Carl Mathias and the flip side of Boston’s biggest rally

One of the pleasures of researching a project like Boston’s 100 Greatest Games is to learn startling things, even if they don’t make it into the book. Like the story of an obscure pitcher named Carl Mathias.

The Red Sox, as I noted in the book’s introduction, once rallied for eight runs with two down in the ninth for a 13–12 win over the Washington Senators. That game, in June 1961, didn’t make the cut. But a detail from that game became lodged in my mind. While cross-referencing various sources, I noticed that Carl Mathias, Washington’s starting pitcher, was still in the game when the Red Sox started their historic rally. Then I noticed Mathias’s lifetime record: 0–2.

In other words, the poor guy was on the mound at Fenway Park with a seven-run lead in the ninth inning, one out away from picking up his first win in the major leagues … and he never got it.

It had to be the bitterest cup of coffee in baseball history.

Further digging revealed that Mathias was still around, living near his hometown in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t imagine how he had lived with such a crushing disappointment for half a century. I still remember disappointing moments from Little League after more than 40 years.

So I gave him a call to see how he was coping. And I’m glad I did.

Mathias, as you would expect, vividly recalled every grisly detail of that Fenway nightmare. Until the last of the ninth, it had been a glorious day for the 25-year-old lefthander, who had joined the Senators in the expansion draft after coming up with the Indians in 1960. That Father’s Day afternoon, in his first big-league start, he had surrendered five runs, but just three had been earned. And he had contributed to a five-run rally in the top of the ninth with his first (and only) major league hit, a single to center off Sox reliever Billy Moffett. Now, with two down and Sox shortstop Don Buddin at first, Mathias had only to retire Boston second baseman Chuck Schilling (“C. Schilling” in the box score) to get his first win.

But Schilling singled to center. Then left fielder Carroll Hardy (starting in place of struggling rookie Carl Yastrzemski) singled to center, scoring Buddin. That was cause for annoyance but not concern. It was still 12-6, Washington. Up next was center fielder Gary Geiger, a left-handed batter that Mathias had struck out twice already. But Mathias was laboring now, and he committed an unpardonable offense. He walked Geiger to load the bases. That brought Washington manager Mickey Vernon out to the mound. He took the ball.

Despite having had five decades to obsess over that fateful decision, Mathias refused to second-guess his manager. “Let’s face it,” he said. “I left with the bases loaded. I’d thrown quite a few pitches. I was running out of gas. Jackie Jensen was coming up and [Vernon] didn’t want him to clonk one off of me.”

Jensen, Boston’s right fielder, was a right-handed power hitter. He’d been the American League MVP in 1958, with 35 homers and a league-leading 122 RBI. With Fenway’s left-field wall just 310 feet away, why risk damaging a tiring young lefty’s confidence? Better to bring in a veteran righty like Dave Sisler (seven saves and a 1.67 ERA in 21 appearances) to finish the job.

But Sisler didn’t finish the job. He walked Jensen to force in a run, then walked third baseman Frank Malzone to force in another. Now it was 12-8, with Sox catcher Jim Pagliaroni coming up. And although he’d hit just seven home runs so far in his budding career, at 6’4” and 210 pounds, Pagliaroni put the potent in the phrase potential tying run.

Mathias, who had taken a seat in the dugout rather than hit the showers, anticipated my next question. “Yeah,” he said, drawing the word out, “I seen it go.”

Pagliaroni, a right-handed batter, turned on a 2–1 slider and drove it to deep left. The ball landed in the net atop the wall, taking Mathias’s precious W with it.

Sisler, who issued another walk before departing, became the loser after Marty Kutyna, Washington’s third pitcher, gave up a pair of singles, including the game-winner to pinch-hitter Russ Nixon.

At this point in our conversation Mathias made a startling revelation. He told me that that Fenway nightmare wasn’t even the worst moment of his career. “There was another one,” he said. “In Cleveland. I came in against the Yankees in relief.”

Mathias put the moment in context. It was September 1960. The Yankees were en route to their eleventh World Series appearance in fourteen years. And Mathias, like many other kids who had grown up immersed in baseball, had been a fan for much of that time. “I had rooted for the Yankees from about ’47 on,” he said. “And now all of a sudden they’re standing 60 feet away.”

The first-place Yankees had begun a Sunday doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium with just a one-game lead (over the Orioles) in the American League. New York had won the first game 5-0. The second game was tied 1-1 after nine innings. Yankees third baseman Bobby Richardson singled in the go-ahead run off of Indians starter Bobby Locke in the tenth. Then, with runners on first and second and one out, “[Yankees manager Casey] Stengel, in a bid for more runs, withdrew [pitcher] Luis Arroyo, who had replaced Jim Coates in the eighth, for a pinch hitter,” according to the next day’s New York Times.

And, the Times noted, “The move almost backfired.”

That’s because Carl Mathias, a little-known left-hander, retired pinch-hitter Yogi Berra and shortstop Tony Kubek to end the threat. In the last of the tenth, the Indians tied the game and had the bases loaded with two outs. Utility outfielder Marty Keough, a left-handed batter, pinch-hit for catcher Red Wilson against Yankee righty Eli Grba. He ripped a line drive that seemed destined for the right-field grass and the game-winning RBI.

Dale Long was playing first base for New York. He had entered the game in the second inning for starter Moose Skowron. “Don’t ask me why,” Mathias said.

He explained the significance of the move. Skowron, who threw with his right hand, wore the glove on his left hand. Long did the opposite. “And because Dale had his glove on his right hand, he caught it,” Mathias said. “Skowron would’ve never caught it.”

So instead of walking off with a win over the mighty Yankees, Mathias returned to the mound. He struck out Grba to start the eleventh and got Roger Maris on a liner to right. Then Mickey Mantle stepped to the plate. “There was only one way to throw him,” Mathias said. “That was up and in. And I couldn’t quite throw hard enough.”

Mantle blasted a home run deep to left-center that made the Yankees a winner and Mathias a loser.

But again: How many American kids who grew up in that era would have loved even the chance to face Mickey Mantle with the game on the line in a pennant race? The experience gave Mathias an even greater appreciation of just how good the Yankees slugger was. “He hit all three [pitches] that I threw,” Mathias said. “Curveball, fastball, changeup.”

He’s not kidding. Mathias faced Mantle four times in his short career. The results: a double and three home runs, none of them cheap.

The last two homers effectively ended Mathias’s major-league career. On July 1, 1961—less than two weeks after his Fenway meltdown—Mathias got a start at Yankee Stadium. Again, the Senators jumped out to a good lead, 5-1 after 2½. The Yankees’ lone run had come on a Mantle solo shot leading off the last of the second that had landed ten rows deep in the bleachers, to the left of the 457-foot sign. In his next at-bat, Mantle blasted another tape-measure homer to left, this one a three-run bomb that tied him with teammate Roger Maris in their season-long home run race. Although Washington still led, 5-4, Mathias got the hook in the third inning. (Maybe it was just as well. The Senators suffered another stunning loss, 7-6, when Maris hit a walk-off two-run homer against Sisler.)

Hard to believe a pitcher who threw just 29 innings in the big leagues could have suffered so many emotional letdowns. But Mathias’s rough ride through the majors did nothing to diminish his lifelong love of baseball—a love that he passed on to his grandson, Wade. And as a high-schooler, Wade made a gesture that acknowledged his grandfather’s star-crossed big-league career. “He said, ‘Look what number I got,’” Mathias told me.

Was it No. 30, which Mathias wore when he’d made his debut with the Indians in 1960? Or was it No. 24, which Mathias had worn with the Senators in 1961?

Uh, no. It was No. 7—Mickey Mantle’s number with the Yankees. “My grandson liked to rub it in,” Mathias said.

After a baseball career that would have made a lot of men cry, Carl Mathias could look back and laugh.