Thump. A shrill howl of pain.
“Stop it! That’s my, dog!”
“Oh, it is? Then you ought to be kicked, too. Take that for your impudence!”
Cuff! A blow from an open hand sent the boyish owner of the whimpering poodle staggering to the ground, while paper bags of popcorn flew from his basket and scattered their snowy contents around.
“That was a cowardly blow!”
With that last line of his debut appearance in Street & Smith’s Tip Top Weekly in 1896, Frank Merriwell entered Fardale Academy. Over hundreds of dime novels, young Merriwell would perform impossible feats on the baseball diamond and the gridiron. He would foil kidnappers and killers, scoundrels and thieves. He would become one of the most famous fictional characters in the country. But first, he had to stop a bully. He handled the haughty, overdressed dog-kicker with characteristic grace, displaying such mettle that the vanquished bully — like so many of Merry’s future opponents — became his “admiring and unwavering friend.”
While it is popularly believed that Frank Merriwell, the “All-American Boy” of the dime novels, was modeled on Christy “Matty” Mathewson of baseball’s New York Giants, in truth, Merry was already a national when Matty was still in high school. On the contrary, the future star twirler, who was known to give a disdainful glance at the batsman before tossing up his inscrutable fadeaway, might have modeled himself on the fictional Merriwell.
Like Merriwell, Mathewson was supremely confident, in a way that lesser mortals might mistake for arrogance. Both were at their best when the going got tough — unnerving batters by sneering with bases full. In “Pitching in a Pinch,” Mathewson wrote, “I have always been against a twirler pitching himself out when there is no necessity for it, as so many youngsters do. They burn them through for eight innings and then, when the pinch comes, something is lacking…A man should always hold something in reserve, a surprise to spring when things get tight.”
Chicken or egg, Matty, who was born in 1880, was the real-life embodiment of all the dime-novel improbabilities. He had indefatigable verve, nerve, pluck – even, until an exposure to nerve gas in World War I, luck. In an era when most ballplayers were rough-and-tumble characters from the wrong side of the tracks who believed that fists were the best way to settle any dispute, Mathewson stood out as “the Christian Gentleman.” Tall, blond, aristocratic in looks and bearing, and college-educated, he earned a reputation for fairness and honesty that made him one of the game’s first role models of whom middle-class parents could approve.
This was no Rube Waddell, no flouter of convention or target of the law, no saloon crawler or matrimonial brawler. If Mathewson was a new sort of baseball hero, Waddell, a great pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, was one of the last of the game’s old gods, a country boy with a gift for unpredictability. In 1903, when Matty was the toast of New York for winning thirty games, Waddell began the year sleeping in a firehouse at Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in Wheeling, West Virginia. “In between those events,” wrote Lee Allen, “he won twenty-two games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men’s Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married, and separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion.” Rube married at least two other women. Although he did spend some time in jail in 1905 for throwing flatirons at each of his in-laws – an impulse with which some of us may empathize – this man-child had a good heart. On more than one occasion his penchant for running after fire engines led him to rush into a burning building to effect a rescue.
If Mathewson was not truly a prince among men — and he had his moments, from punching out a lemonade vendor to “high-hatting” his teammates — the press was only too glad to fit him into that role, which had been vacant. Baseball had certainly been well represented in the lower archetypes — knave, fool, sot, rogue, libertine — but a prince was something new.
Dime-novel heroes were red-blooded, not blue; a nobleman on the frontier was a dude, a figure of fun. Sportswriters did not need to look to Elizabethan drama or classical legend for inspiration. Why bother, when the dime novelists of the day were mining those age-old conventions already? Whether creating fictional heroes after the manner of James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott, or stretching the truth of real-life figures like John Paul Jones, Davy Crockett or Buffalo Bill, the writers of the early dime novel were giving the people a national history unfettered from mere fact. With Deadwood Dick, Jesse James, Nick Carter, Jack Lightfoot and, of course, Frank Merriwell, they were providing America with a usable past, just as Parson Weems had aimed to do with his tale of George Washington and the cherry tree.
“Touch but a hair of her head, and by the Lord that made me, I will bespatter that tree with your brains!”
This stirring line is from page ten of the first dime novel, Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1860). It was not long before such chilling propositions would become the very first words on page one. A typically ripping first sentence reads like this:
“We will have the money, or she shall die!”
“Bang! Bang! Bang! Three shots rang out on the midnight air!”
On April 18, 1896, in Tip Top Weekly, Gilbert Patten — writing as “Burt L. Standish,” named for the hero of his favorite Longfellow poem — made his potboiling debut with Frank Merriwell; or, First Days at Fardale. (Dime novels typically consumed all but the reader-service pages of a story weekly; their titles were always two-parters, including a semicolon and a comma.) Another character central to the Merriwell tales to follow is introduced herein: Inza Burrage, a damsel everlastingly in distress. When Inza trips while trying to elude a “mad dog,” Merriwell “gently picks her up and moves her to the side as he prepares to battle an obviously hydrophobic canine with a jackknife.” (Do not envision a dog brandishing a switchblade.)
“What are you going to do?’ panted Inza. “You are not going to fight the dog?”
“He will kill you!” she screamed. “Remember that one scratch from his teeth means sure death!”
“I know that!”
“Then run — run!”
“And leave you and these girls to be bitten by that beast! Not much! Better that he should bite one than a dozen.”
As the dog pounces, Inza stops panting. “What a brave, noble fellow he is!” her white lips whispered. “How terrible that he should give his life for me! How grand!”
It was a hit, and Patten went on to churn out 849 more. After writing five thousand words a day, four days a week — twenty million words over nineteen years — as Burt L. Standish, Patten went to his grave as the most famous American author no one knew. Yet in Frank Merriwell he gave us a hero for his age and, in a not instantly visible way, our own.
Few people today know of Malaeska and Deadwood Dick, and with each passing year fewer recall Frank Merriwell. When Derek Jeter hit a home run for his 3,000th hit in July 2011, Sid Dorfman of the Star-Ledger said, “I announced he had just done a Frank Merriwell — and the young fellow standing next to me yelped: ‘Who the devil is Frank Merriwell? I never heard of him. Who does he play for?’”
He played for Fardale, incomparably, and then for dear old Yale. There he “had to contend with the villains of Harvard,” wrote Stewart H. Holbrook in American Heritage in June 1961, “and, to a lesser degree, the scum of Princeton, Dartmouth, West Point and other low-lived and gangster-ridden groves of Academe, all of whom were bent on getting Frank drunk, loaded with prussic acid, drugged or kidnapped just before the Big Game.”
Merry was a supreme athlete, courageous hunter, and master ventriloquist who, as Robert Boyle wrote in a profile of Patten, “stood for truth, faith, justice, the triumph of right, mother, home, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, the love of alma mater, duty, sacrifice, retribution and strength of soul as well as body. Frank was manly; he had ‘sand’” — and he was modest to a fault. Girls, your mother would love him.
Critic George Jean Nathan once observed, “For one who read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, there were ten thousand who read Standish’s Frank Merriwell’s Dilemma; or, Frank Merriwell at Yale.” Newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler lamented that Patten had never received the Pulitzer Prize. Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan read him, and so did Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and…Christy Mathewson.
Week after week, as Frank Merriwell foiled dastardly plans, reformed bullies, fended off wild animals and defended the fair sex, he never fell short of victory. He scored the winning touchdown, hit the home run in the ninth and buckled hitters’ knees with his “double-shoot” curve, an impossible pitch “which twists like a snake.”
Patten concocted the “double-shoot” while on a trip to Boston, during which he was flustered by his inability to “conceive something new for Frank to do.”
Completely at a loss, I dropped my work one day and went to a baseball game, where I got a seat behind the catcher. A tall, lean, long-armed pitcher was on the mound, and he had a queer cross-fire delivery that bothered the batters. Shortly after I sat down he threw a fast high ball that curved sharply inward and caromed off the end of the bat, which the hitter had not removed from his shoulder. Down in one of the front rows, a farmerish looking man jumped to his feet. “I been watching baseball for twenty years,” he cried, “and that’s the first time I ever see a curve two ways on one pitch.” Well, that was it! He had given me the idea for Frank Merriwell’s “double-shoot”…. In future stories, Frank used that amazing and impossible double curve on dangerous batters in pinches, and over the country boys almost ruined their arms trying to throw it.
– Frank Merriwell’s “Father”: An Autobiography by Gilbert Patten
One of those boys may have been Matty. He began pitching at age thirteen for his hometown team in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It was there that he later added a new pitch to his arsenal, learning the delivery from a left-handed teammate, Dave Williams, who went on to appear in three games for the Boston Red Sox in 1902. “Williams pitched this ball with the same motion that he threw his out-curve,” noted Mathewson, “but turned his hand over and snapped his wrist as he let the ball go. He never could tell where it was going, so it was of no use to him in a game. It was a freak delivery. It fascinated me.”
After earning All-America football honors at Bucknell, largely because of his punting skill, Mathewson came to New York in 1900 after beginning the season with Norfolk of the Virginia League. There he’d won twenty games and pitched a no-hitter in the first two months of the season, but playing for the flagship franchise of the National League was another story. The Giants paid $1,500 for him, but the deal was contingent on his making good. He was unimpressive at first, and for a while the Giants tried to make him into a first baseman. Mathewson was primarily a fastball pitcher and had yet to master the double-shoot — or reverse curve, or screwball, or “fadeaway,” as he had come to call it — that he learned from Williams.
When new manager John McGraw took the reins in mid-1902 he immediately began a house cleaning of the New York franchise. One of his first moves was to return Matty to full-time pitching duty.
The Giants were a last-place club when McGraw arrived in 1902. Matty won thirty games the next year as the team climbed to second place. By 1904 they were league champions as Matty went 33-12. Although peace had been declared between the warring National and American leagues, and a World Series had been played in 1903, McGraw and Giants owner John T. Brush so hated the upstart circuit that they refused to take part in any postseason play that year.
In 1905, however, they relented. Mathewson, who had won another thirty-one during the regular season, pitched three shutouts against the Philadelphia A’s, a feat unmatched in World Series annals. The Giants became world champions, and Mathewson was the idol of a nation.
Tall and handsome, Matty looked the part of Frank Merriwell, who was generally depicted as patrician in visage and frame as well as demeanor. A cleft chin, a strong jawline, a leonine head, muscular if not musclebound, with a lithe frame that today would land him the cover of Esquire. Think Tom Brady.
Matty was a college graduate, a God-fearing Christian and, in his public image, a paragon of rectitude. Yet he was “no goody-goody,” his wife, Jane, hastened to add whenever someone would carry on about his virtues. He would play ball on Sundays where it was allowed, was known to cuss a bit, and was an inveterate gambler who always carried a big bankroll. Some folks found him standoffish, even aloof, and accused him of having “a swelled head” — or, in one little-noted instance, the opposite.
A former Giant teammate from 1902, Jack Hendricks, called him a “pinhead” in the Chicago Journal. “Hardly anyone on the team speaks to Mathewson,” Hendricks said. “He deserves it. He is a pinhead and a conceited fellow who has made himself unpopular.” The other players were tired of his whining and purposely made misplays behind him, Hendricks said. “‘I can’t win, I can’t win,’ wails Matty after every defeat, and the others snarl at him, ‘To the woods, you big stiff.’” During one brawl at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl in 1904, Mathewson reportedly knocked down a boy selling lemonade near the Giants’ bench because he was making unflattering remarks.
The Mathewson who has come down to us today is the epic Mathewson, not the whiner or the bully. As Frank Merriwell supplied a new generation with an urbane, civilized, educated hero — evolved from the rough models of the train robbers and buffalo shooters — so did Mathewson offer an alternative. He helped baseball to improve its standing with God-fearing and right-thinking family men and women who would not abide such old-time toughs as King Kelly, Arlie Latham and Hoss Radbourn, or that ungovernable old-school star in the American League, Rube Waddell, who once played marbles under the stands at game time while his teammates searched for their starting pitcher; was paid his year’s salary of $2,200 in one-dollar bills because he was so impulsive a spender; hurled both ends of a doubleheader just so that he could get a few days off to go fishing; called his outfielders to the sidelines, then struck out the batter.
When college man Mathewson came along to contend with Waddell for favor in the first decade of the century, the moralists at last had their role model. But the sanitized Matty never captured the hearts of boys as the Rube did. While adults clucked their disapproval, Rube’s sense of mischief and disregard for adult ways endeared him to youth. He was them, figured large, with the power not only to move about in the adult world but also to transform it, to make it uniquely his. Mathewson was too much like Frank Merriwell — too perfect to be real.
Mathewson was through as a pitcher after 1916. He managed Cincinnati until midseason 1918, when he joined the armed services and served as a captain on the Western Front. He was hit by a whiff of poison gas, and two years later he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in both lungs.
He was sent to Saranac Lake, New York, for treatment, where one of his lungs collapsed. Betrayed by his body, Matty let his mind wander back to the infinite intricacies of baseball, devising a board game that even in his weakened state he still might play. In 1921 he wrote, “When a fellow cannot read, or write, or talk, and can only move his fingers and forearms, it requires some resourcefulness to keep his mind off his troubles. I started working out a baseball game, figuring every chance and studying how it should be played mechanically so as to offer the same chances as are offered on a ball field. It interested me and kept my mind engaged.” Baseball was his medicine.
In 1922 the Piroxloid Products Company issued his “Big Six Indoor Baseball Game” and Mathewson returned home, his spirit too strong to merely survive. In 1923 he accepted the post of general manager of the Boston Braves. It was a challenge Mathewson never should have undertaken. In 1925 the strain caused him to collapse. He returned to Saranac Lake and died there on October 7, as the World Series opened. Players on both squads wore black armbands in tribute.
Today, when not a soul breathes who saw him pitch, Matty’s reputation might have been expected to follow the path of his signature pitch. But he remains famous as one of the “Founding Five” members of the Baseball Hall of Fame (with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson). No pitcher had more National League wins (373); none ever threw three shutouts in a single World Series, as he did in 1905; and no big-time pitcher had tougher luck in big games (a heartbreaking loss in extra innings in the final game of the 1912 World Series, for example). In 1925, the year of Mathewson’s death, cartoon pioneer Max Fleischer included him — along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, George Bernard Shaw and Babe Ruth — in an animated feature depicting celebrated visages of the day.
Frank Merriwell did not die as perfectly as Matty. After his 850 episodes in Tip Top Weekly, he straggled through occasional appearances in another 136 issues of New Tip Top Weekly, a publication dominated by the exploits of his long-lost brother, Dick Merriwell, whose pitching prowess was aided by a “jump ball” that leapt a foot above the bat. (Two double-shoots in one family would have been, the author thought, implausible.) Frank Merriwell, Jr., a son introduced in 1906, became a full-fledged character in 1912.
The series that had begun in April 1896 ended in March 1915. What gave birth to the dime novel in 1860 was the industrial revolution and the Civil War; what killed them was the movies and radio, although it might be said that the genre simply morphed into pulp magazines of a racier sort. In 1910, Tip Top Films released a two-reeler titled “Frank Merriwell in Arizona; or, The Mystery Mine.” A trip to the nickelodeon cost less than a dime novel and, in providing access to a new medium, seemed more exciting. No longer did audiences have to make the stories come alive themselves; at the cinema, the stories were acted out for them.
The mythmaking, the desire to make history pay, did not die with the dime novel, the story weekly or the pulp mags and sensational rags of recent memory. The impulse that gave rise to Frank Merriwell is alive and well. The formulaic quality of that series, the crudity of the cover illustrations, the implausibility of the settings and impossibility of the outcomes, all combined to deliver a bindingly archaic experience of Young America when it was strong and, like its dime-novel heroes, noble. In other words, we still long for the virtues embodied in Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Frank Merriwell, their dime-novel and pulp-fiction chums and their real-life counterparts.
Frank Mathewson, Christy Merriwell. Merged characters, both legendary, past untangling. Let us draw the veil.