The John McGraw Problem

John McGraw with the Giants

John McGraw with the Giants

I’ve mentioned before that I’m having a problem with John J. McGraw (as did a lot of his contemporaries). He is eligible for my personal Hall of Fame that I’m noting on this blog but I’m not quite sure how to deal with him. Let me take some time and explain the problem in more detail.

My next class of  My Own Little Hall of Fame will be the class of 1912. It’s the first one that McGraw is eligible to enter. He would enter it as a player, not as a manager (he has 20 years of managing left). His playing career is stellar, but flawed. McGraw’s career begins in 1891 and continues for 10 years. After 1901 he plays a handful of games (peaking at 55 in 1902 and not more than 12 in any season after that) through 1906. Those years he is primarily a manager who inserts himself into the lineup occasionally, so the heart of his career is 1891-1901, most of it with the Baltimore National League team. He’s a third baseman who hits pretty well and is a decent fielder for his era.

I’m giving you here his numbers as shown on Baseball Reference.com. They include modern stats that were unavailable to voters in a 1912 Hall of Fame election, but they should help explain the problem. His triple slash line is .334/.446/.410/.876 with an OPS+ of 135 and a Baseball Reference.com version of WAR at 45.6. He has 436 stolen bases, most under the old rules of stolen bases (taking an extra base on a single was counted as a stolen base) 836 walks, 155 strikeouts, 462 RBIs, 1309 hits, 1024 runs, 121 doubles, 70 triples, 13 homers, 1609 stolen bases. All this is 3924 at bats. His defensive WAR is 3.1 (again BB Reference.com version). Not bad, right? It’s certainly enough to insure that McGraw was an excellent player, probably the second best third baseman of the 19th Century (behind Deacon White).

But McGraw has two problems, one of which is reasonably common, the other almost unique to him. First, to put up the stats above he plays all of 1099 games. That’s not a lot, even for the shorter careers and somewhat shorter seasons of the era. In the 11 years that make up the heart of his career (1891-1901) he plays 100 or more games only five times and is in the 90s twice. He averages (1891-1901) 92.7 games a season. If you look at his numbers that means he’s doing really well, but it’s such a small sample size that you begin to wonder just how good he was as a player. He’s essentially done as a player at 28, which is young even for the turn of the 20th Century era. It’s difficult to see him as more than a good player who can’t stay in the lineup. Does that make a Hall of Fame player? Frankly, I don’t think so.

But now we deal with the second problem, what I call “The John McGraw Problem.” In 1912, McGraw is probably one of the three most famous baseball personalities in the sport. Only Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson rival him in press coverage and popularity. Walter Johnson is just coming into his own, Cy Young is retired, even Honus Wagner doesn’t seem to garner the press that McGraw gets. Much of that is because McGraw is in New York, the media capital of the US in 1912. Even writers who don’t particularly like him, admire him. He, in many ways is the face of baseball in the era. He even does a movie (actually two). That’s not unusual, a lot of players did that, but most played ball players. McGraw, in 1914, plays a detective (see the IMDB for info if you’re interested–I’ve never been able to track down a copy of the flick.).  And that’s the problem with him. He’s so famous as a manager that his playing time doesn’t seem to matter at all. My concern is that voters of the age, seeing his name on a ballot, might vote for him because he’s John “By God” McGraw and John “By God” McGraw ought to be in the Hall of Fame.

What do you do with that? Right now I’m not sure. I know I have the ability to wait until the 1930s and add him in when he retires, but I also know that I’m not doing due diligence if I do that just because I’m aware I can. I’m going to have to take a flyer here.

This isn’t a plea for your advice or aid, I’ve gotten myself into this quandary and need to get out of it by myself. I just wanted to let you know what’s going on with McGraw. As with a lot of his contemporaries, I’m finding myself muttering, “Curse you, John McGraw.”

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7 Responses to “The John McGraw Problem”

  1. Miller Says:

    Because you’re not requesting advice, I won’t give you any. I will say that Ned Williamson and even Ezra Sutton could be in the conversation behind Deacon White.

    To me, McGraw isn’t a very strong selection as a player if you’re a small Hall guy. However, if you’re a big Hall guy or just a feel guy, a real argument could be made. The tension of deciding what to do in these situations is where all the fun is.

    Good luck!

    • verdun2 Says:

      Actually I wouldn’t disagree with either Sutton or Williamson as the men directly behind the Deacon. I could also see a case for Jerry Denny or Arlie Latham, although I’d be very careful before I chose either of them. Honestly, it isn’t that strong a position.
      Thanks for reading.

  2. Gary Trujillo Says:

    “Popularity of era” is a part of becoming a HOFer…that is why Mark McGwire should be in there. PED’s or not, he was a HUGE part of those 90’s Athletics team that people love and will talk about forever. Not to mention the class he showed to Roger Maris’ family. (who was vilified as well by the fascist MLB brass.)

    Tim Raines?..let’s get real…his stats are solid and then he becomes sort of a hanger-on and a non entity. No one cared outside of Montreal. It’s all about IMPACT, era and the impact of that specific era.

    Things are becoming a bit strange in the baseball world, and I’m starting to see a lot of followers who have no ideas of their own, idiotic “statistics” and just overall madness. The idiocy and self-righteousness is confusing. Let’s hope the future generation gets it right.

    • Miller Says:

      But what has more impact, Gary, actual greatness or the perception of greatness? Raines had tremendous impact, even if he wasn’t appreciated at the time.

      (By the way, I support both Raines and McGwire for the Hall. For me, both had enough impact).

  3. wkkortas Says:

    I suppose it may matter on what percentage of the equation the fame part of the Hall of Fame you think holds sway for your voters at this time, V. McGraw, I would think, is going to be enshrined one way or the other–he’s certainly famous enough to go now, even though he’s got six more pennants and to WS wins to go.

    One little aside…McGraw is from the metropolis of Truxton, New York, which is quite close to where I once lived. There is a small monument dedicated to him in the hamlet. The funny thing about it is that it’s situated on an evil hairpin curve on a state highway where big trucks roll by it constantly (not to mention winter can get pretty evil in those parts), and it’s never been so much as grazed by a vehicle. Don’t tell me that Muggsy ain’t got juice.

    • verdun2 Says:

      I’m actually leaning toward the “fame” part in dealing with McGraw, but sometimes I like to think aloud (which is kinda what this post is) and see if that helps clear up the issue.
      Love to hear about the monument.
      v

      • wkkortas Says:

        As another pointless aside, I believe McGraw is the Hall of Famer born closest to Cooperstown; Truxton is just under 70 miles from the Hall, so he noses out George Davis and Johny Evers by a half-dozen miles or so.

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