Positions: p, of, 1b
Teams: Memphis Red Sox (1940-1950), Philadelphia Stars (1943)
Height: 5' 11'' Weight: 150
Born: November 18, 1914, Crawfordsville, Arkansas
This slender hurler had a terrific curve, a good fastball, screwball, change of pace, and a great pickoff move, which made this quiet competitor the best left-hander in the Negro American League during the 1940s. He copied his pickoff move from Luis Tiant, Sr. (later successfully using the move to pick Jackie Robinson off base several times), but listened to advice on pitching from Satchel Paige, his boyhood hero. After making it to the black big leagues, he matched up with Paige several times, defeating him on three occasions, winning 1-0 in 11 innings in New Orleans, 2-1 in Kansas City and 2-1 again in Chicago on "Satchel Paige Day" in front of thirty thousand fans.
Although he pitched with a losing ballclub, Mathis's regular-season records of 9-9 and 8-10, with corresponding ERAs of 3.46 and 2.79, earned him back-to-back starts for the West squad in the 1944 and 1945 All Star games. The Memphis Red Sox ace capitalized on the opportunity, holding the East scoreless each time, thereby joining Satchel Paige as the only pitchers to win two East-West games. Although slight physically, he had a lot of heart and was an "overpowering pitcher," winning almost half of the last-place Red Sox victories in 1945. However, the workload took its toll, and after the season, he needed surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow. After the operation, he was never the same pitcher and, although he posted marks of 2-6, 5-5, 7-11 (4.75 ERA), and 9-11 in 1946-1949, his career was cut short as a result of the arm injury.
He spent almost his entire ten-year career in Memphis and, like many outstanding players on southern teams, never received the publicity accorded to players on other teams. Mathis, who had attended Booker T. Washington High School, had only one year of semipro experience when he joined the Memphis Red Sox in 1940 and was rejected by the Memphis management when first recommended by his coach, William Lowe, in 1939. Reuben Jones, who had played against Mathis in semi-pro ball, interceded on his behalf, personally taking Mathis to Red Sox owner Dr. J.B. Martin's office and negotiating terms for him with the Red Sox. Joining the team as an outfielder and pitcher, Mathis loved to play baseball and preferred to play center field so he could play every day. But he was credited with a 3-1 mound mark in his initial season, and soon afterward, despite records of 1-2, 6-5, and 6-5 for 1941-43, he was considered the top left-handed pitcher in the Negro American League.
In addition to his East-West appearances, he pitched in two North-South All Star games. He also played winter ball, with Vargas in the winter of 1947-1948 and with Tampico in Mexico, where he once defeated Mexico City in a doubleheader. He also toured with Satchel Paige's All-Stars against Bob Feller's All-Star team in 1946.
A good-hitting pitcher with average power, Mathis often played first base or the outfield when not performing on the mound, and posted batting averages of .310, .261, .200, .276, and .263 for the years 1944-1948. He had a good throwing arm and good speed in the field and on the bases. In 1949 he was earning the highest salary of his career, $700 a month, and he closed out his career in 1950. After leaving the baseball diamond, he worked with the Colonial Country Club in Memphis for fifteen years before retiring.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.