In 1927, when John McGraw completed his 25th season as manager of the New York Giants, he was paid a signal tribute by Connie Mack, who said. "There has been only one manager, and his name is John McGraw." Almost half a century after McGraw's retirement in 1932 and his death at 60 two years later, Mack's assessment holds. "John McGraw" is still synonymous with "manager."
McGraw, who began managing with Baltimore in 1899, attained celebrity after taking over the Giants in July 1902. In the ensuing 23 seasons his teams finished first 10 times and second nine. He became the dominant personality in the game, delighting some baseball people and appalling others. He abused umpires, berated players, feuded with owners, behaved paradoxically. The first World Series was played in 1903, but when McGraw won his first pennant in 1904, he petulantly refused to meet the American League champions because, he said, the relatively new American circuit was still "minor league." He lost the 1908 flag to the Chicago Cubs only because of the famous "bonehead" play by rookie Fred Merkle who, running from first base with two outs, didn't bother to touch second after a clean hit had scored the winning run from third. This was common practice then, and the game seemed over. But after an appeal by the Cubs, Merkle was officially called out. The game reverted to a tie and had to be replayed; the Giants lost the replay and the pennant. McGraw, renowned for his short temper and abrasive tongue—"You could hear him all over the park cursing his players out during a game," said Bob Shawkey, the old pitcher—was enraged by the loss but he never once blamed Merkle. Nor did he criticize Centerfielder Fred Snodgrass for dropping an easy fly in the last inning of the 1912 World Series to help turn an apparent Giant victory into a defeat. "Errors are part of the game," he'd say, though sometimes adding, "but make too many of them and I'll get rid of you." Snodgrass was a first-rate outfielder, and McGraw gave him a raise. "He was a great man," Snodgrass later told Larry Ritter in The Glory of Their Times. "Really a wonderful fellow."
Not always. Once, in a clubhouse meeting, McGraw sneered at Larry Doyle, his star second baseman, and said, "Look at him, the miserable yellow thing, the captain of my ball club." Yet when McGraw finally traded him, Doyle was distraught, and he's still remembered for saying, "It's great to be young and a Giant."
McGraw, born and raised in rural upstate New York, reached the big leagues in 1891 as an 18-year-old infielder with the Baltimore Orioles, who under the astute managing of Ned Hanlon were the most devastating team of their era—and McGraw's finishing school. From Hanlon he learned organization, authority, motivation; he never forgot the way the Orioles both feared and respected their manager. From his teammates he learned—and helped to refine—the tactics that became the crux of "inside baseball"—a tight, efficient defense and a smart, fast-running offense built around the bunt, the steal, the hit-and-run and the squeeze Play.
To these ingredients he added absolute control of his team on the field. Signals to fielders and batters had been employed before, but not to the extent that McGraw used them. He called pitches, moved fielders, sent base runners, guided hitters. "On this team," he said, "with first base occupied it is almost mandatory that my batter hit to right field.... I permit no deviation from instructions." In 1905 a part-time player named Sammy Strang had instructions to bunt but saw a fat pitch, swung away and hit a home run. McGraw fined him $25: "I permit no deviation from instructions."
Later on, according to Snodgrass, McGraw rarely used signs. "We were supposed to know how to play baseball," Snodgrass said, "and we were expected to do the right thing at the right time." Al Lopez, who caught against McGraw's Giants and was later a longtime manager himself, said, "When you played McGraw's teams, you always knew that you were playing the best. You could feel his hand everywhere."
Some felt it too heavily. Edd Roush, an even better outfielder than Snodgrass, said, "I didn't like John J. McGraw. I didn't enjoy playing for him. If you made a bad play, he'd curse you out, yell at you, call you all sorts of names. When he traded me, I couldn't have been happier."
But Burleigh Grimes, a successful major league pitcher for 10 years before he joined the Giants (he had won 20 games or more four different times), said. "Sure McGraw was a strict disciplinarian, but he played the best baseball. He was a slasher. He'd run on you, play hit-and-run, suck you in for the bunt and then hit by you.
"I worked for McGraw for only one year, but I learned more that season than in all the years before—or since. The science of pitching look on a new meaning. 'Burleigh,' he told me, 'don't let them hit behind the runner all the time,' and he showed me how to use my curve to get righthanded batters to pull the ball to the left side. Balls hit to the left side with men on base meant more double plays and fewer runners advancing from first to third on singles, and that meant fewer runs for them, which meant more victories and more money for me. I ended up winning 270 games in my career, but if I'd known earlier what McGraw taught me, I could've won 300. He was the smartest man I ever played for."