Think about baseball the way the game is played today. Yes, in some ways it’s the same game that’s been played for well over a century. But many of the tactics and approaches to baseball that we take for granted today weren’t around back in the 1800s. One of the greatest trailblazers in baseball history who had a hand in creating the modern game we enjoy today was a man named John McGraw. For those who don’t know, McGraw is one of the most influential people in baseball history, as well as one of the greatest third baseman and managers the game has ever known.
“There has been only one manager – and his name is McGraw.”
As a player, McGraw was someone you’d love to have on your team and someone you’d love to hate if he was on the opposing team. Standing at just 5’ 7’’ and 150 lbs., no major league team today would give him the chance to man the hot corner. But in his day, McGraw was one of the best there was. Across 16 big league seasons, he had a career batting average of .334 with 462 RBIs and 436 stolen bases. His on-base percentage of .547 in 1899 has been topped less than a handful of times in baseball history.
During the 1890s, McGraw played on a Baltimore Orioles that were revolutionary in their baseball strategy. They were trailblazers in how they utilized bunting as a way to get on base and move runners. The club was also among the first to utilize the hit and run. Moreover, the Orioles teams of that decade were described as ruthless, looking for any way to gain an advantage, something that perfectly encapsulates McGraw.
Baseball historians note that McGraw mastered the rules of baseball so that he could find loopholes that could give him an edge. He would purposely foul off pitches as a way to tire out pitchers and find his way on base via the walk. It doesn’t sound like a big deal in today’s game, but back then it made McGraw unique.
As a manager, he was equally groundbreaking. He was one of the first managers to argue with umpires as a method of intimidation. He challenged umpires the way few did, playing a role in baseball eventually placing an umpire at every base. McGraw also earned himself 131 ejections over the course of his career, 118 coming as manager, a major league record that stood until former Braves manager Bobby Cox broke it in 2007.
McGraw was also far ahead of his time in his treatment of players on and off the field. On the field, he was one of the first managers to utilize relief pitchers in save situations. Off the field, he installed curfews on players and would personally check that they were abiding by them. McGraw would also monitor the eating habits of his players and critique their diet if necessary, a common practice today, but not in the early 1900s.
“I have seen McGraw go onto ball fields where he is as welcome as a man with the black smallpox. He doesn’t know what fear is.”
The combination of his fiery personality, “my way or the highway” approach, and advanced tactical maneuvers eventually earned McGraw the nickname of Little Napoleon. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was just 5’7’’. In more than three decades as a manager, including nine years as a player-manager, McGraw won 10 pennants and three World Series titles, often doing so with teams considered less talented than those he was competing against. He still has the second most managerial wins of all time, behind only Connie Mack.
McGraw’s time in baseball is deep in the past, but his impact on the game can still be seen today. He was a pioneer of many of the tactics and strategies used today. So while his name isn’t known by many nowadays, his contribution to baseball is undeniable.