In the aftermath of Eddie Mathews’ death on February 18, 2001, the Houston Chronicle published a writer’s memory of Eddie Mathews. It included a reference to another athlete by beginning:
“Life is not a game, it is not the wheel of fortune, and we are reminded of this in sometimes cruel and jarring ways. Dale Earnhardt, the brightest name in stock car racing, met his death in Daytona, crashing into a concrete wall at a speed faster than most people can think.
“He was a couple months short of his 50th birthday, but, of course, drivers think more about miles than years. Dale Earnhardt’s warranty ran out after heaven knows how many miles.
“Meanwhile, on the same day, Eddie Mathews, a Hall of Fame third baseman who hit in front of Hank Aaron for most of his career, died in his sleep of pneumonia. He was 69 and had not been his usual robust self since a freakish accident five years ago. He slipped and fell into the water as he left a cruise liner, getting pinned between the ship and the pier. His pelvis was crushed.”
In its report on Mathews’ death, the AP said:
“Mathews died in his sleep at Scripps La Jolla hospital, his wife, Judy, said. He had been hospitalized since Sept. 3 when she took him to the emergency room after he had trouble breathing.
“Mathews died of complications of pneumonia, said his son, Eddie Jr., an anesthesiologist at Waukesha (Wis.) Memorial Hospital. Mathews also had congestive heart failure, although that didn’t play a significant role in his death, his son said.
“Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978, Mathews hit 512 home runs, was one of baseball’s greatest third basemen and the only person to play for the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta.
“Mathews had been in fragile health since being seriously hurt in an accident while on a Caribbean cruise in December 1996. When Mathews stepped off a boat taking passengers to shore, the boat moved back and he fell into the water. He was crushed three times between the boat and pier, shattering his pelvis.”
Joe Torre, a Mathews teammate from 1960 to 1966, said: “Eddie Mathews was my hero. He was captain and I always called him that. He never backed off, never was tentative.”
I wrote a profile of Mathews based on a visit David Lamb, the author of Stolen Season, paid to him in 1989, when he was a Braves’ minor league hitting coach. In part, it compared him to Mickey Mantle. It’s on the Seamheads site; here’s a couple excerpts:
Assessing his character, Mathews said: “I know I’m a ding dong, but in my day, if you hit .330, it was OK to be a ding dong.” One day at a rooftop hotel bar in St. Louis, he and teammate Bob Buhl were drinking, listening to four of the locals say “the Braves suck” over and over again at a nearby table. The two Braves started up as though to walk out, came up behind the four patrons, “and beat them zingy,” as Eddie said. That and the other brawls notwithstanding, he had an honorary deputy sheriff’s badge for DeKalb County, Georgia, which was a gift from former Braves pitcher and county sheriff Pat Jarvis. He said: “We had so much fun, I can’t believe it. We thought it would last forever.”
In the summer of ’89, Mathews summed things up this way: “I’ll tell you the truth, if I went South [died] tomorrow, I wouldn’t have many regrets. I wished my father had lived to see what I did with the Braves. That’s about it. I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun. People say, ‘Slow down, aren’t you afraid of dying?’ I tell them, ‘I just want a week to apologize to everyone before I go.’”
Putting aside Mantle’s much greater fame, the similarities are extensive. It seems pretty clear that alcohol curtailed both their lives, although who knows what would have happened to Eddie if that cruise ship accident had not happened. In the case of both Mantle and Mathews, the decline of former golden boys must have been a sad thing to witness. The dumb, tragic mishap of his accident on the cruise ship is a harsh contrast to his days as a hero to the Milwaukee youth.
Three decades before that crippling accident, Mathews hit his 500th home run, on July 14, 1967, at Candlestick Park with a shot off Juan Marichal while playing for Houston. At the time, Mathews was only the seventh player to reach the 500-homer mark.