Much like the fledgling magazine that featured him on its first
cover, Eddie Mathews was, in the summer of 1954, young,
unpolished and swinging for the fences. The season before, his
second in the majors, the lefthanded-hitting Mathews had slugged
a National League-high 47 home runs and driven in 135 runs for
the newly relocated (from Boston) Milwaukee Braves. At 22 he was
being called the next Babe Ruth. "It's funny," remembers
Mathews, now retired and living with his wife, Judy, in a
seaside suburb of San Diego. "When that picture was taken, I
didn't think of it--or myself--as anything special. SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED and me, we were nuthins."
Mathews, born in Texarkana, Texas, and raised in Santa Barbara,
Calif., modeled his swing not after Ruth's but after Ted
Williams's. "I would practice in the yard for hours," says
Mathews, "with my mother pitching and my father shagging." He
was all-state in baseball and football, and at 12:01 a.m. on the
day after his 1949 graduation from Santa Barbara High he signed
with the Braves for $6,000. He later told SI that he had studied
to be a ballplayer, not "a doctor, a lawyer or an Indian chief."
The only Brave to play for the team when it was based in Boston,
Milwaukee and Atlanta, the 6'1" Mathews, who was elected to the
Hall of Fame in 1978, and teammate Hank Aaron hit 863 home runs
while they were playing together--a record for major league
duos. The Milwaukee Mauler, as he was known, would finish his
17-year career with 512 home runs, a .271 average and a
reputation as a clutch defensive player. His backhanded stab of
a Bill Skowron scorcher for the final out of the 1957 World
Series against the Yankees, which Milwaukee won in seven games,
was, says Mathews, "my proudest moment."
There have been low points, and not just the final day of 1966
when, seven home runs from 500, Mathews was traded to the
Houston Astros. (He completed his career in '68 as a pinch
hitter for the world champion Detroit Tigers.) He has survived a
pelvis-shattering boating accident and a bout with throat
cancer. "I walk like a crab and talk like a frog," says Mathews,
68, who managed Atlanta from '72 to '74 and worked for 15 years
as a scout and batting instructor. Day-tripping in the family
RV--he has three children and eight grandkids--growing his own
vegetables and suffering the hometown Padres now fill his days.
"But I work out three times a week," he says, "and I'm fighting
like hell to feel good again."
Brave words, from an original.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK KAUFFMAN
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK
"When it was taken," says Mathews of the cover photo, "I didn't
think of it as anything special."