Eddie Mathews; Baseball Hall of Famer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eddie Mathews, the homer-slamming, slick-fielding third baseman who was the only Brave to play in each of the team's three home cities--Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta--died Sunday. He was 69.

Mathews died of respiratory failure brought on by pneumonia at Scripps LaJolla in La Jolla, said his son, Dr. Eddie Mathews Jr. Mathews had been in declining health since Sept. 3, when his wife took him to Scripps after he complained of having trouble breathing. Diagnosed with congestive heart failure, he also experienced lung problems in addition to pneumonia.

A fierce competitor and a consummate team player, Mathews hit 512 home runs in his Hall of Fame career. With his movie star looks and booming bat, he was an instant favorite with Milwaukee fans when the Braves arrived from Boston in 1953. Despite hitting .302, driving in 135 runs and hitting a National League-leading 47 home runs, Mathews finished second to catcher Roy Campanella of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers for the most-valuable-player award.

Mathews went on to become the most prolific home run-hitting third baseman in baseball history. Only Mike Schmidt, the Philadelphia Phillies star, would surpass Mathews, hitting 548 homers. Mathews also set several fielding records, played in three World Series and 10 All-Star Games.

Mathews teamed with Henry Aaron to form the deadliest 1-2 home run combination of all time. Between them, they hit 863 home runs in their 13 seasons together.

Aaron, who would surpass Babe Ruth as the career home run king with 755, hit just 21 more home runs than Mathews when they batted third and fourth in the Braves' lineup--442 to 421--from 1954-66.

Late in his career, Mathews suffered a shoulder injury that cost him, many of his peers said, perhaps 100 or more homers.

"Had he not gotten hurt, Mathews would have approached 700 home runs," said Frank Howard, the former Dodger slugger, in the book "The 500 Home Run Club" by Bob Allen with Bill Gilbert.

"[He had] one of the finest swings of all time," said Howard, who himself hit 382 home runs.

Mathews' swing was so fluid, so close to perfect, that Sam Levy, a longtime baseball writer for the Milwaukee Journal, once remarked, "He even looks good striking out."

The left-handed hitting Mathews did strike out often, but his ratio of strikeouts to walks--1,487 to 1,444--would look good by today's standards.

One season, 1954, Mathews' walks almost doubled his strikeouts, 113 to 61. By comparison, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, who led both leagues last season with 50 home runs, drew a career-high 91 walks but struck out 168 times.

Mathews carried a "good hit, no field" label early in his career, but made himself into an excellent defensive third baseman.

No single event in Mathews' career illustrated the totality of his baseball talents as graphically as the 1957 World Series against the New York Yankees. The Braves won in seven games, and Mathews played a key role in three of the four victories.

Game 4 has earned a special niche in baseball history because of a quirky shoe-polish incident, but only because of Mathews' heroics.

The Braves were down, two games to one, and trailed, 5-4, in the 10th inning with two out and the bases empty. Their last hope, or so it seemed, was pinch-hitter Vernal "Nippy" Jones.

Jones took a pitch that umpire Augie Donatelli called a ball, and protested that he had been hit on the foot. Donatelli disagreed at first, but Jones convinced him by showing him a spot of shoe polish on the ball.

Finally given first base, Jones gave way to pinch-runner Felix Mantilla, who scored the tying run on Johnny Logan's double. Mathews followed with a two-run, game-winning homer that tied the series.

The next day, the Braves' Lew Burdette and the Yankees' Whitey Ford were locked in a scoreless duel when Mathews beat out an infield bouncer and wound up scoring the run in a 1-0 Milwaukee victory.

In Game 7 at Yankee Stadium, Burdette, pitching on two days' rest, tied a record by winning his third game of the series, 5-0. But he might not have survived if Mathews hadn't made the biggest defensive play of his career.

The Yankees filled the bases with two out in the ninth, and Moose Skowron hit a drive that seemed headed for the left-field corner. Mathews leaped to his right, made a spectacular backhand stop and jumped joyously on third base for the out that sealed the series for Milwaukee.

"As far as any particular instant, that was the biggest thing that ever happened to me," he said later.

Mathews' competitive instincts didn't always stop with the game. If the situation cried out for a fight, he was ready.

One night in Cincinnati, Frank Robinson, now the director of discipline in Commissioner Bud Selig's office, slid into third base with such vigor that his hand caught Mathews on the side of the head. Mathews responded by flattening Robinson with a volley of blows to the face.

Incredibly, Mathews' highest salary was $67,000 a year.

"I made $67,000 from '56 through '61," he said. "Then after I batted .306 and hit 32 home runs, Birdie Tebbetts [then a Braves' executive] cut me $5,000. I got it back later and kept it most of my career.

"As a coach [after the Braves had moved to Atlanta], I made $15,000. When they made me manager [in 1972], they were more generous. They paid me $30,000."

Mathews was born in Texarkana, Texas, on Oct. 13, 1931. His family moved to Santa Barbara when he was 5, and he became an all-star in football as well as baseball at Santa Barbara High. He signed with the Braves for a $6,000 bonus.

Breaking in at High Point-Thomasville in the North Carolina State League in 1949, Mathews batted .363 with 17 home runs in only 63 games. He then played in Atlanta and Milwaukee when they were minor league cities, spent time in the Navy during the Korean War, and reached the majors at 20 with the Boston Braves in 1952. On the last day of the season, he became the first rookie to hit three homers in a game.

On New Year's Eve in 1966, the Braves, then in Atlanta, traded him to the Houston Astros, who in turn dealt him to the Detroit Tigers the following July.

After the 1968 World Series, which the Tigers won, Mathews retired. Besides his 512 home runs, he finished with 2,315 hits, 1,509 runs, 1,453 runs batted in and a .271 average.

He returned to Atlanta as a coach in 1971, replaced Luman Harris as manager in 1972 and managed into the 1974 season when he was replaced. He closed out his baseball career as a hitting instructor for the Braves in 1989.

In addition to his wife, Judy, and son Eddie Jr., Mathews is survived by another son John, a daughter, Stephanie Widule, and a stepdaughter, Sarah Doyle.

A private funeral is planned.

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