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Martin L. Mathews dies. He co-founded and led Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club

Martin Mathews head shot in a hat.
Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club
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Martin Mathews, who for over a half-century welcomed more than a million children through the doors of Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club and onto a field of dreams, has died. He was 97.

They were mostly African American children and, at first, just boys. In segregated 1960s St. Louis, Mathews and a friend, Hubert Habib “Dickey” Ballentine, dreamed of giving Black boys their own baseball fields.

Both men were semi-pro baseball players who coached boys baseball teams in their north St. Louis neighborhood. Mathews coached 30 boys, Ballentine 15. Both wanted to do more. They wanted their teams to compete with the white baseball clubs.

As Mathews told the story, they devised a plan while fantasizing beneath a shade tree in Handy Park, in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis.

Mathews said he promptly forgot about the shade-tree conversation, but Ballentine did not. He called Mathews late one night with an enticement: Mathews could have top billing in the club’s name.

“At 1 o’clock in the morning — when you have to be up for work — I didn’t care what it was named,” Mathews recalled in an interview with the St. Louis American in 2014.

Ballentine was persistent, and in 1960, they founded Mathews-Dickey Boys’ Club. (It was renamed the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club in 2001.) The two men put together a five-team league that grew to more than 30 in the next five years. To fund the club, parents paid modest dues, and a benefit dinner was held at neighborhood churches. Nevertheless, both men went into debt to fund the club. Mathews mortgaged his home and sold coffee for 10 cents a cup at his day job.

Eventually, Mathews would successfully woo millions of dollars from local titans of industry, helping him sustain what became one of the nation’s best-known and most beloved children’s community centers. He stepped down at age 90.

Mathews died Monday at Evelyn's House, a hospice care center in St. Louis County.

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Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club
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Martin Mathews, at left, is pictured with co-founder Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine in the club’s early days.

The philosophy forms

In the book "Lift Every Voice and Sing," Mathews recalled the modest beginning of his team, the Knights, around 1959.

“At first, when we played baseball, the white teams always beat us,” Mathews said. “The white teams had uniforms and dozens of balls and bats and three or four adults with them. Our team had one bat, one ball and one adult — me.”

As a young man, Mathews said he was aware that things were not equal, but he had a plan.

“I didn’t look at racism; I looked at opportunity,” Mathews recalled in his profile. He admonished other African Americans to do the same.  

He said his struggling, under-equipped team “worked and worked,” and by the third year, was the best in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

It was not enough. He wanted to reach far more than 30 boys and not just to teach them to play baseball, but to develop in them the three Rs: “respect, restraint, responsibility” — the philosophy he gleaned from his parents. The theme was later featured in an Anheuser-Busch national television ad.

Mathews was a surrogate father for Tom Sullivan, now club director of Mathews-Dickey Club, after Sullivan's father died. Sullivan said that as a student at St. Louis University, he learned restraint and responsibility from Mathews.

"I had to deal with being responsible, being responsible to take care of my classes, take care of my practice and become the best athlete I possibly can," Sullivan said. "I wanted respect from everyone, therefore I had to give respect to those. And that is my takeaway, and it has taken me a long way."

Mathews' influence can be seen across the country, Sullivan said.

"He was raising children to be good students and successful professionals in all facets," Sullivan said. "His goal and objective [was] to provide that child with as many resources they possibly could and that became a great success."

Mathews parlayed a winning team and a winning attitude into an essential community anchor. But it took 10 years for the club to get its own building, a storefront at 4738 Natural Bridge Ave. that previously housed Bob Russell Sporting Goods. Its athletic fields and gymnasiums were borrowed. It would be another decade before the club would move into its present home in the Penrose neighborhood, at North Kingshighway and Interstate 70.

It would take money to make the big step. At first, Mathews wasn’t thinking big enough. In a 2012 St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile, he said that he went to Al Fleishman, one of the founders of public relations giant FleishmanHillard, for help. He asked for $3,000. Fleishman offered him $10,000 and introductions to others with deep pockets, like brewery owner August "Gussie" Busch Jr. and Chuck Knight, head of Emerson Electric.

Mathews, a man with a quiet demeanor and a gentle spirit, appeared miscast as a wheeler-dealer. But he was a quick learner and proved himself a formidable fundraiser. He was soon commanding financial support from Civic Progress companies and most of the major corporations in the area. Mathews forged bonds with the George Khoury Association of Baseball Leagues that he once envied and with every major league sports organization in St. Louis.

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By 1975, the club had grown to include 75 baseball teams, 17 football teams and two basketball teams — and it was still growing.

In 1980, Busch and Knight co-chaired a multimillion-dollar campaign to build a new home for the club. The building was designed by architect Karl Grice, who was once one of those little boys Mathews molded and is now the board chair, and then-board member Raymond E. Maritz, founder of the eponymous sales and marketing company.

The 35,000-square-foot building had rooms for mechanical and drafting courses, an Olympic-size indoor pool, a photo lab, locker facilities, a library, a day-care center, gymnasiums and meeting rooms. Nearby were the magnificent playing fields.

When the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, the team used Mathews-Dickey for its administrative offices and training facility until the Earth City complex was built a year later. 

The building has expanded into a complex, and Mathews’ legacy now directly serves 3,000 young members annually and provides indirect programs for 10,000 more.

As Mathews had planned, the club became much more than organized baseball. It became a place that instills hope, educates and helps young people resist the tug of the streets. When school doors close, Mathews-Dickey is open to provide a safe haven; reading tutors; swimming, cooking and dance classes; computer training; career workshops and sports of all kinds. Of course, that includes baseball.

"He was so inspirational and he was so positive," said Don Danforth, president and co-founder of City Academy which first opened its doors in the Mathews-Dickey complex. "His point was when children are prepared and receive equal opportunities, their possibilities are endless and their futures are bright and we all benefit as a community."

Pride and joy

As it gained national attention, Mathews-Dickey garnered national recognition, providing a route to more programs and more money.

President Ronald Reagan dedicated the new facility in 1982 and presented Mathews and Ballentine, who died in 2000, with the Presidential Citizens Medal for lifetime achievement.

The club’s success made it a magnet for leaders. After Reagan, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Vice Presidents Dan Quayle and Joe Biden dropped in.

Coca-Cola put the club’s name on bottles, and NBA superstars Dominique Wilkins and Patrick Ewing came to Mathews-Dickey as part of the promotion. NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton helped the club develop the Computer Literacy Instruction Program, and Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck brought in a few of his friends — Ozzie Smith, Stan Musial and Lou Brock — to help raise money. Original “Wizard of Oz” Munchkin Mickey Carroll and NHL superstar Brett Hull made regular appearances. NFL coach Tony Dungy showed up in 2009 at the kickoff of Reach Out St. Louis, a partnership between local universities and high schools to help keep high school students from dropping out.

Mathews enlisted Clifton Davis, star of the NBC-TV sitcom "Amen" when he established the Say Amen annual dinner in 1990. The entire cast of the show showed up in 2010 for the 21st banquet.

NBC broadcaster Bob Costas and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa served as honorary fundraising co-chairs, and Olympic Gold Medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee became a regular advocate for the club. Mathews returned the favor by becoming a founding board member of Joyner-Kersee’s club in East St. Louis, her hometown.

Anyone who passed through the doors of Mathews-Dickey, no matter their status, was treated to a tour of the club’s Hall of Fame. The room displays memorabilia from the early days of the organization, including a uniform from Mathews’ first baseball team, the Knights. 

Martin Mathews posing with a baseball bat in 2017
Wiley Price | St. Louis American
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The constant hubbub of the children was Mathews’ oxygen. Nattily dressed, he moved languorously and, it seemed, perpetually through the place he had built and nurtured, always with a hint of a smile that seemed to conceal a joyous secret.

Everyone wanted to share in his secret. He gladly offered his counsel to the United Way of Greater St. Louis, which became the club’s primary funder, the VP Fair, the USO, Forest Park Forever and the Missouri Athletic Club, which gave him its prestigious Jack Buck Award. His myriad honors also included the “Salute to Excellence in Education” Lifetime Achiever award from the St. Louis American.

Mathews’ office overflowed with trophies and commendations. Among the memorabilia was proof of his induction into the Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, his A&E Biography 15th anniversary “Community Hero Award” and honorary doctorates from St. Louis University, Webster University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Key to the city

Martin Luther Mathews was born in Neelyville, Missouri, on Feb. 17, 1925, and raised on a nearby farm in Poplar Bluff. He was the ninth of Ned and Amanda Mathews’ 13 children. After his father died, he dropped out of Wheatley High School and moved to St. Louis to work as a waiter and bellhop to help support his family back home. He briefly returned to school but left for good in his senior year.

He returned to St. Louis, where he met his future wife, Barbara Albright. They were married until her death in 1997.

He found work chauffeuring Mabel Burkart, the wife of Oliver “O.R.” Burkart, president of Burkart Manufacturing Co. He did such a good job with what he dubbed “driving Miss Daisy” that O.R. Burkart gave him a job in his factory, which made padding for Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. Mathews was working in the Burkart Randall Division of Textron when he was promoted to manager of the Upholstery Department. He continued playing semi-pro baseball — shortstop, first or second base — on the old St. Louis Dodgers team until he began leading Mathews-Dickey full time.

When Mathews retired in 2014 at age 90, he was feted at the Fox Theatre. He was serenaded by the Isley Brothers, given the key to the city by Mayor Francis Slay — for a second time — and toasted by the chief executives of some of the region’s largest companies. 

“I don’t know anyone who has done more to impact the lives of more young people than you,” Slay said.

Speaking with his usual economy of words, Mathews thanked the crowd for making the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club possible. The "party" had been, after all, just an excuse for Martin Mathews to do what he had done for more than 50 years: Give at-risk children a fighting chance at a future. The event raised nearly a half-million dollars.

“He and I share the same favorite quote,” said Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. “And that is, ‘What you do for yourself dies with you, but what you do for others lives forever.’”

Mathews' wife and daughters Phyllis and Betty Joe Mathews died earlier.

He is survived by three daughters, Juanita Mathews, Marilyn Mathews and Angelic Mathews Cole, all of St. Louis; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Funeral services are pending through Wade Funeral Home.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Handy Park.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.
Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.