Sports Collectors Digest: John McGraw/30 Years

By Marty Appel

The Giants world championship last fall, their first in San Francisco, had people recalling how few World Series this storied franchise had actually won over its long history. Even the great John McGraw, the team’s legendary manager, won only three World Series in his ten appearances in the post-season, which would surprise most people. McGraw was considered a genius in his field, and along with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, may have been the best known baseball figure of his time among the general public.

In 1922, when newspaper syndication was enjoying a burst of activity, McGraw agreed to tell his life story in a series of articles. According to his biographer, Charles Alexander, they were probably ghostwritten for him by Stoney McLinn or John Wheeler, who specialized in this stuff around the New York area. The articles were apparently well received, and in the spring of 1923, they were published in book form by Boni and Liveright, as “My Thirty Years in Baseball.”

McGraw was in good company here. Albert Boni and Horace Liveright had published the first books by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker and Hart Crane, as well as Theodore Dreiser’s “Am American Tragedy”, and books by T.S. Eliot and Bertrand Russell. McGraw, not the most literate man in the game, was elevated to a higher plane by this association.

Furthermore, the book included an introduction by George M. Cohan, the darling of Broadway, and since the Giants were the chosen team of the Broadway crowd (McGraw was a member of the Lambs Club, frequented by that group), it made a lot of sense.

This was a good time to write the book; McGraw had beaten the Yankees in both 1921 and 1922, all the games having been played in the Polo Grounds, and he was basking in the glory of two straight world championships against Ruth and Company.

The book is really a marvelous history of the game into the early ‘20s, with 50 short chapters offering his take on everything from college players (he liked them; “Usually they arrive quicker and last longer”), to the new Commissioner, Judge Landis, (“I am convinced that the greatest constructive baseball move of recent years was the placing of authority in the hands of a commissioner – and making Judge Kenesaw M. Landis that commissioner.”)

Now you might think an old goat like McGraw, who could be irascible, wouldn’t think much of college kids, and might have had his doubts about an outsider like Landis running the game. But the two endorsements say a lot about this book; it is very upbeat about almost everything baseball.

He did however, show some lack of admiration for Ruth, whom he had just beaten in those two World Series.

“I might say right here that we caught Ruth in one of his slumps and we did everything we could to make it worse for him,” he wrote. “He is a ball player of the freak type, that is likely to bust up a game at any moment. Nobody ever could hit a ball as far as he, and it was my business to see that he didn’t get hold of one. Under these circumstances that natural thing to do was to pitch him slow ones…..I signaled for every ball that was pitched to Ruth….I think ball players, as a rule, can do a more workmanlike job when they feel that someone else is taking the responsibility. Those who watched the games may have noticed that the catcher invariably turned and looked at the bench. I gave him the sign, which he in turn gave to the pitcher.”

McGraw talks about abandoning any plan to throw runners out at home on singles to the outfield, and instead, making it automatic that throws would go to the shortstop, who would whip the ball to second for an out. The singles hitters had become accustomed to heading for second to this point, knowing throws were going home.

“This play worked every time we tried it,” he writes. It was the birth of the concept of hitting the cutoff man on a regular basis.

McGraw provides a good first person history of the great Baltimore Orioles teams for which he played – with Hughey Jennings, Willie Keeler, Dan Brouthers and Joe Kelley, and also recounts his jumping the American League’s Baltimore team in 1902 and going on to manage the Giants, where his greatest fame would come. It led to the birth of the Highlanders (Yankees), who replaced Baltimore in the A.L. lineup.

Arno Press reprinted the book in 1974 as part of its “Popular Culture in America” series, and then University of Nebraska Press reprinted it in 1995, photocopying the original typeface and including the original photographs. McGraw would go on to manage until 1932 without winning another World Series. By then, he looked more like W.C. Fields than the blithe infielder of the old Orioles, but he remained a legend in the game, and for baseball fans, his memoir was a good read. The original edition is valued at $150-$200 today, and considerably more if signed by McGraw and Cohan.