For many years John McGraw was the dominant figure in American baseball. He was an excellent player – certainly the best ever to become a great manager – yet his success derived from more than athletic talent. He had a profound understanding of the game and was alert to all the opportunities each inning offered. “The main idea,” he always said, “is to win.”
His personality was indeed that of a “Little Napoleon”: arrogant, abrasive, and pugnacious. He outgeneraled his opponents while abusing them verbally and, sometimes, with his fists. His players suffered his tyranny as the price of victory, proud to be Giants. In his 29 full seasons as Giants manager he finished first or second 21 times, winning 10 pennants and three World Series.
McGraw’s rise to prominence was swift. A scrawny youngster from Truxton, New York, he began his professional career at Olean (New York-Penn League) in 1890 and within a year had jumped to the American Association‘s Baltimore club. When the American Association collapsed after 1891, Baltimore was absorbed into the National League and McGraw became a member of the soon-to-be-legendary Orioles.
Although his ML playing career spanned 16 seasons, McGraw was at his best as Ned Hanlon‘s fiery third baseman in Baltimore, a star on a team that won three consecutive titles from 1894 to 1896. A lefthanded batter, he was an adroit bat handler who could hit for average, batting over .321 nine consecutive seasons. He twice led the league in runs and walks and stole 436 bases. He and Willie Keeler were experts at the hit-and run play.
McGraw was notorious for blocking, tripping, or otherwise obstructing the baserunners while the lone umpire watched the flight of the ball. Some say his shenanigans prompted the stationing of additional umpires on the basepaths.
There then began a period in which he successfully opposed the baseball “establishment” at every opportunity. Barely 26 in 1899, he refused to be shifted to Brooklyn, which the Baltimore club partially owned and wanted to strengthen. While manager Hanlon and five Orioles starters led Brooklyn to the championship in 1899 and 1900, McGraw and catcher Wilbert Robinson remained behind in Baltimore, where they owned a profitable saloon together. McGraw was named manager of the leftover Orioles and led them to third place. The Orioles were disbanded when the NL reduced to eight teams in 1900, and McGraw and Robinson were sold to St. Louis. They agreed to go only on the condition that the reserve clause be removed from their contracts, an unheard-of concession. In 1901 he became player-manager of the new American League‘s Baltimore franchise, but after frequent run-ins with league president Ban Johnson, a man as intractable as himself, he jumped in mid-1902 to the NL’s New York Giants.
McGraw brought Robinson, Roger Bresnahan, Dan McGann, and Joe McGinnity with him to New York, and found Christy Mathewson already there. With the ample financial resources of new owner John T. Brush, McGraw quickly turned a floundering second-division team into a contender, winning a then-record 106 games and the pennant in 1904. McGraw and Brush refused to allow the club to meet the AL champion Red Sox in the WS (the first Series had been played the year before), however. In 1905 McGraw’s Giants won a second consecutive NL pennant, finishing 105-48, and this time they did play the WS. They whipped the Athletics in five games behind Mathewson’s three shutouts.
McGraw’s managerial style was reminiscent of his antics as a player. He swaggered through every city in the league, battling opposing teams, managers, owners, umpires, and league officials. He had a genius for inciting crowds and the Giants quickly became the most despised team in the league, often dodging rocks and bottles as they left enemy ballparks. In 1906 McGraw arrogantly had “Champions of the World” emblazoned across the front of the team’s jerseys.
Strategically, McGraw favored the hit-and-run and disdained the sacrifice bunt. He had a sharp eye for playing talent and traded daringly, getting useful work from drinkers and neurotics other clubs had given up on. And with tips from his many friends in bush leagues across the country, he found bright young stars to replace fading older ones.
McGraw’s Giants won three consecutive pennants from 1911 to 1913, but lost the WS all three years, twice to the Athletics and once to the Red Sox. The 1912 WS featured Fred Snodgrass‘s famous dropped fly ball, which allowed the Red Sox to rally for two runs in the 10th inning of the final game. McGraw lost another WS to the White Sox in 1917, then rattled off four consecutive pennants beginning in 1921. By then, the Yankees were emerging as an AL dynasty, but the Giants beat their Bronx rivals in 1921 and 1922, before the Yankees returned the favor in 1923.
McGraw unwittingly hastened his own demise by urging wealthy Jake Ruppert to buy the Yankees, ushering in the Ruthian long-ball era. The Yankees quickly established themselves as the city’s dominant team, and the Giants were overtaken by the Pirates, Cardinals, and Cubs in their own league. In 1932 McGraw surrendered the manager’s reins to Bill Terry, retiring with 2,840 victories. He returned in 1933 to manage the NL squad in the inaugural All-Star Game.