Story originally appeared in BND’s Prime Life Magazine in January, 2016.
Like many of us, Nelson Mathews was surprised when the Cubs won the World Series last fall. In fact, he was probably more shocked than anyone that they made it past the playoffs.
“They were always bad,” said Nelson while sitting at his kitchen table in Columbia. And judging by the fact that his own face graces the covers of several old baseball cards in front of him, he would know.
The Cubs hadn’t played in a World Series since 1945, when Nelson was only 4; the year of the Billy Goat Curse. Throughout the late ’40s and ’50s when he was growing up listening to games on the radio, the Cubs didn’t win half their games. But that didn’t stop a young, eager Columbia high school baseball player from being ecstatic when they offered him a spot on their team.
“Back then there was no draft,” said Nelson. “A scout for the Cubs watched me during my senior year, and after graduation asked me to come play. I didn’t even know where Chicago was, but making $500 a month to play baseball sounded pretty good.”
So in 1960 at only 19 years old, he moved to Paris, Illinois to play outfield in the Cubs’ “D” league. Not long into the season he broke his ankle sliding into a base and was told he’d never play again, but he took time off to heal — and came back better than ever. As time went by he kept moving up and eventually played in Chicago in 1962, when he was deemed Rookie of the Year and set an impressive record for the youngest Cubs player to hit a grand slam. This past October, Addison Russell came close to beating that record with his game 6 bomb at age 22, but Nelson still holds it at 21.
Nelson’s stint with the Cubs ended when he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics in 1964, the year after he helped the Cubs finally break .500. That‘s also the year he married Joan, sister of his childhood baseball buddies, who followed him faithfully from field to field for three years until the Athletics let him go. At that point, Nelson was ready to begin a normal life and start a family. He got a job at Wonder Bread and joined a men’s league in Valmeyer for fun.
“I played better in the Mon-Claire league than when I was getting paid to play,” he said. “When I didn’t have all that pressure, I enjoyed it more and taught myself to improve.”
The Mon-Claire league was a big part of the Mathews’ life for 12 years. Joan brought their three children, Leslie, Kenny and TJ, to watch their dad play, which instilled a passion for the game in each of them. The boys loved playing ball in the backyard from the time they were babies, and Nelson shared his baseball expertise by coaching them in Khoury League when they were old enough. He continued coaching TJ until high school.
“He threw strikes from the very beginning, without any lessons or anything,” said Nelson. “He just knew he wanted to be a pitcher.”
TJ followed in his dad’s footsteps and played for Columbia high school, then got a scholarship to play at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins, but Nelson suggested he hold off for a better offer. Respecting his advice, TJ waited and was asked to play at UNLV, where he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 36th round.
“I told him to go for it,” said Nelson. “It was our hometown team and a good deal.”
After his son’s rookie debut in 1995, it wasn’t hard for the former Cubs player to become a full-blown Cards fan. He and Joan went to all of TJ’s games when Nelson didn’t have to work, and planned to attend every game at Busch Stadium after Nelson’s retirement. Unfortunately, that day didn’t come soon enough.
“I worked at Wonder Bread for 30 years and was set to retire on July 27th, 1997,” said Nelson. “On July 31st, TJ got traded to Oakland for Mark McGuire.”
Luck was not in their favor that year, but the couple made the most of it and traveled to watch their son play as often as possible, visiting all but two MLB parks before TJ retired in 2002.
Since then, they’ve been spending time at ball parks much closer to home. With 10 grandchildren from ages 27-3, they’ve sat along Khoury League sidelines, stood in high school and college stands, and are enjoying watching TJ coach his son just as his dad coached him. It’s obvious that Nelson’s passion for the game is being passed down from generation to generation.
Last season, the Cubs won 100 games for the first time since 1935, and fans are still relishing in World Series victory. Knowing how far the team has come since he played for them half a century ago, Nelson can appreciate their success.
“I’m happy for them,” he said. “It’s exciting.”