Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews Dies

Sunday, February 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LA JOLLA, Calif. (AP) — Eddie Mathews, who hit 512 home runs in a Hall of Fame career and was the only person to play for the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta, died Sunday. He was 69.

He died in his sleep at the Scripps La Jolla hospital, his wife, Judy, said.

Mathews had been hospitalized since his wife took him to the emergency room Sept. 3 after he had trouble breathing.

Mathews was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He also had lung problems and pneumonia after being hospitalized.

``He worked so hard to get better,'' his wife said. ``He just gave out.''

He had been in fragile health since an accident a few years ago on a Caribbean cruise. He fell overboard and was crushed between the boat and a pier, and his pelvis was crushed.

Mathews often batted ahead of cleanup man Hank Aaron in the Braves' lineup, and they combined to hit 863 homers from 1954-66, the highest total in major league history for teammates. They also helped bring Milwaukee its only World Series championship in 1957.

Along with making it to Cooperstown, Mathews used his powerful left-handed swing to land on the first cover of Sports Illustrated.

Mathews was pictured in mid-swing when the magazine made its debut in August 1954, with a shot of him batting at County Stadium against the New York Giants.

A few years earlier as a teen-ager, Mathews caught the eye of an aging Ty Cobb, then baseball's career hits leader.

``I've only known three or four perfect swings in my life,'' Cobb was quoted as saying. ``This lad has one of them.''

Mathews hit .271 with 1,453 RBIs and 2,315 hits from 1952-68 with the Braves, Houston and Detroit. He was tied with Ernie Banks for 13th on the career homer list and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978.

One of baseball's greatest third basemen, Mathews played in 10 All-Star games. He was one of only five players to hit an extra-inning, game-ending home run in the World Series and was on two teams that won the championship.

Last September, Mathews was invited to take part in the closing ceremonies at County Stadium in Milwaukee, but was in failing health and could not attend.

Commissioner Bud Selig, who grew up in Milwaukee rooting for the Braves, arranged to have the festivities shown on the television in Mathews' hotel room.

``Eddie Mathews was my hero,'' New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, who played with Mathews from 1960-66, said during last year's postseason. ``He was captain and I always called him that.''

``He never backed off, never was tentative,'' Torre said.

When he played, few hitters in baseball were feared more.

Mathews is among only 16 players to hit 500 homers, reaching the mark on July 14, 1967, with a shot off Juan Marichal while playing for Houston at Candlestick Park.

Mathews led the NL with 47 home runs in 1953 in the Braves' first year after moving from Boston to Milwaukee, and again with 46 in 1959.

He hit 30-plus homers for nine straight years, and posted five 100-plus RBI seasons.

Mathews, whose No. 41 was retired by the Braves, managed Atlanta for some of the 1972 season, all of 1973 and part of 1974. He was the manager when Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home run record.

Many years earlier, Aaron and Mathews helped bring glory to the Braves in Milwaukee.

In Game 4 of the 1957 World Series, Mathews homered in the bottom of the 10th inning to beat the New York Yankees.

Then in Game 7 of the World Series, with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Mathews made a diving, backhanded stop on Moose Skowron's hard grounder down the line and stepped on third base to finish off a 5-0 win at Yankee Stadium.

The Braves made it back to the World Series the next year, but blew a 3-1 lead and lost to the Yankees.

In his final year, Mathews played sparingly with Detroit. He was on the World Series roster and went 1-for-3 as the Tigers beat St. Louis in seven games.

Edwin Lee Mathews was born on Oct. 13, 1931, in Texarkana, Texas, and grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif. He turned down more money from the Brooklyn Dodgers to join the Boston Braves in 1949, signing his contract on the night he graduated from high school.

Mathews became an instant smash in the minors. While playing at old Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta, he became the only player ever to hit a ball into the magnolia tree that grew in deep center field, about 475 feet from home plate.

Mathews earned praise from Cobb in 1951 at age 19, then joined the Braves in 1952. He hit 25 homers in the team's only season in Boston, and also became the first rookie hit three home runs in a game.

In 1953, Mathews won the NL homer title and hit Milwaukee's first grand slam. Aaron joined the Braves in 1954, creating a powerful 3-4 combination with Mathews.

Mathews stayed with the Braves when they moved to Atlanta for the 1966 season. He was traded to Houston on New Year's Eve and sent to Detroit in August 1967.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by sons Eddie Jr. and John, daughter Stephanie Widule and stepdaughter Sarah Doyle.

``He came from rough-and-tumble,'' Judy Mathews said. ``He was a very generous, caring person,'' Judy Mathews said.

A funeral, limited to family, will be held in Santa Barbara, with a memorial at another time. Dates have not been set for either