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One-man play brings Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson to life

'Matty,' actor Eddie Frierson's portrayal of the early-20th century great and All-American hero, has earned rave reviews in Southern California, off-Broadway and even Cooperstown, N.Y. A benefit performance is scheduled Saturday in Newhall.

May 30, 2010|Jerry Crowe

You might say that actor Eddie Frierson is infatuated with Christy Mathewson, the dominating pitcher who was part of Cooperstown's inaugural class of inductees.

For nearly half his 50 years, Frierson has brought the gentlemanly Hall of Fame right-hander to life on stage in the one-man play "Matty: An Evening with Christy Mathewson."


FOR THE RECORD:
Crowe's Nest: In Monday's Sports section, the Crowe's Nest column about actor Eddie Frierson's stage portrayal of pitching great Christy Mathewson included a photo of Mathewson. However, the photo was reversed in archives and makes him appear left-handed. Mathewson was right-handed. Also, the column and an accompanying caption said that a benefit performance of Frierson's one-man play would be staged Saturday. It will be staged Sunday. —

Written and performed by the actor, it's a labor of love that drew glowing reviews during an off-Broadway run in the 1990s. These days, with Frierson dressed in dead-ball era New York Giants flannels and cap, it is reprised up to 20 times a year by the actor, a former Santa Monica High baseball coach and UCLA walk-on.

"I figure I can do it for at least another five years," says Frierson, who already has outlived his subject, who was 45 when he died in 1925. "I was going to retire it a few years ago, but it's too much fun and people keep asking me to do it."

The latest was Greg Hayes, who persuaded his former college roommate to stage a benefit performance of "Matty" this Saturday night at the Canyon Theatre Guild in Newhall.

Says Frierson of the appearance, which will benefit a college scholarship fund: "It's something Matty would have done."

Frierson would know.

After graduating from UCLA in 1982 with a theater arts degree, he started researching Mathewson two years later, making the first of several trips to the pitcher's hometown of Factoryville, Pa.

"It was kind of a fluke," Frierson says of his introduction to Mathewson, who played 17 major league seasons from 1900 to 1916, winning 373 games. "I was looking for something to develop as a project and my dad found an old copy of 'Pitching in a Pinch,' " a memoir written by Mathewson in 1912.

Thus began Frierson's immersion into all things Matty.

"The characters and the stories just kind of jumped out at me and I thought, 'This is perfect,' " Frierson says of his initial interest. "But then as I got to know more about him, it became clear that he was a lot more than just a few stories in a book."

In addition to his baseball exploits — he is credited with introducing the screwball — Mathewson was class president at Bucknell, a devout Christian who refused to pitch on Sundays and, in the words of football pioneer Walter Camp, "the best all-around football player to ever put on a collegiate uniform."

He also was a musician and singer, a World War I veteran, author of children's books, co-author of a Broadway play, etc.

As Frierson continued digging, he says, his priorities shifted.

"I was looking for something to develop into a vehicle for me," he says, "but within two weeks of deciding, 'Hey, this is the thing to do,' it stopped being about me and starting being about, 'How many people can I introduce to this wonderful man?' "

The first draft of his script, Frierson says, took 12 hours to read. And his initial performance, at a Society for American Baseball Research convention in Washington, was "pretty amateurish," notes Frierson, who makes his living mostly as a voice actor.

Seven or eight years later, pared down to 2½ hours after numerous revisions and trial runs, "Matty" ran for nine months at the Two Roads Theatre in Studio City in 1995, leading to its off-Broadway debut a year later.

"You don't have to be a baseball fan to be completely engaged by Eddie Frierson's performance," NBC's Bob Costas said. "He leaves the audience with a real appreciation of Christy Mathewson, and the place and time in which he was an authentic American hero. On the other hand, if you are a baseball fan, you will be surprised at how much you didn't know about Matty."

Theater critics also raved, the New York Times hailing "Matty" as "charming" and "appealing" and USA Today calling it "as memorable as an exciting World Series game."

The New York Post called it "pure virtuosity, a perfect pitch."

Frierson, a father of three whose two sons are named Christy and Matty, was overwhelmed by the response, and by a later invitation to bring "Matty" to Cooperstown.

"It was surreal when I walked up to the Hall of Fame and there's my banner on the brick façade," he says. "And people are lined up halfway around the block to get my autograph."

Frierson, as a pitcher, says he helped Nashville Hillwood High to a Tennessee state championship in 1977, but he never got into a varsity game during 2½ seasons at UCLA.

"I made it further in baseball through 'Matty,' " he says, "than I ever had the opportunity to do as a player."

And performing it, Frierson notes, has never grown old. At the show's conclusion, the actor often remains in character and takes questions from the audience as the legendary "Big Six," so nicknamed because he was 6 feet tall.

"I can answer any question that anybody has about Christy Mathewson," Frierson says.

Someday, he says, he hopes to write a Mathewson biography, but for now he's happy portraying the Hall of Famer.

"My kid wants me to keep doing it until he can do it," Frierson says of 12-year-old Christy. "I think as long as I'm physically able and nobody says, 'Gee, you look old,' I can keep doing it until I just don't look the part anymore."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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