|Intro||American baseball player, manager|
|From||United States of America|
|Birth||7 April 1873, Truxton, Cortland County, New York, U.S.A.|
|Death|| 25 February 1934, New Rochelle, Westchester County, New York, U.S.A.|
(aged 60 years)
John Joseph McGraw (April 7, 1873 – February 25, 1934), nicknamed “Little Napoleon” and “Mugsy“, was a Major League Baseball (MLB) player and long-time manager of the New York Giants. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937. While primarily a third baseman throughout his career, he also played shortstop and the outfield in the major leagues.
Much lauded as a player, McGraw was one of the standard-bearers of dead-ball era baseball. Known for his quick temper but also being a great baseball mind, scientifically as well as in bending the playing rules, especially in the days of fewer than four umpires, McGraw was a key player on the pennant-winning 1890s Baltimore Orioles, and later applied his talents and temper while a captain (playing)-manager, transitioning in 1902 to the New York Giants, with whom he became entirely a bench manager in 1907 until his retirement in 1932.
Even with his success and fame as a player, he is best known for his managing, especially since it was with a team so popular as the New York Giants. His total of 2,763 victories in that capacity ranks second overall behind only Connie Mack; he still holds the National League record with 2,669 wins in the senior circuit. McGraw is widely held to be “the best player to become a great manager” in the history of baseball. McGraw also held the MLB record for most ejections by a manager (132) until Bobby Cox broke the record in 2007.
McGraw’s father (whose name was also John) and his older brother Michael immigrated from Ireland in 1856. Their last name is spelled “McGrath” but pronounced McGraw. He and his brother had arrived in time for the Civil War, and were drawn into the conflict as part of the Union army. Shortly after the war, he married; and McGraw’s older half-sister was born. John McGraw, Sr.’s first wife died, and he began moving around looking for work — a search that ultimately led him to Truxton, New York, in 1871. It was there that the elder John McGraw married young Ellen Comerfort. They had the younger John McGraw on April 7, 1873.
The younger John McGraw was named “John” after his father, and “Joseph” after his grandfather back in Ireland. Even as a baby, young Johnny (as he was called) had raven hair, and eyes so dark that many people thought they were black. The boy’s birth was the first of many to the family, as seven more children were born over the course of the next 12 years. The sheer number of children, combined with the paucity of well-compensated work, led to hard times for the large family. It was often a struggle simply to have ample food for everyone and clothing enough to protect them all from the harsh winters of upstate New York.
Tragedy struck the family in the summer of 1883, when a debilitating fever swept through the family. Johnny’s half-sister Annie, 13, was the first to succumb; and his mother died shortly thereafter. By the time September 1883 had passed, three more McGraw children had died. The devastated family moved from their house in the country into a hotel in town. Johnny’s father, understandably bitter, heaped even more responsibility on the young boy’s shoulders, and had very little patience for his son’s passion for baseball. He became abusive toward the boy; and later on in 1885 (still only 12 years old), Johnny ran away. From that day onward, young John was raised by a kindly neighbor, Mary Goddard, under whose care he did quite well.
During his years as part of Goddard’s household, John took on several jobs that allowed him to save money to buy baseballs and the Spalding magazines that chronicled the rules changes in the rival major leagues of baseball, the National League and the American Association. He quickly became the best player on his school team. Shortly after his 16th birthday, he began playing for his town’s team, the Truxton Grays, making a favorable impression on their manager, Albert “Bert” Kenney. While he could play any position, his ability to throw a big curveball made him the star pitcher. McGraw’s relationship with Kenney precipitated his professional playing career.
In 1890, Kenney bought a portion of the new professional baseball franchise in Olean, New York. The team was to play in the newly formed New York–Pennsylvania League. In return for this investment, he was named player/manager of the team (this was called “captain” at the time).
When McGraw heard the news, he immediately went to visit his former coach, begging him for a chance to play on the new team. Kenney had seen a lot of baseball by this time, and doubted that his former pitcher’s one great pitch (the “outcurve”, as it was called) would work as effectively against professional competition. Yet the man liked the teenaged McGraw very much, and when the boy insisted that he could play any position available, Kenney decided to give him a chance. McGraw signed his first contract to play professional baseball on April 1, 1890.
Olean was located 200 miles from Truxton, and this was the farthest the youngster had ever traveled from his hometown. His debut with his new team was inauspicious and short-lived. He began the season on the bench. After two days, Kenney inserted him into the starting lineup at third base. McGraw would describe the moment of his first fielding chance decades later:
[F]or the life of me, I could not run to get it. It seemed like an age before I could get the ball in my hands and then, as I looked over to first, it seemed like the longest throw I ever had to make. The first baseman was the tallest in the league, but I threw the ball far over his head.
Seven more errors in nine more chances followed that day, a debacle that McGraw would not soon forget. After the team opened with no wins in six contests, Kenney and the other members of the ownership of the team—in the face of attendance that had dwindled to nearly nothing—were forced to overhaul the team. McGraw was given his release from the team, but Kenney also loaned him $70 and wished him luck if he wanted to try to catch on with another squad. McGraw could not bear the thought of going home a failure, as both his father and Mary Goddard had urged him to stay home and take a regular job, instead of chasing his dream of being a ballplayer. McGraw was resolute in his determination to make a name for himself as a professional baseball player, even if that meant struggling along in poverty for a time.
Thus it was that he began his journey again, this time in Wellsville, New York, a team that played in the Western New York League. The level of baseball played there was the lowest of the minor leagues, and McGraw still struggled with his fielding. But during his 24-game stint with the club, he managed to hit .365, flashing a glimpse of what would later become his hitting prowess. On October 1, 1890, he finished his first season as a professional baseball player, still only 17 years old.
After that first season, McGraw caught on with the traveling team of flamboyant promoter and fellow player, Al Lawson. Then only 21 himself, Lawson had gathered a ragtag group of players. These he took to Gainesville, Florida, in February 1891, hoping to play against major league teams who were training in the area. After defeating a team from Ocala a couple of times, Lawson began calling his team “the champions of Florida”, and was able to convince the National League team from Cleveland to play against his team. It was during this game that McGraw gained his first renown as a player. The Cleveland squad was led by Denton True “Cy” Young, who had already become famous for his “cyclone”-like fastball.
While the young Gainesville club lost the game 9–6, McGraw managed three doubles in five at-bats. He also scored half his team’s six runs, crossing the plate three times. He played error-free defense at shortstop as well. Reports of the game — and of his masterful play in it — made it to the Cleveland papers. McGraw’s name began to become widely known after other daily papers as well as some national baseball weeklies, such as The Sporting News. Shortly (around a week later), McGraw heard from many professional clubs requesting his services for the upcoming season.
Lawson acted as the boy’s agent, and advised him to request $125 monthly and a $75 advance. The manager of the Cedar Rapids club in the Illinois–Iowa League was the first to wire the money, and McGraw decided to make that his next stop. It was later claimed by several other clubs that McGraw had signed with them and had accepted their $75 advances. Though they threatened to sue, the clubs were never able to substantiate these claims; and McGraw was allowed to play in the league.
It was with the Canaries — as his Cedar Rapids club was called — that his greatest opportunity would arise. The Chicago White Stockings arrived in town for an exhibition game against McGraw’s team. The White Stockings were led by Adrian “Cap” Anson, the major leagues’ first true superstar. Unfazed by his famous opponents, the brash young McGraw led his teammates in giving their foes a hard time. During the game, on a field covered in mud, McGraw made a dazzling play at shortstop, leaping high to steal a hit from Cap Anson. After the game, Anson — impressed with the 18-year-old’s solid play — asked him whether he would like to play for Chicago’s team some day, which greatly increased the young man’s confidence.
When the call came for McGraw to report to the major leagues — the National League’s Baltimore club specifically — his teammates accompanied him to the rail station. McGraw arrived at Camden Station in Baltimore on August 24, 1891, still only 18 years old, but now a major league baseball player. McGraw described his new home upon his arrival as “a dirty, dreary, ramshackle sort of place.”
McGraw made his major league debut in 1891 in the American Association with the Baltimore Orioles. After the Orioles moved to the National League a year later, he remained with the team until 1899. During this time, McGraw established himself as an adept batsman with a keen eye, and an excellent third baseman. He walked over 100 times in a season three times, scored over 100 runs in a season five times, batted .320 or higher in every year from 1893 on, and also boasted an on-base percentage of .400 or higher in every year from 1893 on, including a career high mark of .547 in 1899. McGraw also took on managerial duties for the 1899 Oriole team and posted an 86–62 record.
McGraw’s playing time diminished over the following years as he played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1900), the American League Baltimore Orioles (1901–1902), and the New York Giants (1902–1906). 1902 was his last season as a full-time player; he never played in more than 12 games or tallied more than 12 at bats in any season thereafter. He retired having accumulated 1,024 runs, 13 home runs, 462 RBI, a .334 batting average and a .466 on-base percentage. His .466 career on-base percentage remains third all-time behind only baseball legends Ted Williams (.482) and Babe Ruth (.474).
Tricky and dirty play
McGraw’s playing career in the 1890s was a focus of a 2004 book featuring Baltimore’s tricky and dirty play and what might be called the players’ “anti-social” behavior during that decade – and, for sake of comparison, that book also chronicled and quantified the tricky and dirty play of the Chicago National League team from 1879 to 1897, under Cap Anson, its longtime captain-manager.
The final chapter of that book, which is part of a series that methodically plowed through 19th-century baseball reporting, states, “On one hand, Baltimore seems to have been more entertaining than Chicago for a more compact period, especially because of the notoriety of John McGraw and wild stories of trickery that have been passed down. On the other, Chicago is more significant over the long haul, to show the game’s progression from the 1870s to 1900. Where Baltimore is considered most significant is for its successful execution of baseball strategy in the 1890s, such as bunting, sacrificing and using the hit and run.”
Baltimore’s play “included a mix of the perfectly ethical, like the hit and run, with tactics considered more dubious, such as excessive arguing with the umpire”, to try to intimidate, which was a McGraw specialty.
His profligacy in employing such tactics may have led to additional umpires being assigned to monitor the basepaths”, only 4 of the 23 plays involved McGraw blocking runners; most were when he was running the bases. To show how overblown the notion that McGraw blocked many runners is, at least overtly, after seeing the 5’7″, 155-pound McGraw try to block Cleveland’s Buck Ewing from third base, and Ewing “went into him with such force that he knocked McGraw off his feet”, John B. Foster of the Cleveland Leader wrote, “McGraw is rather a light youngster to be so anxious to block men off the bases. Another year in the league is likely to teach him a sorry lesson.”
That said, the 2004 book opined that at third base, McGraw “probably sometimes stood slightly in the path that runners wanted to take”, to make it less likely they would score a run. The book cites a 1948 statement by former Baltimore teammate Sadie McMahon that said, “McGraw wouldn’t give the bag to the base runner like they do today” and also that he would “stand on the inside corner and make the runner go around.”
However, the 2004 book also noted that in the 1890s, “some third basemen were well known for being tricky, including McGraw, Patsy Tebeau, and Bill Joyce. Yet I [the author] found no reports of them doing “unobtrusive” blocking. There are reports of either overt blocking or nothing.”
In his 1998 The League That Failed, David Voigt said McGraw believed that “only by mastering the rules could he circumvent them.” So “he became a master at finding loopholes.” The 2004 book found that observation fair, especially in the way he fouled off pitches to draw walks or tire the pitcher.
Voigt added, “Among tactics used by McGraw was the opportunistic base runner’s trick of slapping a ball from an infielder’s grasp, the psychological ploy of wearing wickedly sharpened spikes, and vocally abusing opposing players and umpires.” The 2004 book concluded that, of those tactics, “only vocal abuse seems to have been central to McGraw’s style.”
Voigt also wrote that McGraw had a reputation as a “dirty player” as of 1895 that was “the talk of the league.” The 2004 book states, “It depends how you define ‘dirty.’ Voigt seems to mean playing dirty by the way he uses it, while newspapers hardly portrayed McGraw that way. By 1895, some were singling out McGraw for his mouth.”
The 2004 author stated, “In many newspapers of the 1890s, I found no generalizations about [McGraw’s] dirty play. In 1899, the Pittsburg Leader said the following after he was “as quiet as a lamb” one day at Pittsburgh: “McGraw, although having the reputation of being a rowdy ball player, has never shown any rowdy tactics in this city.”
The 2004 book also took issue with Noel Hynd’s 1996 The Giants of the Polo Grounds, which has a “dirty-tricks-combined-with-flashing-spikes” reference to the Orioles. It concludes that “a more apt description of the 1890s Baltimore team would be ‘flying mouths.'”
McGraw figures prominently in an Orioles-spiked-umpires recollection in Fred Lieb’s 1950 The Baseball Story, which quotes 1890s umpire John Heydler, later a National League president, as saying: “We hear much of the glories and durability of the old Orioles, but the truth about this team seldom has been told. They were mean, vicious, ready at any time to maim a rival player or an umpire, if it helped their cause. The things they would say to an umpire were unbelievably vile, and they broke the spirits of some fine men. I’ve seen umpires bathe their feet by the hour after McGraw and others spiked them through their shoes. The club never was a constructive force in the game. The worst of it was they got by with much of their browbeating and hooliganism. Other clubs patterned after them, and I feel the lot of the umpire never was worse than in the years when the Orioles were flying high.”
As far as Heydler’s accusation about having been spiked, the 2004 book concludes, “contemporaneous reporting does not validate it. Perhaps coincidentally, a reference to Heydler in 1898 did include a reference to spiking. Ren Mulford Jr. of the Cincinnati Post wrote, ‘Umpire John Heydler’s backbone is said to be badly in need of stiffening. He is foolish if he permits any diamond gentleman to wipe their spiked shoes on him this year.’” The 2004 book added, “Mulford wrote colorfully, and letting players wipe their spiked shoes was figurative for letting them argue at will.”
|1900||27||St. Louis Cardinals||NL||99||334||84||115||10||4||2||33||29||9||.344||.505||.416||.921|
|1902||29||Baltimore Orioles/New York Giants||AL/NL||55||170||27||43||3||2||1||8||12||17||.253||.420||.312||.732|
|1903||30||New York Giants||NL||12||11||2||3||0||0||0||1||1||0||.273||.467||.273||.739|
|1904||31||New York Giants||NL||5||12||0||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||.333||.467||.333||.800|
|1905||32||New York Giants||NL||3||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|1906||33||New York Giants||NL||4||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000||.333||.000||.333|
Despite great success as a player, McGraw is most remembered for his tremendous accomplishments as a manager. In his book The Old Ball Game, National Public Radio’s Frank Deford calls McGraw “the model for the classic American coach—a male version of the whore with a heart of gold—a tough, flinty so-and-so who was field-smart, a man’s man his players came to love despite themselves.” McGraw took chances on players, signing some who had been discarded by other teams, often getting a few more good seasons out of them. Sometimes these risks paid off; other times, they did not work out quite so well. McGraw took a risk in signing famed athlete Jim Thorpe in 1913. Alas, Thorpe was a bust, not because he lacked athletic ability, but because “he couldn’t hit a ball that curved.” McGraw was one of the first to use a relief pitcher to save games. He pitched Claude Elliott in relief eight times in his ten appearances in 1905. Though saves were not an official statistic until 1969, Elliot was retroactively credited with six saves that season, a record at that time.
McGraw believed that he had to eliminate any potential distractions that could cause his teams to lose. For example, Casey Stengel, who played for the Giants from 1921 to 1923, recalled that McGraw would go over the meal tickets at the team hotel, and wasn’t shy about telling his players that they weren’t eating right. For most of his tenure, he set a curfew for 11:30 pm. According to Rogers Hornsby, who served as a player-coach for the Giants in 1927, either McGraw or one of his coaches would knock on the players’ hotel room doors at 11:30 sharp—and someone was expected to answer. He was known to be extremely competitive; he would fine players for fraternizing with members of other teams and would not tolerate smiling in the dugout. According to Bill James, with McGraw “the rules were well understood.”
Over 33 years as a manager with the Baltimore Orioles of both leagues (1899 NL, 1901–1902 AL) and New York Giants (1902–1932), McGraw compiled 2,763 wins and 1,948 losses for a .586 winning percentage. His teams won 10 National League pennants and three World Series championships, and they had 11 second-place finishes while posting only two losing records. In 1918, he broke Fred Clarke’s major league record of 1,670 career victories; he was later passed by Mack. McGraw led the Giants to first place each year from 1921 to 1924, becoming the only National League manager to win four consecutive pennants. At the time of his retirement, McGraw had been ejected from games 131 times (at least 14 of these came as a player). This record would stand until Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox broke it on August 14, 2007.
In 1919, McGraw became a part-owner of the Giants when Charles Stoneham bought the club. As part of the deal, McGraw became vice president of the Giants, with complete authority over the baseball side of the operation. However, he’d had a more-or-less free hand in baseball matters since his arrival. McGraw wrote an autobiography of his years in baseball, published in 1923, in which he expressed grudging respect for several opposing players. He retired as manager midway through the 1932 season, but returned to manage the National League team in the inaugural 1933 All-Star Game. McGraw finished with a record of 2583 wins and 1948 losses.
Although for most of his career McGraw wore the same baseball uniform his players wore, he eventually took a page out of Mack’s book toward the end of his career and began managing in a three piece suit. He continued to do so until his retirement.
|Team||From||To||Regular season record||Post–season record|
|G||W||L||Win %||G||W||L||Win %|
|Baltimore Orioles (NL)||1899||1899||148||86||62||.581||—|
|Baltimore Orioles (AL)||1901||1902||190||94||96||.495||—|
|New York Giants||1902||1924||3249||1961||1288||.604||47||23||24||.489|
|New York Giants||1924||1925||94||55||39||.585||7||3||4||.429|
|New York Giants||1925||1927||379||199||180||.525||—|
|New York Giants||1928||1932||651||368||283||.565||—|
New York Giants managerial record
McGraw became the third of three managers for the New York Giants in 1902, and held the position until 1924. He returned as manager later in the 1924 season and held the position until the 1925 season when he had a record of 10 wins and four losses. He returned later in the 1925 season but again left the position in the 1927 season. His final stint as manager was between 1928 and 1932 seasons.
|From||To||Regular season record||Post–season record|
|G||W||L||Win %||G||W||L||Win %|
McGraw married Minnie Doyle, the daughter of prominent Baltimore politician Michael Doyle, on February 3, 1897. This was at the height of his fame as a player for the old Baltimore Orioles of the National League. Two years later, while McGraw was on a road trip with his team, Minnie developed appendicitis. An emergency appendectomy was performed, and McGraw was called back from Louisville, Kentucky. Her condition worsened; and, surrounded by McGraw and other members of the family, Minnie died on September 1, 1899 at the age of 23.
McGraw married his second wife, Blanche Sindall, on January 8, 1902. She outlived McGraw by nearly 30 years, dying on November 4, 1962. Even after her husband’s death, Mrs. McGraw was a devoted fan of the team he had managed for so long. In 1951, she threw out the first pitch during a World Series game in which her beloved Giants played the New York Yankees. The Yankees won that day, 6–2, and went on to win the championship — their third in a row — in six games.
As owners of a bowling, billiards, and pool hall in Baltimore, McGraw and Wilbert Robinson introduced the sport of duckpin bowling within the city of Baltimore in 1899.
In 1923, only nine years before he retired, McGraw reflected on his life inside the game he loved in his memoir My Thirty Years in Baseball. He stepped down as manager of the New York Giants in the middle of the 1932 season. He was reactivated briefly when he accepted the invitation to manage the National League team in the 1933 All-Star Game.
Less than two years after retiring, McGraw died of uremic poisoning at age 60 and is interred in New Cathedral (Roman Catholic) Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.
Connie Mack would surpass McGraw’s major league victory total just months later.
After McGraw’s death, his wife found, among his personal belongings, a list of all the black players he wanted to sign over the years.
McGraw was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937; his plaque stated that he was considered the greatest assessor of baseball talent. In honor of the days he spent coaching at St. Bonaventure, St. Bonaventure University named its athletic fields after McGraw and his teammate, fellow coach and fellow Hall of Famer Hugh Jennings.
In 2011, he was inducted into the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame.
Although McGraw played before numbers were worn on jerseys, the Giants honor him along with their retired numbers at AT&T Park.
The John McGraw Monument stands in his hometown of Truxton.