Gary Matthews was a first-round pick of the Giants in 1968 following a standout high school career in San Fernando, California. After a sparkling minor league career, he was promoted to the big club in September 1972, and in 20 games had an OPS of .889 (good for an OPS+ of 148). Rookie of the year honors followed in 1973 when, while forming part of a gifted outfield with Bobby Bonds and Gary Maddox, he hit .300/.367/.444. Matthews’s strengths were his strike-zone judgment (his lowest OBP was .357, in his rookie year), his line-drive power, and his baserunning.
Matthews was also an exciting left fielder who made a lot of plays look harder than they were. He lacked a good instinctive ability to judge the flight of the ball, and having learned to compensate for this by hustling and working harder, he often got to the spot the ball was going too early, only to find his glove in the wrong position relative to his body until the last instant. While not a liability in left, he took some criticism for his play there.
After the 1976 season, Matthews became one of the first free agents to change teams, signing with the Braves — but not before some loud words from drunken Braves’ owner Ted Turner to Giants’ owner Bob Lurie at a World Series reception, and other outrageous conduct by Turner at owners’ meetings, led to a one-year suspension of Turner. (Actually, Turner played the hapless Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. After an audience with Kuhn where Turner practically begged to be suspended, Kuhn obliged, and took away draft choices, but let the Matthews signing stand. Turner got the best of all worlds, preserving his “man-of-the-people” image with Atlanta fans while being away from baseball for a year so he could compete in the America’s Cup sailing race, and getting to keep Matthews to boot. To complete his martyr’s pose, Turner appealed and got the draft choices back, but his suspension was upheld.)
In New York, meanwhile, ace right-hander Tom Seaver pointed to Atlanta’s signing of Matthews as evidence that the Mets were not serious about seeking free-agent hitters. The criticism soon blew up into a war of words between the future Hall-of-Famer and franchise chairman M. Donald Grant, preparing the ground for the year’s dramatic trade of Seaver to the Reds.
As for Matthews, while his annual salary went from $42,000 with the Giants to $297,000 with Atlanta, he averaged .283 with decidedly mild power numbers for the Braves in 1977, for a 104 OPS+. He would only have two seasons, one with the Braves and one with the Cubs, in which he would match or surpass his best seasons with the Giants.