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Giants Among Men
Frank Deford
August 25, 2003
Exactly 100 years ago, Christy Mathewson and John McGraw rescued the woeful New York Giants and helped make baseball the true national pastime
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August 25, 2003

Giants Among Men

Exactly 100 years ago, Christy Mathewson and John McGraw rescued the woeful New York Giants and helped make baseball the true national pastime

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That was his last hurrah. Within two years, the Giants were in the cellar and Big Six was 8-14, and so, in the middle of the 1916 season, with Cincinnati looking for a new skipper, McGraw traded Matty to the Reds as a player-manager so he'd have the opportunity to lead a team, a chance he wouldn't have gotten with the Giants.

Mathewson cleaned out his locker and bid goodbye to McGraw. They'd been together 14 seasons. Matty started out of the clubhouse. No one said a word. Then he saw that a few of the men were playing cards. So he sat down, played one last hand and, without another word, put down his cards, stood up and left the New York Giants and Muggsy McGraw.

He is the incarnation of the American national sport.... There is no man in American baseball more coldly, cruelly commercial than John J. McGraw, manager and magnate, and no man more selflessly engrossed in the games sake than Muggsy McGraw, baseball artist.

After Mathewson departed, McGraw quickly rebuilt the Giants. They won the pennant in 1917 but lost in the World Series. They won the pennant again from 1921 to '24 and the Series in '22. He should've quit then. He hadn't aged gracefully, and drinking had begun to get the best of him. Were you drunk? he was asked after he beat up an actor at the Lambs' Club. "I must've been," he said, "because I never fight unless I'm drunk." Well, that was not quite so. After a game in 1917, in Cincinnati, cold sober, he punched an umpire and avoided arrest only because Matty, as the Reds' manager, interceded with the police.

In his younger years people who'd known Muggsy only as the pugnacious player and manager had been amazed at how gentle he could be off the field. "He was quiet-spoken, almost disarmingly so," Branch Rickey said. As the years passed, though, Muggsy grew tiresome, convinced that he had all the answers. Not entirely with humor, he remarked, "I'm sort of a permanent fixture, like home plate and the foul pole." And he suffered the fate of so many old-timers, deciding that the past—his past—was best. "The men don't get out and fight for the games like they used to," he groused. "That's what's wrong with baseball."

Baseball had, of course, changed. The Yankees were now New York's team, but it is instructive that McGraw adapted, winning those four pennants in Ruth's lively-ball era. Often Muggsy was in pain. He never recovered from that Dummy Taylor throw in 1903. His sinusitis plagued him, especially in the spring, when it was aggravated by allergies. He'd sit in the dugout sneezing and coughing, sweating profusely. Often he had to manage from the clubhouse by phone. But he wouldn't quit until '32.

Muggsy was just short of his 61st birthday, in 1934, when the world finally bested Truxton. At St. Patrick's Cathedral, on a bitterly cold February morning, he was laid out in a mahogany casket, holding a crucifix. The place was packed, just as in the grand old days at the Polo Grounds, when he and Matty and baseball were still young.

If baseball will hold to the ideals of the gentleman, scholar and soldier, our national game will keep the younger generation clean and courageous and the future of our nation secure.
TRIBUNE, OCT. 9, 1925

After Matty's second full season with the Reds he went off to fight in France. He had accepted a commission as a captain in the Chemical Warfare Service. Other baseball men in it were Ty Cobb, George Sisler and Rickey. Nothing went right for Matty. He was violently seasick crossing the Atlantic and also came down with the flu, arriving in France deathly ill.

There he participated in a drill at Chaumont. In the gas chambers Matty was one of many soldiers who failed to snap on their gas masks in time. There was a "hopeless tangle" in the panic to escape into fresh air, Cobb wrote. "We weren't fooling around with simulated death when we entered those gas chambers. The stuff we turned loose was the McCoy." Mathewson survived, wheezing and congested. "Ty," he told Cobb, "I got a good dose of that stuff."

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