Truxton’s Baseball Legend

The John McGraw monument in Truxton. Photo by Mark Fleisher

Only 65 miles separate the Cortland County town of Truxton and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

In 1937, three years after his death, John McGraw completed the journey that began with his birth in Truxton on April 7, 1873 and ended with his induction into the Hall after compiling 2,763 victories and leading the New York Giants to 10 National League pennants and three World Series titles. Only Connie Mack’s 3,582 wins exceed McGraw’s total.

“There has been only one manager, and his name is John McGraw,” the legendary Mack said in praise of his rival.

McGraw was no slouch as a player, either. He compiled a .334 batting average over 16 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals and Giants.

Statistics do not begin to scratch the surface of this complex man who learned to play baseball on Truxton’s sandlots where a monument now honors his accomplishments.

McGraw was feisty, combative, pugnacious and authoritarian. He battled umpires and league officials, fought with opposing players and teammates and ruled with an iron hand.

Fans and sportswriters called McGraw “Little Napoleon” in public and “Muggsy” behind his back. “Muggsy came from that look he had,” says Town of Truxton historian Donald McCall. “He had that Irish strong jaw, that in-your-face look.”

As the Giants’ manager, he once fined a player for hitting a home run after missing a bunt sign. It matters little if accounts differ on the amount – $100 or $25, or the guilty player – Sammy Strang or Red Murray.

“With my team I am an absolute czar,” McGraw said. “My men know it. I order plays and they obey. If they don’t, I fine them.”

But if McGraw was quick to fine an offending player, he’d reward an exceptional play with a $100 bill. This many-faceted man could also be forgiving. He never blamed rookie Fred Merkle, whose base-running blunder ultimately cost the Giants the 1908 pennant, or Fred Snodgrass, who dropped a routine fly ball in the deciding game of the 1912 World Series.
Humble Beginnings
Truxton prospered in the years following McGraw’s birth. Three cheese plants processed milk from area dairy farms, a cheese box factory flourished, and cabbages, potatoes and other produce were shipped to New York City and other population centers.

“Most of the homes were large and many included servants’ quarters,” says McCall. “With the railroads came prosperity.  The first train that left here carried 80,000 pounds of cheese and 30,000 pounds of butter. Truxton was the most populous township in the county – just a handful of people – smaller than Cortland and Virgil.”

But the McGraw family did not share in the good times.

McGraw’s father, John William, was a Civil War veteran who farmed and later took jobs on the railroad and as a hired hand. “He worked on my grandfather’s farm,” says McCall. “He had a drinking problem but was a likeable fellow. My aunt Mabel, who raised me after my mother died, would tell how John W. taught her to walk. He’d hold an egg in his hand and say, ‘Mabel, come get the egg.’”

Young John couldn’t be blamed if he developed a fatalistic attitude early in life. His mother Ellen died in late summer 1883, soon after delivering her eighth child. Within a month, diphtheria killed three – some accounts say four – of John’s siblings. Later, a bout of malaria cost him 35 games of the 1895 season with Baltimore. A year later, he contracted typhoid fever in spring training and didn’t play until August. In 1903, an errant throw from Giants pitcher Dummy Taylor during a pre-game drill struck McGraw flush in the face, breaking his nose and damaging blood vessels in his throat. The injuries left McGraw with persistent breathing problems.

Tragedy also struck off the field. After the 1896 season, McGraw fell in love with Minnie Doyle, the daughter of a retired Baltimore government worker, and the couple wed in February 1897. The Orioles were on the road in August 1899 when McGraw received an urgent message: Minnie had developed complications following an emergency appendectomy. Four days later, she died of blood poisoning. Minnie Doyle McGraw was 22.

After Ellen McGraw’s death the family split up, with the children parceled out to family and friends. John delivered the Elmira Sunday Telegram newspaper that arrived via the Elmira, Cortland and Northern Railroad (originally the Utica, Ithaca and Elmira Railroad). He also worked as a “butcher boy” aboard the EC&N trains, hawking candy,  newspapers and magazines on the round trip from Truxton to Syracuse.

A Player with Promise
McGraw came to the attention of Truxton businessmen John O’Connor and Bert Keeney after starring for the neighboring East Homer team club. Keeney arranged a tryout with the New York-Penn League team in Olean and bankrolled the fledgling star with $75.

Stints in Wellsville, New York and winter ball in Florida and Cuba attracted attention from several scouts. McGraw signed a contract to play with the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles and made his debut as an 18-year-old shortstop in late August of 1891.

After playing sparingly the following season, McGraw’s career blossomed when he hit .321 in 1893, the first of nine consecutive seasons over the .300 mark. He spent most of his playing time at shortstop and third base, and became a star on a team that featured five other future hall of famers.

Baseball’s off-the-field maneuvering became complicated as the 20th century arrived. McGraw remained in Baltimore as player-manager in 1899, after the team was bought by owners of the Brooklyn Superbas. A year later, the National League recommended buying out the Baltimore franchise and three others, encouraging McGraw to organize a Baltimore team in the American League. But McGraw signed a contract to manage the National League’s team in Baltimore – still under Brooklyn control. When the Orioles were disbanded, Brooklyn traded McGraw to St. Louis, where he spent one season.

In 1901, he returned to the American League’s Baltimore team as manager and part owner, but after a mid-1902 clash with league president Ban Johnson over rowdiness, he accepted an offer to manage the National League’s New York Giants, recently bought by Indianapolis department store owner John T. Brush. The McGraw-Giants partnership would last nearly 30 years. (Johnson moved the Orioles to New York where they played as the Highlanders and then the Yankees.)

Despite this unsettled period in McGraw’s career, he found time to marry Blanche Sindall in January of 1902.

The Giants soon became a power, finishing second in 1903 and taking the National League pennant in 1904. But remembering their differences with American League president Johnson, McGraw and Brush refused to play Boston in the World Series. “Grafters,” said McGraw, describing the American Leaguers.

Peace broke out in 1905, and behind Christy Mathewson’s three shutouts in six days, the Giants won the World Series four games to one over Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.

McGraw became a man of the world, taking his Giants to Japan and England and learning to fly an airplane. He made cameo appearances in silent movies, including “One Touch of Nature,” a Thomas Edison Studios production and the lone McGraw movie to survive. McGraw maintained his role as baseball’s most recognizable figure until Babe Ruth captured the nation’s attention with his prodigious home runs and larger-than-life personality.

“John McGraw was a man’s man,” says McCall, “but he never forgot Truxton. He donated $800 in 1928 to buy the bleachers for McGraw Field, where local teams play. Whenever someone from town went to New York, McGraw would send his personal car to pick them up at the station. He’d put them up and get them the best seats in the Polo Grounds.”

McGraw remained at the Giants’ helm until mounting health problems forced him to turn the team over to first baseman Bill Terry midway through the 1932 season. “Muggsy” came out of retirement in 1933 to manage the National League in baseball’s first All-Star Game. Nearly eight months later on Feb. 25, 1934, McGraw died of uremia and complications from cancer at his New Rochelle home. Some 3,500 mourners crowded into St. Patrick’s Cathedral and onto Fifth Avenue to honor McGraw.

Honoring a Legend
If McGraw never forgot his beginnings, Truxton wanted to always remember its hometown hero. To raise money for a monument, town officials and the Giants scheduled an exhibition game at McGraw Field on an August off-day during the 1938 season.

Billed as the “Greatest Sporting Event in the History of Cortland County,” between 8,000 and 10,000 spectators paid $1.10 each to sit on bleachers provided by Cornell and Syracuse universities and watch the Truxton Giants score one run against the big league club that featured manager-first baseman Bill Terry, third baseman-outfielder Mel Ott and pitcher Carl Hubbell – all destined for the Hall of Fame.

Four years later, Truxton dedicated the monument on the sight of the sandlot fields where John McGraw took his first swings toward becoming a baseball legend.

by Mark Fleisher
Mark Fleisher is a former newspaper reporter and editor who freelances from his home in the Chemung County community of Big Flats. He has written for the Elmira Star-Gazette, Central New York Outdoors, Central New York GoodLife and the New York State Archives magazine.

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