Find any list of the worst trades in baseball history and the December 15th, 1900 trade of Amos Rusie from the New York Giants to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Christy Mathewson will be on it.
Here’s an example, and another, and another, and another. You get the idea.
The story in these lists are all essentially the same: The Reds traded a young Christy Mathewson to the New York Giants for a washed-up Amos Rusie. Christy Mathewson went on to become a Hall of Fame pitcher that won 373 games, and Rusie only pitched in three miserable games for the Reds.
It’s a story I’ve believed my entire life, but now I’m not so sure it’s true.
Christy Mathewson was indeed a member of the New York Giants, and then he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds, and then a member of the New York Giants, and then a member of the Cincinnati Reds one final time. All of that is absolutely true. Was he traded for Amos Rusie? I’m not so sure. If he was, the truth is a bit more complex than anyone has explained.
Let’s back up and start from the beginning.
First and foremost, it should be noted that Amos Rusie wasn’t just a good pitcher, he was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball around the turn of the century. He’d eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. Rusie had a contract dispute with the New York Giants and chose to sit out the 1899 and 1900 seasons. His potential return to baseball was covered by newspapers all across the country. In 1901 he was still just 30 years old, so it wasn’t completely out of line to expect that he might have at least three to five dominant years remaining.
Here’s an article from the November 17th, 1900 Cincinnati Enquirer that calls Rusie ‘the greatest baseball pitcher of modern times’. The article goes on to explain that Rusie is living a life of recluse in Muncie, Indiana with his wife who won’t allow him to go back to New York or play baseball.
Then, on December 15th, 1900 - the day the trade supposedly happened - there’s a note in the Enquirer that says ‘Cincinnati may get Rusie’.
On December 23rd, 1900 a trade is finally reported. It’s Amos Rusie for Pink Hawley and Kip Selbach, and not Rusie for Mathewson.
Hawley and Selbach were sent to New York in 1899, but the terms weren’t initially disclosed. On December 23rd, New York manager George Davis says “at the time the deal was made, Rusie was to pitch one more year here and then join the Reds. He quit early in the training season, however, and will play in Cincinnati if Mr. Freedman has changed his mind about the big fellow pitching here another year”.
On December 28th, 1900 the Enquirer publishes another story about the Hawley and Selbach for Rusie trade that provides even more detail. It says that Rusie was told about the trade and declined to come to Cincinnati. Hawley and Selbach played well for New York and they declined to call the trade off even though Rusie refused to report to Cincinnati.
We now have two articles from 1900 that confirm Rusie was actually traded to the Reds for Hawley and Selbach and not Mathewson. Rusie still hasn’t signed to play for the Reds yet, but various reports throughout December indicate the Reds are in negotiations to bring him to Cincinnati.
On January 21st, 1901 theres a little piece in the Enquirer that says Rusie is still waiting to sign a contract. He says he’d like to play for the Reds, but is also considering joining an amateur team.
On March 20th, 1901 we finally have a deal! Rusie signs with the Reds and commits to playing for them in 1901.
On the same page where the Enquirer has announced the Rusie signing, it includes some words from John T. Brush, President of the Cincinnati Reds. He states “Rusie comes to us at the culmination of the deal made one year ago with the New York Club at a time when it secured Helbach and Hawley”.
That means we’re at March 20th, 1901 - more than three months after the December 15th date generally given for the Rusie for Mathewson deal - and there’s still no mention of Christy Mathewson being involved in this deal at all.
Fast forward to May 25th, 1901. Here’s a piece in the Brooklyn Eagle that talks about a potential matchup of Amos Rusie vs Christy Mathewson. At this point Mathewson has started the season as one of the top young pitchers in the game. He’d end up winning 20 games that season and is dominating the baseball headlines. If Mathewson was traded for Rusie wouldn’t there be some mention of it in this little piece?
After a disastrous season with the Reds, reports begin to surface that Rusie is making $1.50 a day in Indiana. Here’s a clip from the December 15th, 1901 Brooklyn Eagle where they discuss the fall of Rusie. Again, wouldn’t the fact that the Reds traded Christy Mathewson for him been included in here somewhere?
Here’s a February 5th, 1902 story in the Enquirer that reports on how the Reds fan base is bitter over how badly Rusie performed last year. Again, no mention of the fact that they traded the darling of the league, Christy Mathewson to get him.
Now let’s fast forward again. The following clips all appear from April 18th, 1909 onward. Each of them reference Amos Rusie being traded for Christy Mathewson.
Here’s a story on December 15th, 1918 that seems to re-write history and remove Selbach and Hawley from the conversation completely.
Perhaps the best detail we can find on Mathewson’s own contract situation is this article from the January 5th, 1901 Sporting Life. M. M. Cherry claims to have seen a copy of Mathewson’s contract that says if New York doesn’t want Mathewson then he can be released to any club Norfolk wishes. It goes on to mention that on December 20th - five days after he was supposedly traded from Cincinnati - the Reds drafted Mathewson.
Here’s the December 29th, 1900 Sporting Life column that confirms Cincinnati drafted Christy Mathewson.
This confirms that the deal absolutely didn’t happen on December 15th, 1900. All of the previous reporting in the Cincinnati Enquirer and Brooklyn Eagle seem to confirm the trade was initially for Selbach and Hawley and not Mathewson.
Here’s an April 6th, 1901 Sporting Life column that reports Christy Mathewson has signed with the New York Giants, but mentions nothing of a trade involving Amos Rusie.
Sometime between 1902 and 1909 it became accepted fact that Rusie was dealt for Mathewson, but it’s unclear to me how that rumor initially circulated. Given what both teams were saying in 1900 and 1901 it seems unlikely that Mathewson was directly involved in the Rusie trade. Transactions weren’t as straightforward in 1900 as they are today. Teams didn’t issue press releases and trades weren’t as clearly defined as they are now. Perhaps there was some sort of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in a back room somewhere that released Mathewson’s rights back to New York, but the deal was obviously much more complex than a simple trade of Rusie for Mathewson.
Regardless, the main takeaway I get from the whole debacle is that whatever happened was more about complex contractual agreements and less a strategic decision by Cincinnati. The Reds weren’t duped into trading a young Christy Mathewson to get the veteran Rusie. Instead, Christy Mathewson was basically always a member of the New York Giants, and the Reds just happened to temporarily get involved in Mathewson’s contract dispute in Norfolk.
There’s a popular saying from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” where a reporter tells Jimmy Stewart ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Given how there doesn’t seem to be any coverage of a Rusie for Mathewson trade from 1900-1902 I wonder if the spirit of that quote comes into play here. In the end, the final result still puts Mathewson on the Giants and Rusie on the Reds, but at least Cincinnati didn’t plan it that way.