I: EARLY LIFE
Tomboy, they called me, because I loved to do the things boys did. We were a large family, seventeen to be exact. And therefore we all learned to make ourselves useful one way or another, very early in life.
—JOSEPHINE MATHEY MORHARD
A CRUEL WINTER
February 1899, League Park, Cleveland, Ohio
Mounds of snow piled onto the empty League Park seats, forming a silent crowd of snowmen. The wooden rafters shuddered as the north wind plowed through the open end of the ballpark. Long fingers of ice drooped down from the stands. People said it was the coldest winter they'd ever seen in Ohio. It had also been the worst baseball season ever for the ballpark's resident team, the Cleveland Spiders. During the season, few fans had occupied these seats to cheer on the home team. They had good reason. Their team had been decimated. The future of the ballpark was uncertain.
Just a couple of weeks before opening day in 1898, the team's owner, a streetcar mogul named Frank Robison, had shipped the Spiders' best players—including future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, Bobby Wallace, and the team's entire starting rotation—to a second team he'd purchased at a sheriff's sale, the St. Louis Browns. The Spiders went on to become the worst baseball team in Major League history, ending with an embarrassing 20-134 record, a .130 winning percentage. There would be no more opening days, no more Cleveland Spiders. It was to be the team's last season.
Ninety miles to the south, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, a sad eight-year-old girl stared out the kitchen window of the farmhouse at the mounds of snow piling up near the shed where the pigs were kept. She knew nothing of League Park or the Spiders, or that she would one day stand in the dugout of the same ball field cheering on her own teams, with crowds of kids and their families filling these seats, the sky a glorious blue.
Josephine bolted from the farmhouse. She felt her tears freeze as they rolled down her cheeks. The biting cold raced along her spine and stung her nose as she hurried toward the pig shed. She pushed her way through the knee-high snow, holding her own as the wind thundered across the fields, nearly lifting her into its icy arms.
She was bundled in her warmest woolen clothing. A knit hat covered her head, but the shrill cold made her ears ache. With every breath, the frigid air dried her mouth and seared its way into her lungs. She pulled her hat down over her nose and mouth and stuffed her mitten-covered hands back in her pockets. She could barely feel her feet through her two pairs of heavy wool socks and thick rubber four-buckle arctics.
Winter had painted its monochromatic hues over her family's farm. The grass and trees and fields, the farmhouse, barn and sheds wore a fresh coat of snow. The bright sun that had warmed Josephine's face as she planted rows of now-harvested wheat hid its face behind shapeless, colorless clouds. It looked like a typical winter day, but it was far from normal, certainly for the Mathey family. Inside the small two-story farmhouse, influenza threatened the lives and sapped the spirit of the family. The frigid cold was making it worse.
Josephine's mother, Elizabeth Mathey, now forty-two and a grandmother, had delivered her seventeenth child, Eugene, on January 13, nearly a month earlier. With her body already weak from bearing so many children, she caught the flu. Now, aided by the extreme cold, her influenza had turned to pneumonia. Several other children also had the flu. Most were recovering, but Josephine's two youngest siblings, the baby and the one-year-old, were still braving high fevers and seemed to be getting worse.
Josephine couldn't bear to stay in the house with her mother and the babies so sick. She hurt inside. Her older sister Ellen admonished her not to go out, but Josephine, as usual, didn't pay attention. She needed to get away. Being with the piggies always made her feel better. She wanted to watch them, pat their heads, cradle the tiny ones, and tickle their snouts.
But this was not the day to play with the animals. By the time she reached the shed, she couldn't stop shaking. Her face and hands and toes were burning with the cold. She couldn't linger, no matter how much she wanted to stay.
The temperature was brutal—it had plummeted down to 20-30 degrees below zero in the night. Just southwest of Poland in Milligan, Ohio, the thermometer hit -39 degrees—an Ohio record that still stands.
A newspaper in nearby Hamilton, Ohio, reported, "the ears of many hogs dropped off—they being so badly frozen that the least lurch caused them to fall to the ground . . . sportsmen claim the bad weather killed more quail than did all the hunters. Thousands have frozen."
Other newspapers in the state reported businesses "paralyzed," schools dismissed, laborers refusing to work, people frozen to death in their sleighs, coal shortages, boats sinking in icy rivers, a boy nearly frozen to death on his way to school, and hundreds of people with frozen noses, ears, and fingers.
One report said it was as bitter "as any man ever knew." Meteorologists and weather historians called the February chill "the mother of all cold waves" and "the greatest Arctic outburst in history."