The Ghost of John McGraw

Had the ghost of John McGraw been magically transported to Game Two of this World Series last night in San Francisco, he would have at first seen much that would have bewildered, outraged, maybe even frightened him, though he sure didn’t scare easily in life.  A thousand questions and confounded thoughts would have flashed through the hard-headed old manager’s mind in an instant.

Jaysus, where am I?  My Jints are in white, playing at home, but what have they done with the Polo Grounds and Coogan’s Bluff?  What in God’s name is that huge ball glove doing there in the stands, and that giant Coke bottle?

Why are the players allowed to have such long hair and wear beards? Christ almighty, what is this, the goddamn House of David against some gobshite Doukhobor outfit?  Are these impostors? Why, even the Giants’ manager needs a shave, he looks like a dim-witted bum….  I can’t believe they have that lunatic with the ridiculous fake beard as their mascot, we used to have a crippled midget.

Sweet Mother of Jesus, what are those dark fellas and Caribbeans doin’ on the field in uniform?  Don’t tell me they allow them to play now….  both the third basemen and Detroit’s first sacker are just as fat as Cupid Childs or Larry McLean were, some things never change.

And the field, it’s so level and bright, so tidy and manicured! There’s no mud puddles or patches of weeds, I wish we could have played on one like it, we might have caught the ball better, won some more…..

Would you look at the size of those gloves, they’re like feckin’ lobster traps, no wonder they field so well.  And the rest of all that shite they’re wearin’ – Christ, the catcher looks like he’s gonna go deep sea diving.

What are they doin’ with six of those shit-heel umpiries?  We made do with one or two of the bastards!

And a whole lot of other things that would have shocked the pugnacious Muggsy to death if he weren’t already gone.

Once the game itself got rolling though, as it was played between the lines last night, the baseball, oh the baseball… he surely would have recognized that and loved it. The pace and style of play, the tactics and outcome of the game would have fit nicely into the first Series McGraw ever managed the Giants in, against the Philadelphia A’s in 1905. The smothering, dominant pitching, the taut and alert fielding, the paucity of hits, the execution of fundamentals (Gregor Blanco’s bunt, the beautiful, killing relay of Gerald Young’s double from the outfield to home to just nip Prince Fielder at the plate), the low-scoring minimalism of it all would have been familiar and warmed the cockles of his black and profane Irish heart.

McGraw valued toughness above all else and although he fiercely hated the opposition, he would have begrudgingly tipped his hat to that right-handed Fister kid pitching for the Tigers, who took a hard liner off the back of his noggin in the second inning – the ball must have bounced forty feet straight up in the air – but he didn’t even go down.  The kid seemed to be OK afterward, he walked a guy right away, but then retired twelve straight batters.  And God, he had great stuff, speed and poise; the only trouble was the canny Giants’ hitters worked him hard for a lot of deep counts, made him throw 114 pitches in just six innings to knock him out of the game.

And the southpaw hillbilly kid pitching for the Giants, with the funny name – Bum-something or other – he was even better.  He lived off high heat all night and some ungodly breaking stuff, fanning eight and walking just two, while throwing only 86 pitches through seven innings.  That’s efficiency for you, only about twelve per, but playing under McGraw the kid would have finished the job, in his day they didn’t have all those pitchers sitting around in those cage contraptions with the mounds, out past the outfield fences.

Above all, McGraw would have been proud of the almost severe way the Giants scratched out their two runs with smarts and the execution of fundamentals like the sacrifice, the hit-and-run, the bunt, the stolen base, keeping the pressure on by working the count and drawing walks.  Everyone calls it small ball now, but he would have called it “inside baseball.”  He learned it playing third base for manager Ned Hanlon during the 1890s with the old Baltimore Orioles of the National League,  with Hughie Jennings, Wee Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson and others.  He perfected it as a manager when he took over the Giants in 1902, though they had to tone down the dirty stuff more than he liked because people seemed to prefer the cleaner baseball ushered in by Ban Johnson and his pantywaist American League.

He would have roundly applauded the Giants’ manufactured run in the seventh, without an RBI being credited.  Hunter Pence led off with a single off reliever Drew Smyly, followed by a walk to Brandon Belt and  Blanco’s perfect, cagey bunt, which rolled slowly up the third base line and refused to go foul as the Tigers stood around staring at the ball, willing it to.  McGraw would have loved this most of all, this home-field advantage doctoring of the field and baseline, the gamesmanship of it and the fact the Tigers fell for it, the saps.  With the bases now loaded, shortstop Brandon Crawford hit into a double-play to score the run – two outs and no RBI, but the all-important lead was theirs.

They extended this in similar fashion in the next inning by scoring an insurance run without a hit – three straight walks and a sac fly by Hunter Pence, 2-0 Giants.  Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo each pitched an inning of zeroes for the Giants and that was all she wrote, the ballgame was over, with Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in baseball, helplessly looking on in the on-deck circle.

Looking at the game through the fanciful, back-to-the-present prism of John McGraw’s eyes helps us to realize that although baseball has changed over the years in many ways – some small, some significant – it has also remained, in its fundamentals, essentially the same for well over a century. Yet it has also evolved to the point where on successive nights, using the same basic framework of rules and dimensions, baseball can offer up the stark contrast between Game One’s home run fest, and the tight minimalism of Game Two.  And an endless range of shades between these extremes, a time-warp panoply of surprise and drama, order and absurdity.  This rich capacity to delight us in so many unexpected ways, so well captured by Yogi Berra in his celebrated quote, “In baseball, you don’t know nothin'”, is what makes baseball the greatest game of them all.


© 2012, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

1 thought on “The Ghost of John McGraw

  1. “…on successive nights, using the same basic framework of rules and dimensions, baseball can offer up the stark contrast between Game One’s home run fest, and the tight minimalism of Game Two. And an endless range of shades between these extremes, a time-warp panoply of surprise and drama, order and absurdity. This rich variety and capacity to delight us…”

    Kind of like jazz, isn’t it? All of it good by the same band, with the same tunes; Tuesday night, fine. Wednesday night (the one you didn’t record) just fecking amazing, with the rhythm section locked in and every horn player inspired and inspiring. Then, Thursday, fine. But all of it “…is what makes baseball [jazz] the greatest game [music] of them all.

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