One percent of ballplayers are leaders of men. The other 99% are followers of women.
—JOHN J. McGraw
McGraw's father, also John, was a dull man of no good luck. No wonder he couldn't understand his son's love for a silly game. Hardly had John Sr. emigrated from Ireland, circa 1856, than he was drafted into the Union army to fight a war he had no heart for. He married but lost his wife to childbirth. Broke, a widower, he migrated far north to the tiny town of Truxton, N.Y.
There he got a railroad job and married Ellen Comerfort. Their first child, John Joseph, was born on April 7, 1873. Ellen would bear seven more babies. The large family was rarely more than a meal ahead of hunger, so Papa John despaired when his oldest boy spent a dollar to buy a Spalding baseball or even a dime to purchase Our Boys' Base Ball Rules—not to mention when young John broke windowpanes playing the fool sport.
Then, in the awful winter of '84-85, diphtheria came to Truxton. Ellen Comerfort McGraw fell to it; so too did four of young John's brothers and sisters. Whatever thin thread connected the two Johns, father and son, was frayed by this horror. By that fall, when he was only 12, John had essentially left both home and school. Scratching out a living, he lived for baseball. By 16, although he weighed only 105 pounds, he was the star curveball pitcher on the town team. Six days before he turned 17, he signed a contract with the Olean, N.Y., franchise of the newly formed New York-Pennsylvania league.
Lord, did little Johnny McGraw grow up fast. He was playing ball out of the country, in Cuba, in January 1891; El Mono Amarillo, the Cubans called him—"the yellow monkey." In only three more years, barely 21, he would lead the Orioles to their first championship. He was their manager at 26, boss of the New Yorks at 29. When he became manager of the Giants, he was the highest-paid man in baseball. McGraw also became the highest-paid act in vaudeville in 1912, playing 15 weeks on the Keith circuit. Dressed in the fanciest morning suit, Muggsy came on stage after Odiva the Goldfish Lady and told baseball stories. For this he was paid three times what Matty had earned on the boards, pulling down $3,000 a week.
But he never forgot. Every dog Muggsy ever had was named Truxton. And every morning that he was home with Blanche, McGraw would prepare breakfast, then pat his dog and bellow, "It's Truxton against the world!"
There was a fundamental difference, though, between McGraw and most poor boys who escaped poverty through sport. McGraw saw beyond the outfield walls. He educated himself, stretched himself, always seeking to prove that he wasn't just some dumb shanty Irishman. Guess what the Giants players gave him after the 1916 season—the collected works of Shakespeare. Despite their vastly different upbringings, it was not only baseball that made Muggsy and Matty so close; they were intellectual equals.
No sooner had McGraw felt secure in Baltimore than he made a deal with Allegany College, near Olean, whereby he'd coach baseball in the off-season in return for academic courses. For three winters, while most players whored and drank, McGraw returned to Allegany (which would later become St. Bonaventure), teaching baseball fundamentals while he, the elementary school dropout, studied grammar, composition, history and math.
At a time when few Americans went abroad, McGraw was a world traveler. He returned to Cuba often. Following the 1896 season, McGraw led a party of Orioles to Europe. They returned as dandies in Prince Albert coats, silk top hats and other adornments of the sophisticated gentleman. In the off-season of 1913-14, the McGraws led a baseball contingent that included the Mathewsons on a 139-day journey around the world, returning on the Lusitania.
In 1924 the McGraws returned to England, where—ah, to be a fly on the wall—Muggsy met George Bernard Shaw. Enthralled, Shaw declared that he had "at last discovered the real and authentic Most Remarkable Man in America."