McGraw, John Joseph

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McGRAW, John Joseph

(b. 7 April 1873 in Truxton, New York; d. 25 February 1934 in New Rochelle, New York), one of the most famous and successful baseball managers of all time who managed the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932; winning ten pennants and three World Series, he is second in games managed (4,845) and games won (2,816).

McGraw was the oldest of eight children (he also had an older half-sister) of John McGraw, an Irish immigrant railroad worker, and Ellen Comerfort. McGraw's mother and four of his brothers and sisters died in a diphtheria epidemic during the winter of 1884–1885 when he was eleven. His father became abusive, particularly disliking McGraw's penchant for playing baseball instead of doing chores. After one especially violent incident, McGraw, at age twelve, moved in with neighbors and thereafter saw little of his father. He spent his time in school, doing odd jobs around town (including selling snacks on the rail line from Truxton to Elmira), and playing baseball.

By age sixteen he was the best player on the town team, even though he was only five feet, six-and-a-half inches tall, and about 115 pounds. He talked his way onto his first professional team, Olean, of the newly formed New York-Pennsylvania League, signing a contract for $40 per month six days before his seventeenth birthday. His debut was a disaster; he made eight errors at third base and was quickly shifted to the outfield. He was released after a few more days.

McGraw migrated deeper into the minor league bushes to Wellsville of the Western New York League, along with five other Olean rejects. There he batted .365 in 107 trips to the plate and attracted the attention of Alfred Lawson, a journeyman pitcher and adventurous promoter who asked McGraw to play for his American All-Stars and tour Cuba that winter. At the end of the tour the team played Cleveland, then of the National League (NL), in a spring training exhibition game in Gainesville, Florida. McGraw clubbed three doubles and played errorless ball at shortstop. Within a week he had offers from many minor league clubs, and he signed contracts with at least five teams before ending up with the Cedar Rapids Canaries of the Three I League for the start of the 1891 season.

The Baltimore Orioles of the American Association, then a major league, called him up in August for the balance of the season after he hit .275 in 85 games and fielded well at shortstop. The 121-pounder was decidedly mediocre, hitting .245 and making 18 errors in 86 chances for a dismal .842 fielding average, but he was nonetheless signed by the Orioles for the following season.

The American Association collapsed after the 1891 season, and the Orioles were absorbed into the expanded twelve-team National League, then the only major league. The Orioles were abysmal, finishing in the cellar of the NL in 1892 with a 46–101 record as McGraw batted .267 in a utility role. He was kept home on some road trips to save the club money and collected tickets at turnstiles in full uniform to help pay his way.

Ned Hanlon, who would build the Orioles into a dynasty, became manager two weeks into the 1892 season. In 1893 McGraw had a breakthrough year and hit .321 while becoming the regular shortstop. In 1894 he shifted to third base and hit .340, as the Orioles, bolstered by Wee Willie Keeler, Dan Brouthers, Joe Kelley, Wilbert Robinson, and Hughey Jennings, won the first of three consecutive pennants and narrowly missed a fourth in 1897. McGraw batted over .325 each year, although he missed some of 1895 and most of 1896 with recurring bouts of malaria that brought him close to death. In the off-seasons he attended St. Bonaventure University near Olean, New York, with teammate Jennings. Together they coached the school's baseball team in the spring term.

The Orioles were known for their win-at-any-cost play (one umpire called them "a vile lot of blackguards"), and McGraw certainly helped earn the reputation. In the field he shoved, blocked, or held base runners, often hooking their belt as they rounded third. He abused umpires, brawled with opposing players, and was accused of being the dirtiest player in the league. Although he was an effective lead-off hitter, he remained somewhat of a liability in the field, even by the lower fielding standards of the day.

McGraw's leadership skills were evident early, for he was named to succeed Hanlon as manager of the Orioles before the 1899 season, a month before his twenty-sixth birthday. Hanlon had purchased an interest in the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers and transferred many of the Orioles best players there. Nonetheless, McGraw led his leftover players to a surprising fourth-place finish. In late August, his wife Minnie Doyle, whom he had married two years earlier on 3 February 1897, died of acute appendicitis. She was only twenty-two years old. McGraw married Blanche Sindall of Baltimore on 8 January 1902. Married for thirty-two years, they remained childless.

The National League contracted to eight franchises for 1900, lopping off Baltimore and three other cities. McGraw ended up playing for St. Louis, along with old teammate Wilbert Robinson. In 1901 he joined forces with Ban Johnson in forming the American League (AL) and became player-manager of the new Baltimore franchise. In spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, McGraw flirted with signing Charley Grant, an accomplished African-American ballplayer, and passing him off as a full-blooded Cherokee called Chief Tokahoma. Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, blew his cover; baseball was not integrated for another forty-six years. However, McGraw should not be characterized as a civil rights pioneer. He was probably just on the lookout for good baseball talent in his zeal to win.

McGraw quickly came into conflict with Johnson, generally over his own abuse of umpires. Their clashes escalated once the 1902 season began, and on 8 July he abandoned the American League and signed a four-year contract to manage the New York Giants of the National League for an annual salary of $11,000, the highest in baseball up to that time. McGraw was not yet thirty years old. He managed the Giants for thirty-one years and became one of the most dominant figures in baseball.

McGraw's Giants won their first pennant in 1904 but refused to play the AL champions, the Boston Pilgrims, in a World Series because of his continuing enmity against the AL founder Ban Johnson. Led by the great Christy Mathewson, the Giants won again in 1905 and defeated the Philadelphia Athletics four games to one in a World Series in which every game featured a shutout, three by Mathewson. The Giants lost a pennant in 1908 due to 19-year-old Fred Merkle's failure to touch second base in a late season game. Although McGraw could be very harsh with his players, he steadfastly defended his young player against all criticism. McGraw was an innovator, calling pitches from the bench and using relief pitchers, such as Doc Crandall, effectively. As combative and difficult as McGraw was, he had staying power, winning three consecutive pennants from 1911 to 1913, one in 1917, and four straight from 1921 to 1924.

After 1924 McGraw could not cajole his team into another pennant, although his Giants usually finished second or third. Although he was said to have passed on a young Tris Speaker, he was generally an outstanding identifier of baseball talent. After his first wave of success with Mathewson, Roger Bresnahan, "Turkey Mike" Donlin, and "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity, he brought in future Hall of Famers such as Ross Youngs, Fred Lindstrom, Travis Jackson, Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, and Bill Terry. McGraw lamented the coming of the lively ball and the popularity of the home run brought on by the emergence of Babe Ruth, however, and, bothered by chronic sinus trouble and other ailments, finally stepped down as manager of the Giants on 3 June 1932. One year later McGraw came back to manage the National League in the first All-Star game in Chicago. He died of cancer only eight months later at the age of sixty and is buried in New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore. Known as "Little Napoleon" because of his strategic skill as a manager, McGraw was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

The National Baseball Library's collection on McGraw in Cooperstown, New York, is substantial. His memoirs were published as My Thirty Years in Baseball (1923). Biographies include the excellent Charles C. Alexander, John McGraw (1988); and several very good works such as Frank Graham, McGraw of the Giants (1944); Blanche Sindall McGraw, The Real McGraw (1953), edited by Arthur Mann; and Joseph Durso, The Days of Mr. McGraw (1969). Pitching in a Pinch, or Baseball from the Inside (reprint edition 1977), by Christy Mathewson, gives excellent insight into McGraw's "inside baseball" style of play. Other useful references include Frank Graham, The New York Giants: An Informal History (1952), and Neil Hynd, The Giants of the Polo Grounds: The Glorious Times of Baseball's New York Giants (1988). Frederick George Lieb, The Baltimore Orioles: The History of a Colorful Team in Baltimore and St. Louis (1955), and Burt Solomon, Where They Ain't: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of theOriginal Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball (1999), detail McGraw's years with the Baltimore Orioles.

C. Paul Rogers III

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