quarters in South Central L.A., to Cincinnati where Mathewson briefly managed, to archives at Bucknell University (his alma mater) to Mathewson's personal writings at the Hall of Fame Museum, to newspaper archives in New York City, to his final home in Saranac Lake, NY, and to his place of burial back in Lewisburg, PA.
Eddie culls information from dozens of interviews and hundreds of hours of reading, and has "buckets of research" to work with, but still hasn't written a word of the play. He makes two more cross country trips to meet a few more remaining family members, including Grace Mathewson Van Lengen, Matty's 80-year-old niece. He has sunk himself so deeply into "Mathewsonabilia" that his own dreams and desires -- like winning an Oscar or the World Series -- have long taken a back seat. He has got to become Mathewson and stage this play.
In '87, he dashes off a letter about his project to organizers of the annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention in Washington, D.C. Within days, he gets a phone call. SABR wants to make "Lunch with Christy Mathewson" one of the convention's highlights! Uh-oh...
He begins binge-writing the play for the June convention, in between coaching duties at Santa Monica High, where he's won three straight league championships. His older sister, Suzan Kay Frierson, begins knitting a vintage New York Giants uniform and cap for him. Time is running out. The play and uniform are finished at the eleventh hour, but Eddie isn't really thrilled with what he's written. It's basically a 90-minute monologue, although the history-loving SABR conventioneers enjoy it anyway. "If you didn't like baseball or know something about Christy Mathewson, you were going to snore."
And then the missing link falls into place. Eddie is invited out to RFK Stadium the following night to toss batting practice as "Christy Mathewson" for the now-defunct Cracker Jack Classic Old-Timer's Game, an event featuring recent retirees and Hall of Fame players. Catfish Hunter escorts him onto the field through the center field gate. His first batting practice pitch knocks down Bill Mazeroski. He sits in the American League locker room before the game between Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio, and in the National League dugout during the game, chewing the fat with Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda and Lou Brock. Basically, Eddie has become Baseball Zelig.
He even shares an incredible private moment with DiMaggio. The locker room empties and he finds himself alone with the Yankee Clipper. He turns and asks him what Marilyn Monroe was really like. Joe, pleasant enough up to that point, turns red and fumes. Starts to get up to leave but finally turns, realizing Eddie is just this young actor who didn't mean nothing by the question. "Kid, she was more beautiful in person," he says, and walks out.
Talking and joking around with these all-time greats that night, Eddie realizes how human they are, how they're just regular guys with talent and fame bestowed upon them, and in a flash he learns that he needs to make Matty the same way. He reshapes and rewrites the play, does a performance or two to benefit the Santa Monica High ball team.
It's then that good friend Kerrigan Mahan comes on board as a director, and helps him streamline the work even more. They kill phrases, stories, move things around, add more movement. By 1991, a new version is good to go, and they premiere it in Palos Verdes in front of 450 strangers, many of them elderly women who don't care a fig about baseball. They love it.
A few more performances follow, but then everything stops in February of 1992 when Eddie's sister Suzan dies in a tragic Nashville auto accident. The loving family member who knitted every stitch of his Matty uniform is suddenly gone, and it's impossible for him to perform the play. Things in his life begin to take on "new priorities." He makes himself busy with voice work, then meets his wife-to-be, who turns his life around emotionally and gives him a new purpose.
He books some more performances, rewrites the play two more times, re-titles it The Big Six and performs it in Factoryville in 1993 at Keystone Junior College, which used to be Matty's old grammar school. In '95 he stages it at the 48-seat Two Roads Theater in Studio City, CA, where it's a huge local hit. The Los Angeles Times calls it "ordained by the baseball gods."
Eddie, Kerrigan and Two Roads owner Edmund Gaynes then take it to New York, to run it at the Lambs Theater for four months and garner even more critical acclaim. He is interviewed by Keith Olbermann and Roy Firestone. Eddie is just thrilled with the response. "People who didn't know a thing about Mathewson seemed to love him as much as I did."
He's treated like a minor celebrity when he stages the play in Cooperstown, though chooses to sleep on the outfield grass at Doubleday Field one night when he's there, staring up at the stars. In 2011, he performs what becomes one of his all-time favorite shows in Lewisburg, at the 75th anniversary of the inaugural Hall of Fame class. Surviving family members of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner are on hand, along with Anne Feller, Bob's widow, who calls Eddie personally to invite him.
For Eddie Frierson, life has been a very funny proposition indeed. Being Christy Mathewson for the love of the game, the play, and the man has opened him up in ways he never imagined. He refuses to admit he's become more religious or adopted many of Mathewson's ways, although when speaking to his three teenage children -- 17-year-old Suzan, 15-year-old Christy (a great 6'5" pitcher), and 12-year-old Matty, he sometimes catches himself talking in Big Six-speak: "I'll teach you much and you will but learn."
He's an avid traditionalist, not big on expanded video replay and abhors the designated hitter. He stopped going to Dodger Stadium a few years ago after one of his boys wore some Giants apparel and was "F-bombed" by someone in the stands. With his voice acting work and Matty shows, he doesn't have time to follow the real game as closely as many of us can.
Outside the Coffee Bean, I ask Eddie how long he thinks he'll be performing this play. "As long as I stay in good shape," he says, "and as long as people ask me." It's still a "blast" for him, and "when it's sailing, it's magical... If someone in Sheboygan, Wisconsin wants me to perform it and pays my way there, I'll do it for nothing."
What means so much more to him now is carrying on Mathewson's legacy. When he first visited Factoryville, this legacy was all but gone; his birthplace sign was choked with weeds. They've since raised money to replant trees there and fixed up four Christy Mathewson Baseball Fields. A road there was renamed the Big Six Highway.
On his website, Eddie Frierson says he's proud to introduce new generations to his "dear friend" Christy, and humbly insists the play's success "has much more to do with the man I chose as its subject than with me and my performance." Having now met one and seen the other, I have to disagree.
It's getting late, and his cold hasn't gotten any better. Empty coffee cup tossed, we shake hands and part ways. Hat secured over his eyes but his head held high, Christy vanishes into the rainy parking lot mist.
Jeff Polman has authored five "fictionalized" baseball replay blogs. "Ball Nuts", the new book based on his second blog, has just been published by Grassy Gutter Press and is available on Amazon.