McGraw’s managerial career began by happenstance in 1899. Orioles’ owner Henry Von der Horst also owned another NL club—the Brooklyn Superbas. With attendance declining in Baltimore, Von der Horst tried to move most of his star players to Brooklyn for the 1899 season. McGraw, citing his business interests in Baltimore—he owned a billiard parlor—refused to go. McGraw was permitted to stay as long as he became the team’s manger. At age 26, McGraw guided the depleted Orioles to a decent fourth-place finish with an 86-62 record.
The famous and feisty nineteenth-century Orioles disbanded when the NL contracted its membership from 12 to eight teams in 1900. After again refusing to report to Brooklyn, McGraw was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals. He signed for an eye-popping salary of $10,000—the highest in baseball history at that point. Proving to the fans he was worth every penny, McGraw hit .344 in 99 games.
Before signing with the Cardinals, McGraw smartly insisted the reserve clause in his contract be waived, guaranteeing his freedom at the end of the 1900 season. In 1901 McGraw returned to Baltimore as manager and part owner of that city’s franchise in Ban Johnson’s new American League. To say that Johnson and McGraw did not see eye to eye on most issues would be putting it mildly. Throughout the 1901 season and part of the next, McGraw and Johnson quarreled constantly. Johnson steadfastly supported his umpires in all their decisions. Conversely McGraw did not hold the AL’s men in blue in very high esteem. The bitter feud reached its inevitable pinnacle in July 1902: Johnson suspended McGraw from the AL indefinitely. Undaunted, McGraw simply jumped back to the NL as the player-manager of the New York Giants.
McGraw cleaned house upon arriving in New York City. One of his first acts was to release nine Giants despite the protests of Andrew Freedman, one of MLB’s most notorious meddling owners. McGraw also brought six key players with him, including pitcher Joe McGinnity, catcher Roger Bresnahan, and first-baseman Dan McGann. They provided the basis of a strong team. Although the Giants finished dead last in 1902, they rose dramatically to second place in 1903. McGraw’s much-injured knee finally gave out for good during spring training that year, effectively ending his career as a player at age 29.
McGraw’s authority as the Giants’ pilot was seldom questioned. “With my team I am an absolute czar,” he liked to say. “My men know it. I order plays and they obey. If they don’t, I fine them.” His players by and large respected McGraw because he was quick to defend them as long as they gave their all for the team.
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