History remembers John Joseph McGraw primarily as the famed and ferocious longtime manager of the New York Giants. But as unrelenting as McGraw was as a manager during the first three decades of the 20th century, he had been even more unrelenting as a player in the 1890s. It was an era of dirty baseball, and the Baltimore Orioles delighted in being the dirtiest. The most pugnacious Oriole was McGraw, who played third base”the toughest of the toughs and an abomination of the diamond,” one sportswriter said.
McGraw was born in Upstate New York, the oldest of eight children of an Irish immigrant railroad worker. In 1884, when diphtheria swept through his village, he was a slight, eager 11-year-old whose proudest possession was a battered baseball he had been allowed to order from the Spalding catalog. He watched helplessly as, one by one, his mother and four of his brothers and sisters died. His father took out his grief and anger on his son, beating him so often and so mercilessly that at 12 he feared for his life and ran away from home. He supported himself with odd jobs until he won himself a place on the Olean (New York) professional team at 16and never again willingly took orders from any man.
Although he was short and weighed barely 155 pounds, he held far bigger base runners back by the belt. He blocked them, tripped them, spiked them. When they did the same to him, he was usually not one to complain. “Wed spit tobacco juice on a spike wound,” he remembered, rub dirt in it and get out there and play.” McGraw had a face “like a fist,” one reporter wrote, and he saw nothing to be ashamed of in his style of play:
“We were in the field and the other team had a runner on first who started to steal second, but first of all he spiked our first baseman on the foot. Our man retaliated by trying to trip him. He got away, but at second Heinie Reitz tried to block him off while Hughie (Jennings)...covered the bag to take the throw and tag him. The runner evaded Reitz and jumped feet first at Jennings to drive him away from the bag. Jennings dodged the flying spikes and threw himself bodily at the runner, knocking him flat.
“In the meantime, the batter hit our catcher over the hands so he couldnt throw, and our catcher trod on the umpires feet with his spikes and shoved his big mitt in his face so he couldnt see the play.”