Tragedy in Oklahoma with Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson

T202 Helmar card featuring Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

Long before professional baseball players earned enough money to buy mansions and yachts, they eked out a living by selling their services as often as possible. In the deadball era, players frequently played exhibition games to scrounge together extra salary when the time allowed. After the regular season, many players would participate in games for $100 here and $250 there. Due to his lightning-quick fastball, Walter Johnson was often recruited for such contests. In 1913, one of the most amazing exhibition tours commenced, which gave Johnson an opportunity to face the other great pitcher of his era for the only time. The circumstances of that game were remarkable, and sadly tragic.

Following the 1913 season two teams, the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants, embarked on a cross-country journey that kicked off a world tour to promote baseball. The scheme was hatched by Giants’ manager John McGraw and White Sox’ owner Charles Comiskey, who never missed a chance to make a buck. Each team supplied players for the tour, which started after the completion of the World Series, and stars from each league filled out the rosters as needed. The tour began on the east coast and would wind its way west, stopping to play exhibitions along the way. Finally, the two teams would board a ship in California and travel across the Pacific Ocean to play in Tokyo, China, Korea, and onward to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. McGraw and Comiskey aimed to circle the globe, spreading the game of baseball, but most importantly, raking in cash.

Johnson was the greatest pitcher in the American League, and his counterpart in the National League was Christy Mathewson, the fair-haired, blue-eyed idol of McGraw’s pitching staff. The tour would prove to be the only time Johnson, dubbed “Big Train,” would square off against “Big Six.” The game occurred in Tulsa on October 28, 1913, and despite a horrific pre-game accident, the game went on.

The ballpark in Tulsa was not of major league quality, as one might imagine. On that afternoon, with the prospect of seeing the two great pitchers on the same mound, fans poured into South Main Street Park, located in the center of the city, only a stone’s throw from the Arkansas River. Buoyed by newspaper articles promoting the pitching wizadry of Johnson and Matty, fans from near and far made their way to Tulsa, traveling across the red dirt of Oklahoma.

It was standing room only, and even an hour before the first pitch was scheduled, hordes of people were gathered beyond the fences. It appeared that the world tour and the two great pitchers were going to make it a historic day in what was still much “America’s Old West.” But no one knew the horror that was about to unfold.

Moments before the exhibition was set to begin, the right field bleachers, straining under the weight of more than 500 fans, collapsed beneath the weight, sending the steel and wood structure to the earth. As luck would have it, the bleachers fell just as “a contingent of soldiers from Company L Ninth Infantry out of Fort Root, Arkansas, was passing underneath them,” wrote a local paper. More than four dozen people were seriously injured, and one unfortunate man had his skull crushed and died later that day. The governor of Oklahoma narrowly escaped injury. The sound of the bleachers plummeting to the earth was sickening, followed by shrieks from fans.

The scene was chaotic: injured fans, masses of screaming people, officials and ballplayers from both teams rushing to the outfield to dig people from the wreckage. Johnson and Mathewson joined their teammates in helping to remove the twisted metal and wooden planks that lie crumpled with hundreds of fans scattered. The game was delayed, and the hysteria lasted for nearly an hour. That’s right: delayed. If such a scene happened today, there’s no chance the “game would go on,” but spurred by the promise of a unique sporting exhibition, and wishing to salvage some goodwill from a deadly debacle, Governor Lee Cruce urged Comiskey to convince McGraw and the professionals to play the game. Amazingly, with many dazed spectators seated on the site of the disaster beyond the right field fence, that’s what they did.

Johnson was the star of the game, pitching an eight-hit shutout and showing off his fastball. Mathewson pitched into the fourth inning and ended up taking the loss. That evening, the two men rode a train west to continue to the next stop on the domestic leg of the tour. Neither Johnson nor Mathewson took part in the overseas leg of the world tour, and that strange, fateful game in Tulsa remained the only time they ever faced each other. More than two decades later, they would become the first two pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame.   

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