By: ROBIN RAUZI
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Thursday, March 21, 1996
Some actors get callbacks. Eddie Frierson got a calling.
He is the keeper of the Christy Mathewson legend.
For theater-goers, baseball fans or high school students--anyone who's interested, really--Frierson will pull on a New York Giants uniform, adjust his cap and become Mathewson. He'll recall the antics of manager John McGraw, several National League umpires and most of the Giants squad as part of his play, "Matty: An Evening With Christy Mathewson."
Sure, sure, it's a one-man show. A "showcase." But according to Frierson, its intent has changed over the years of development. "The show started for completely selfish purposes. This was going to be my Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain," Frierson said. "Now, I could care less if they put my name on the program." It's more important, he says, to keep Mathewson alive as an American hero.
When Mathewson was playing baseball from 1900 to 1916, the sport was to Americans what soccer is to Europeans--a rowdy event that catered to a rowdy crowd. But unlike some of his fellow players, known alcoholics or womanizers, Mathewson held himself to high personal standards. He espoused the virtues of honesty and self-confidence.
While not sanctimonious, he was public about his religious faith: He'd
promised his Baptist mother that he would never pitch on Sundays--and never did. He still
won 373 games, more than any other pitchers except Cy Young and Walter Johnson.
There are outward signs of the 36-year-old Frierson's dedication to this little-known baseball great. A commemorative baseball watch. A Mathewson T-shirt. The den of his Sherman Oaks home is a shrine to the baseball player.
Frierson can, predictably, recite all sorts of statistics, like the 68 consecutive innings that
Mathewson pitched without walking one batter. He can retell whole innings play by play.
In "Matty," he fills his two-hour play with Mathewson's anecdotes and experiences, and then he brings up the houselights and fields questions from the audience. How was it pitching to Honus Wagner? How did he know Joe Jackson was helping throw the World Series?
"Once that first question is asked, people feel like they're talking to this guy," Frierson said. "And they are. At that point, I'm totally into it. I've got so much information in my head, I can answer anything."
Mathewson is more than a baseball card to Frierson. He gets so into the part, said director Kerrigan Mahan, that sometimes he wonders if the actor thinks he is Christy Mathewson.
The actor and the late pitcher do seem to have much in common. They have the same clean-cut looks and positive outlook, and Frierson was a baseball pitcher at UCLA and coached for eight years at Santa Monica High School.
Inspired by a book Mathewson wrote titled "Pitching in a Pinch," Frierson went on a pilgrimage to Pennsylvania and New York in 1984. Schools, relatives and museums opened their doors and their archives to him. He videotaped and photocopied everything.
In Factoryville, Mathewson's hometown, he even tried on one of the pitcher's World Series uniforms. It was, Frierson said, a perfect fit--and "a religious experience. . . . The guy was 6-foot-1, 190 pounds--he was exactly me."
The trip remains a near-annual event. Last summer, Frierson again went to see the people who have become a second family, such as 85-year-old Grace Mathewson Van Lengen, Mathewson's niece. The two have kept in touch for more than 10 years.
She tells him stories about how her uncle taught her to play checkers, and he reciprocates with baseball information about her father, who also played for the Giants.
"He looks like Uncle Christy," said Van Lengen, who was 15 in
1925, the year her uncle died of tuberculosis. "He's wonderful, very personable, very
easy to talk to." But unlike Frierson, who makes a living doing voice-overs and can
talk a blue streak, Van Lengen said her uncle was "rather quiet, not effusive at
Frierson knows that about his idol too. "The thing is that Christy Mathewson would never stand up in front of this group and talk this way," he says about the show. "He'd go talk to juvenile delinquents--'bad boys.' "
Frierson hasn't done that, exactly, but he has started the Mathewson Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a goal of fostering academic and athletic talents in young people. He also recently performed for journalism magnet students at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.
Magnet coordinator Marsha Rybin said she was apprehensive at first. Would a baseball player's story from 90 years ago resonate with today's teens? It did. "It was one of the best-received presentations I've seen at a high school," said Rybin.
Much of the credit goes to director Mahan, who helped Frierson pare down his script and turn "Matty" into the play--as opposed to a drawn-out impersonation--that it is today.
During the six years they've worked together, Mahan said, Frierson has gone from simply acting the part to owning it. You can no longer see the wheels turning in Frierson's head, Mahan said. He cannot be distracted by a bad lighting cue or an interminable cough in the audience.
"There are still little notes, and little things will creep in . . . but for the most part he owns it, and that is a beautiful thing for me to watch," Mahan said. "He now has the freedom to go places."
Frierson and Mahan hope one of those places will be off-Broadway, eventually. The run at Two Roads Theatre in Studio City--which started in November--certainly has been a success by small-theater standards.
Yet it's been tough at times, Mahan said, to convince theater people to see a play about baseball, or baseball people to come to the theater. He thinks Mathewson's story might play even better in New York, a subway trip from the old Polo Grounds where Mathewson pitched his 16 seasons.
* WHAT: "Matty: An Evening With Christy Mathewson"
* WHERE: Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, indefinitely.
* HOW MUCH: $12.50.
* CALL: (818) 766-9381.
PHOTO: In "Matty," Eddie Frierson fills his play with Christy
Mathewson's anecdotes and experiences. He also brings up the houselights and fields the
audience's questions. PHOTOGRAPHER: ROBERT CANGEMI / For The Times PHOTO: Eddie Frierson
dresses the part of the New York Giants pitcher during the two-hour, one-man play at Two
Roads Theatre in Studio City. PHOTOGRAPHER: ED KRIEGER / For The Times
Type of Material: Profile
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