#35 Ed Mathews
This is a card I’ve had for more than 20 years. I got it in a binder full of old cards I bought at a card show. The binder also included a 1954 Mathews, which I’ve since sold. The slightly frayed left edge, I believe, is a result of how the card was originally cut. Otherwise, the card’s in pretty good shape. As always, his name appears as “Ed” on his card. As far as I can tell, each of his Topps cards from 1952 through 1968 showed him as Ed Mathews, although a couple of his All-Star cards show his name as Eddie Mathews. When he managed the Braves in 1973 and ’74, his name was listed on his cards as Eddie Mathews. Mathews was the Braves manager when his longtime teammate, Hank Aaron, hit his 715th homer.
At the beginning of the 1964 season, Mathews was the active leader in career homers at 422 (Stan Musial retired with 475 after the 1963 season). That also ranked him seventh all-time at that moment. He would hit 90 more home runs over the last five years of his career, before retiring as a Detroit Tiger in 1968. His 500th long ball came as a member of the Houston Astros in 1967.
Mathews was just the seventh player to hit 500 homers, and he was in the top 10 in career homers from 1961 through 1985, when he was finally bumped off by Reggie Jackson. Though he led all active players at the opening of the 1964 season, he would eventually be passed on the career list by five players who were active in 1964: Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Mickey Mantle. Ernie Banks finished tied with Mathews at 512.
Mathews was also the only player to play for the Braves in three different cities. The team still played in Boston when he was a 20-year-old rookie in 1952, and he was still with the team when it moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966.
Astonishingly, it took FIVE years of eligibility before Mathews was voted into the Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he’s clearly one of the best hitters of all-time, especially among third basemen. I suppose what turned voters off at the time is the fact that he ended up with a .271 career average, a number that was dragged down in his last five years. He also, of course, played with Aaron, and never was the most notable player on his own team. But for a solid dozen seasons, Mathews was an absolute beast at the plate.
The biggest problem was that he excelled in way that wasn’t appreciated quite as much at the time. He never hit better than .306 in a season, and he wasn’t particularly speedy. But Mathews did two things very well: walk and hit home runs. From 1953 through 1963, Mathews posted a fantastic .393 on-base percentage despite a .283 batting average, something that didn’t garner a lot of attention. He walked 116 more times that he struck out over that 11-year period. He also hit 397 homers, 252 doubles and 60 triples over that span.
1964 was clearly the beginning of Mathews’s decline. He hit a then career-low .233, though 85 walks gave him a respectable .344 OBP. He matched his ’63 output with 23 homers, but that tied his career low.
Mathews was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978 on his fifth try, with 79% of the vote. The hitter most like him, according to Baseball Reference, is Mike Schmidt, who had very similar numbers. Schmidt was voted into the HOF on his first try, with nearly 97% of the vote. So I think it’s fair to say that Mathews was a bit underrated.
Mathews died of pneumonia in 2001. He was 69 years old at his death.