Photos: Eddie Mathews' 1958 Topps baseball card, front and back, from my collection
Okay, so we'll start off the revamped site with one of my favorite HOF players nobody remembers. I'll start off with him because I've always tried to Remember James (he was Jesus's brother), which is what I call an attempt to purposely remember someone or something who everyone else has forgotten. (It's the title of one of my WIPs, too.) I'm also starting off with this exact card because it was one of the three awesome ones my better half gave me for Christmas. (She also gave me Sox/Rangers tix, too!) I thought it'd be nice to start it off with one of the three she gave me, rather than the one of the several thousands I owned beforehand.
The card is in very good shape. Well, it's PSA-graded very good to excellent, but you know what I mean. The corners are sharp; the front and back are clean. The picture is still a little glossy. The only blemish, really, is the truly bad cut of the card: it's very off-center. Since this card is not for sale, that doesn't matter as much to me. (My better half bought it for me because she liked the blue backdrop and white stars.) It's got a great aesthetics look, and it looks great in the case--and it has nice sentimental value. The back has a grid layout with his 1957 stats for the season, and against each team in his division. It doesn't have his career totals. (This is odd for any Topps card.) The grid on the back was a Topps staple, in one form or another, throughout the 50s and up until 1960. Topps cards throughout the 50s looked great. The card number is in the upper left in a star, and the blurb is written by the editors of Sport Magazine--as it says. The copywriter pre-dated Bill James by a few years when he made it a point to notice that Mathews hit many more homers on the road than he did at home. His 30 road homers (out of 47) was a Major League record. I'll bet that his home ballpark cost him quite a few homers in his career--and he still managed to hit 512!
Nobody remembers Eddie Mathews today because he played on the same team, for a great many years, as Hank Aaron. Though Aaron was clearly the better player, it wasn't always very clear that he would be. A quick glance at the opening day lineup in 1957, when the Braves won the World Series, showed that Aaron batted second (?!) and Mathews third. Joe Adcock, a power-hitting first basemen, hit cleanup, if you're wondering. You should be, because though Adcock was a good player, he wasn't Mathews or Aaron, and the fifth-place hitter was Bobby Thomson, whose name you should know. He hit the Homer Heard 'Round the World, which was a big deal because he normally did not hit homers or drive in runs--which Mathews and Aaron did, prodigiously. For those who don't know, the 1st and 2nd place hitters in a lineup are supposed to get on base so that the 3rd, 4th and 5th hitters can drive them in. Hank Aaron should not hit second--ever. That's a waste of his resources--which were among the best ever, as were Mathews, on a lesser level. Mathews was Aaron lite, you might say. You want a line-drive, walking, taking pitches guy hitting second, not Hank Aaron. Though Dustin Pedroia can drive in runs hitting 4th, it is very rare to have a contact hitter who is valuable hitting 2nd and 4th--and I'll bet Pedroia has more value for his team overall hitting 2nd. Aaron wouldn't.
Why all this? Because if you look at Mathews stats, for 1957 and for his career (which you should here, his stats page at baseball-reference.com--my source for all stats unless stated otherwise in the text), you'll see that he didn't drive in as many runs as he should've. You would think that on Opening Day of a World Series winning year, the manager would put his best hitting lineup out there, barring injury. The manager thought, for some reason, that Aaron should hit second, and Mathews third. (I'd put Aaron third, Mathews fourth and Adcock, or whoever, fifth. Aaron hits third because his average is a lot better than Mathews', with equal or far greater power production, so you'd want him to bat more often, on average.) If the lineup was jockeyed like this, this would be one reason why Mathews didn't drive in as many runs as he should have--even with Aaron still hitting in front of him. (Aaron hitting 2nd makes even less sense when you consider that the pitcher hits, so Aaron has the 9th and 1st place batters hitting in front of him, which drastically reduces his chances to drive in runs.) Mathews did have some monster years--135 RBIs one year, 114 another--but he drove in over 100 just five times, which is a low number considering that he batted on the same team as Hank Aaron for a long time. They had good supplementary hitters, too, like Bobby Thomson, Joe Adcock and Wes Covington, and so on. The point is, someone hitting with these guys is expected to drive in a lot of runs. Mathews did--1,453 of them--but with 512 homers, and hitting with those guys just mentioned, that isn't a ton. He had a lot of years with 80-95 RBIs, hitting with Aaron and Thompson, and I'd need more time to research why. He'd hit over .300 one year, then .260 the next, with medium to high walk totals and low strikeout totals (for a homerun hitter). Oddly, he scored over 100 runs frequently, but with totals between 100 and 109. You'd expect someone hitting with these guys, who walks a lot (and consistently among the league-leaders in on-base percentage), to score more runs than that. He hit .265, .263 and .233 for three straight years, with decent power and OBP numbers, then had a very good year for power (32/95) but with a bad batting average and OBP. Then his skills eroded.
He still had enough in the tank to win a World Series with the Tigers in 1968 (if you knew that, go to the head of the class), after appearances with the Braves, against the Yanks, in 1957 and 1958. He was considered the National League's best third baseman before Mike Schmidt came along, and he was elected to the Hall on his fifth try in the late 70s. (You wonder why the best power-hitting third baseman in baseball history before Schmidt would need multiple tries to get into the Hall.) He died of a pnuemonia-related illness in 2001.
In short, as great as he was, Mathews wasn't able to put it all together and have many consecutive monster years, and he fell off the grid after 1966. He played 17 total seasons, but only about five great ones, and maybe six or seven good or above-average ones. Hitting on a good hitting team with great pitching (Warren Spahn won the opening game of '57), he could've, and should've, done better. The lineups didn't help; the home ballparks hurt him; and I suspect a lingering injury or succession of injuries that he just played through.
P.S.--He was thought a very handsome guy. He was sort of quiet, but a fiery and intense competitor when the time called (not all the time, like Brett), and, despite some heavy drinking, was well-liked and well-respected.