McGraw was a survivor since childhood. His early experiences probably molded his outlook on life and baseball. The son of Irish immigrants, John Joseph McGraw was born in Truxton, NY on April 7, 1873. His father, John Sr., was a veteran of the Civil War. He was also a violent alcoholic whose rages against his children became worse after three of them and his wife died in a diphtheria epidemic during the winter of 1884-85. In the autumn of 1885 when John Jr. was just 12, his father administered such a severe beating on the boy that the youngster left home never to return. He was taken in by a kindly widow who ran a local hotel. For a few of his formative years she raised young John McGraw as if he were one of her own children. By his early teenage years, McGraw was independent enough to hold numerous jobs. Any extra money he earned was spent on baseball equipment and any publications pertaining to the sport that he could lay his hands on. America’s National Pastime quickly became McGraw’s passion in life—and always would be.
Making a career out of baseball was a natural progression for McGraw. At age 16, the scrawny McGraw stood perhaps 5’7″ and weighed barely more than 100 pounds. He was hardly an imposing physical specimen, but that did not stop him from becoming a capable pitcher for the local Truxton Grays. When Truxton’s manager, Bert Kenney, became a part owner and player-manager of the Olean franchise in the New York-Penn League in 1890, McGraw pleaded for a place on the team. Kenney obliged. In his first game, McGraw played third base horribly, making eight errors in 10 chances. Not surprisingly McGraw was released after six games, but he quickly caught on with Wellsville of the Western New York League where he batted .364 in 24 games.
One of McGraw’s Wellsville teammates was a former major leaguer named Al Lawson who was organizing a winter tour of Cuba. McGraw joined the tour and played shortstop for a team dubbed the “American All-Stars.” On the way home, Lawson’s team stopped in Gainesville, FL to play a spring-training exhibition game against the NL’s Cleveland Spiders. McGraw rapped three doubles in five at-bats. Fortunately for McGraw, that particular feat received national publicity when the game’s story appeared in The Sporting News. Offers for his services were plentiful. From among the resulting offers he received for the upcoming 1891 season, McGraw selected Cedar Rapids of the Illinois-Iowa League. He did well, batting a respectable .276 in 85 games as the club’s regular shortstop.
The major leagues were the next step up for the fiery McGraw. In August 1891 McGraw made his debut with the Baltimore Orioles, then of the American Association. He played various positions and hit .270 in 33 games. In 1892 the AA disbanded. Baltimore was absorbed into the 12-team National League. McGraw started the season as the Orioles’ utility man but took over as the regular third baseman after Ned Hanlon was appointed manager in mid-season.
Under Hanlon’s guidance, McGraw quickly became the NL’s best leadoff hitter. He batted .320 or better for nine consecutive seasons. Twice McGraw led the NL in runs and walks. Deceptively fast, McGraw stole 436 bases. Even the most scholarly baseball fans are often surprised to learn that McGraw’s career on-base percentage of .466 ranks third on the all-time list—only behind Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. When batting McGraw usually choked up on the bat and swung at the ball with a short, chopping motion that diminished much of his power, but he could place the ball virtually anywhere he wanted—the essence of the short game or “inside baseball” that he was so fond of using during his great managerial career. McGraw had absolutely no qualms about taking advantage of every possible situation when the opportunity presented itself. With NL games often overseen by just one umpire, the opportunities for underhanded shenanigans were plenty. One of his favorite subtle maneuvers as a third baseman was to subtly place a finger between a runner’s belt and his trousers to slow him up on a potential sacrifice fly. (In one game a cagy opponent unbuckled his belt—which ended up dangling from McGraw’s guilty hand.) “McGraw uses every low and contemptible method that his erratic brain can conceive to win a play by a dirty trick,” wrote one disgusted scribe. Be that as it may, McGraw was the linchpin in a superb Oriole team that won NL pennants in 1894, 1895, and 1896 and were runners-up in 1897 and 1898.
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