Six-year-old Tom Weber was idling away in the dugout at his Little League game when a teammate handed him an article about Major League rookie sensation Eddie Mathews. The year was 1953, and Mathews had just wrapped up a promising debut season for the then-Boston Braves. In an instant, the boy from Idaho had found his lifelong idol.
With unyielding devotion, Weber followed Mathews’ every on-field exploit as the sweet-swinging third baseman emerged as one of the decade’s preeminent players. Together with longtime teammate Hank Aaron, Mathews formed one half of arguably the most feared batting duo baseball has ever seen, and by the time he retired in 1968, Mathews had nine All-Star selections, three home run crowns and two World Series rings to his name.
Some two decades after his 1978 induction into the Hall of Fame, Mathews and his wife settled into a home on Recuerdo Drive in Del Mar Heights — far from obscurity, but frustratingly deprived, Weber says, of the limelight lavished on other former players with similar (or lesser) pedigrees. Even in his death, Mathews saw short shrift, Weber says, when immeasurably more ink was spilled writing the other obituary from Feb. 18, 2001: NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt.
So, fed up with the slights, Weber has for the past two years labored to restore his childhood hero to his rightful place among baseball’s greatness. Self-published on March 1, “Eddie Mathews: Why He Was the Greatest Third Baseman of All Time” draws from Weber’s lifelong collection of news clips, as well as Mathews’ 1994 autobiography, to methodically dismantle the myriad injustices Weber believes his idol has endured.
We caught up with Weber this week who spoke from his home in Utah to discuss his new book and to try to make sense of why so many people are not familiar with the name Eddie Mathews.
DMT: Why do you think you were so struck the moment you saw that magazine at your Little League game?
Weber: Here was a picture of handsome young Eddie Mathews. Next to it, the article said he had enjoyed a good rookie season but that great things were expected from him. There was something about the magnetism of his face and the fact that they expected him to have a great career. It was just one of those magical moments when you kind of fall in love with somebody. I just knew he was my favorite player. So I followed his career all the way through, and every time he did something remarkable, I'd cut it out of the newspaper.
DMT: Mathews’ bust sits in Cooperstown, and few other players have amassed the accolades he has. What more is really left to prove?
Weber: I always felt that he was underrated. He didn't get the attention that other great players received. He hit more home runs during his first 10 years in the Major Leagues than any other player in history—not Babe Ruth, not Willie Mays, not Mickey Mantle, but Eddie Mathews. And yet most people have never even heard of him. One time, I walked into a sports memorabilia store and asked if they had any Eddie Mathews cards, and the guy at the counter said, 'Is he a hockey player?'
DMT: The second half of his career, however, was not as stellar. What triggered his decline?
Weber: In 1962, he tore his shoulder out and the Braves’ manager pressured him into getting right back into playing before he healed. So from his 11th year on, he essentially was handicapped. He was just not able to let his shoulder heal properly. He was about half the player that he was before the injury. Here was a man who had more homers than anyone his first 10 years, and then the last seven years he was kind of an ordinary player. That really broke my heart to see, because I loved him so much.
DMT: Why did it take several years for sportswriters to vote Mathews into the Hall of Fame in 1978?
Weber: He should've been voted right in, in his first year of eligibility. It took a long time to get him in, and I think that was very unfair. For some reason, the Baseball Writers Association of America had a tendency to overlook him. One of the problems was that he was in Milwaukee; he didn't play in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. But I don't know. I loved him and I could see his greatness but for some reason he was overlooked.
DMT: Early on, though, didn’t he have a reputation for being standoffish with reporters?
Weber: Well I think Eddie was shy. He was a bashful person. When he first came up to the Major Leagues, someone would ask what pitch was it that he hit for a home run and he'd would say, 'Are you blind?' He himself in his autobiography said that one of the toughest things for him in life was to learn how to get along with people. So for the first few years he did have trouble with writers. But he did learn that you just have to be patient with people.
DMT: What did you learn from his 1994 autobiography?
Weber: It tells a lot of interesting stories and is an entertaining sports book. But the thing that I thought was inadequate was that he's so modest. He's so humble by nature that he doesn't tell us how great he was. He doesn't even mention most of his accomplishments.
DMT: Do you think your book accomplishes its goal of vindicating Eddie Mathews?
Weber: I hope so. We'll have to see what the readers say. I am working on a second book about him. It will be entitled ‘What People Said About Eddie Mathews.' It should be ready in February 2019. Even in his death he was overlooked, and that's really why I want to bring this book forth and the next book. I think he deserves these things.
Tom Weber’s biography of Eddie Mathews can be found on Amazon.com at amzn.to/2ql5RUM