It's that time of year again when life begins anew for the remaining fans of what used to be the national pastime. My late father-in-law, Robert E. Levy of Waco and before that Marlin, Texas, would visit every spring bearing stories about the New York Giants and their legendary player-manager and all-around resident genius John J. McGraw, his old friend.
The Giants had spent every spring in Marlin drying out, and Bob Levy still remembered their amusing themselves by shooting out the light bulbs on the marquee advertising the family hotel and resort. Mr. McGraw knew Mr. Levy well, too, for the first thing the young stockbroker did on arriving in New York in the fall of 1929 -- talk about propitious timing -- was to stop by the Polo Grounds to present Mr. McGraw's business card. The great player-manager soon appeared to escort him to a box seat and ask if there was anything else he could do for the young man he remembered as a boy.
John J. McGraw built his ball club on a then revolutionary combination of speed, daring and, of all things, intellect. They don't call baseball the thinking man's sport for nothing. Mr. McGraw changed the whole game in 1911 when his Giants won the pennant by stealing an astounding total of 347 bases, a record that has yet to be broken. The team he put together that year was as full of strange characters, sad stories and pathos as it was talent.
The star of the 1911 Giants had to be Christy Mathewson -- well-mannered and even-tempered as Mr. McGraw was rough and tough. A college graduate, a rarity in those days, he was the perfect opposite of the no-nonsense McGraw. To quote Maury Klein's just published chronicle of that championship season, "Stealing Games":
"For McGraw, baseball was all-consuming; Mathewson had other interests. He read widely and became so expert at checkers he could play eight opponents simultaneously while blindfolded. ... McGraw would do anything to win; Mathewson, for all his competitiveness, seemed a paragon of good sportsmanship." Remember that concept?
Then there was Bugs Raymond, who's hard if not impossible to forget, and McGraw's opposite in every respect -- a confirmed drunk whom Mr. McGraw did everything in his power to save from the ravages of drink, but all in vain. Sent to the bullpen to warm up in the seventh inning of a game against Pittsburgh, he simply disappeared when Mr. McGraw most needed his services. He would be tracked down at a bar around the corner, where he'd traded in his practice ball for a few drinks. The poor guy would finish the season playing semi-pro in Chicago, and was dead by the age of 30.
Bugs Raymond's pitiable story was matched only by that of the perfectly named Charley Faust, who showed up at the ballpark one day convinced he was going to pitch the Giants to a pennant that year. He didn't. But when McGraw tried to fire him, he refused to leave. And so spent the rest of the season in the dugout as a combination mascot, good-luck charm and all-around eccentric.
Outside the ballpark, one disaster followed another as the ballplayers almost expired in their heavy-duty flannel uniforms in the midst of a record-setting heat wave. One great fire came after the other in the sweltering city. The death toll: 221. Two days after the Giants had replaced the old Polo Grounds with a rebuilt ballpark, it burned to the ground. The streets of Manhattan were full of dead and dying horses, and the flies were dropping like, well, flies. John J. McGraw had changed the game, but not even he could change the weather.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.