Historically, Pittston has a reputation as a hotbed of amateur baseball from the Pittston Brothers of the 1910s and ’20s, to the Red Devils powerhouses in the ’40s and ’50s, to the Suburban League which operated for 50 years from the 1910s into the 1960s.
But professional baseball in Pittston?
Yes. Since it happened 110 years ago, it’s little known, but Pittston did have a fully professional minor league team entered in the Atlantic League in 1908.
The Atlantic League dated back to 1899, when Scranton and Wilkes-Barre both had franchises. By 1905, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and jumped to the New York State League. In 1908, only three teams were left in the Atlantic, but league President J.W. Dobbin refused to fold, even after then National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) labeled the Atlantic an “outlaw” league.
An outlaw league was one that did not belong to the NAPBL, which in 1903 set up a National Agreement to protect teams with a reserve clause to prevent players from jumping teams, and set salary limits and territorial rights.
In 1908, Dobbin applied for NAPBL protection as a Class C league, but was refused. Dobbins went ahead anyway, opening in May 1908 with teams in Allentown, Easton, Pottsville, Hazleton, Mt. Carmel and Shamokin. The salary limit was set at $1,400 a month — that’s per team, not player.
Dobbin’s idea was for a league with cities near one another to cut travel costs. It worked, and by July, Dobbins wanted to expand the league to eight teams. The only way to add two teams in July was to end the season and start over with a new schedule. Pottsville was given the first half pennant and agreed to play the second half winner for the overall Atlantic League title. The second half was set up with a 56-game schedule with 28 home games for each team.
Dobbins wanted a team in Wilkes-Barre, even though the Wilkes-Barre Barons were established in the New York State League. That didn’t bother Dobbins, as he was already considered an outlaw.
Speculation was Tamaqua would get the second new team, but on July 1, Dobbins announced Pittston would get the eighth team. The team owners were Thomas McAndrew and the Pittston Baseball Association, which owned Riverside Park in the Junction. McAndrew said within a day of the announcement, 50 men had applied for tryouts.
Pittston took the nickname Gamecocks and opened the second half of the Atlantic League season against the Wilkes-Barre Whitecaps on July 21 at YMCA Park in Wilkes-Barre, with each team having had only three weeks to assemble a roster, buy uniforms and equipment and secure a home field. Wilkes-Barre won the opener 6-0. Martin Moughan, from Port Griffith, pitched for Pittston. Bleachers had not yet been erected and the crowd was small.
The next day, Wilkes-Barre and Pittston played again in Pittston at Riverside Park in the Junction.
So imagine this, which very likely happened just this way: On July 21, 1908, the Gamecocks announcer stepped to home plate at Riverside Park in the Junction, raised his megaphone and said: “Pitching for Pittston, from Factoryville, Mathewson.”
Imagine the fans among the crowd of 1,000 who hadn’t heard about the starting pitcher beforehand looking around at each other and confusedly asking, “What did he say?”
How could Christy Mathewson be here pitching for the Pittston Gamecocks in the Atlantic League, when he was 900 miles away at that very moment pitching for the New York Giants against the St. Louis Cardinals? Of course, it wasn’t Christy Mathewson pitching for Pittston. It was his little brother, Nick, who was only 18 years old.
But big brother Christy — the part athlete, part matinee idol known as “Big Six” or “Matty” — was an international celebrity of such magnitude that even an appearance by his kid brother was an event, accounting for the 1,000 fans. Giant’s manager John McGraw was close to the Mathewson family. He liked Nick and sent him used uniforms and equipment, which Nick gave to kids in Factoryville.
A month earlier, Nick had finished his collegiate season pitching for Keystone Academy, where he was undefeated. He was pitching summer ball for Moosic in the amateur Scranton League when he was lured to Pittston for a payday. The rest of the Pittston infield for that first ever professional home game in Pittston was: catcher, Reinhardt from Parsons; first base, Jones, Lehighton; second base, Willoughby, of the Interstate League; third base, Mayock, Miners Mills and short stop and manager Dr. James O’Hara, Pittston. The outfield was all local with Burns from Avoca in right field, Nolan from Duryea in center and Gordon from Hughestown in left.
Mathewson, according to a newspaper account in the Pittston Gazette, “Pitched his first professional game and had a lot. His speed and curves and crossfire delivery were hard for the Whitecaps to solve.”
Pittston won 6-3 with Mathewson striking out 11. But that was about as good as it got for Pittston’s first professional team. Mathewson never pitched for Pittston again. It’s likely Nick was warned he could be blackballed as an outlaw in professional ball for playing for Pittston in the Atlantic League.
Without Mathewson, Pittston won only four more games the rest of the season and were 5-36 when they were moved to Tamaqua in late August — thus ending Pittston’s one and only season as a professional baseball city. The outlaw Atlantic League ended its season two weeks early and disbanded in 1909.
Two post scripts.
On Aug. 11, the Gamecocks played against a future Hall of Famer when Stan Coveleski played third base for Shamokin. Coveleski was 18 and in his first professional season. He reached the majors in 1912 as a pitcher. He pitched 14 seasons and won 215 games.
On Jan. 14, 1909, less than two years after he pitched for the Pittston Gamecocks, Nick Mathewson shot himself in the head in a barn at his family’s farm in Factoryville. His father found him. He died the next morning in Scranton Hospital with his brother, Christy, at his side. He was 19. He was a student at Lafayette College.
Just three weeks earlier, Nick had received an offer of $3,000 a year from Pittston native and Detroit Tigers manager, Hughie Jennings, to play for the Tigers. Nick was weighing that offer against returning to Lafayette College.
His obituary said he had been home for two weeks complaining about severe headaches. A Scranton paper said school work had gotten to him, writing, “No doubt overstudy was cause.”