John McGraw was to baseball what Henry Ford was to the automobile. They did not invent their respective industries. They reinvented them.
Straddling the line separating the 19th and 20th centuries, McGraw ended his career as a baseball player by performing the additional duties of manager, first with the Baltimore Orioles and then with the New York Giants. He was full of fire, brimstone, and anything ignitable. And the fans loved him for it, as did his players.
McGraw died on February 25, 1934 at the age of 60. His was a game of strategy, fundamentals, and thought. But a change in the ball during the 1920s eclipsed McGraw’s approach. In the February 26th edition of the New York Times, John Kieran eulogized, “Then the lively ball came in and any hill-billy, hay-shaker, or plow-jockey might walk up there with a blundering bludgeon to ruin a whole afternoon of fine strategy by slapping the jack-rabbit ball over a distant fence. It made a new game, a slam-bang affair in which stolen bases didn’t count, inside stuff ran for Sweeney and the hit-and-run gave way to the hit-and-walk style of play; hit one into the bleachers and walk around the bases. That wasn’t McGraw’s type of game.”
With a career encompassing 10 National League pennants and three World Series championships, McGraw epitomized toughness bordering on pugilism. Upon McGraw’s death, the New York Herald Tribune, in its February 26th edition, stated, “Baseball to John J. McGraw was a feud, not a game.” Age softened him up some, but even on the day he quit the playing field in 1932, thirty years after he had joined the Giants, he was the truculent and red-faced “Muggsy,” a name he hated with all the bitterness that could come of the McGraw nature of pride and arrogance.”
The Herald Tribune also noted McGraw’s impact on the game through his tutelage. “He brought to the Polo Grounds dozens of players whose deeds made separate chapters in baseball’s history, and through his knowledge of baseball, knowledge that made popular the phrase ‘master minding’ and made McGraw ‘The Little Napoleon,’ he trained many players who learned their lessons so well that they afterward became rivals of their old master.”
Baseball mourned McGraw with an abundant admiration that might have shied the fiery manager. Babe Ruth said, “What, John McGraw dead! He was one of the three greatest baseball generals. I rank him with my late friend, Miller Huggins, and Connie Mack.” Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis said, “The man who first talked of ‘rugged individualism’ may well have had John J. McGraw in mind, for nobody was ever further removed from the commonplace than he. I can think of no man whose name was more universally associated with the virile competitive spirit of baseball than McGraw. To me his death is a personal affliction.”
McGraw’s players soaked up baseball knowledge like a sponge, cultivating an invaluable approach. Bill Terry, the Giants manager, said, “The man who made the Giants stand for what they do is gone, but his code lives on. It was under McGraw that I learned what I know about baseball and I will try to carry on and teach the same things to those who never had the chance to benefit directly from the greatest manager baseball has ever known.”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 15, 2014.
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