Replacing a Legend

Bill Terry

Bill Terry

When you ask someone to name the hardest thing to do in baseball, you get a lot of different answers. Frankly, if the person’s thought about it, it’s generally a decent reply. But one of the things you almost never hear is how hard it is to replace a legend. It seems to me that has to be one of the toughest things a player can be asked to do. All of which brings me to Bill Terry and replacing John McGraw.

Terry was born in Atlanta in 1898. He was a good ballplayer and got into his first big league game in late 1923 with the Giants. The next season he made the team at the start of the year as a backup first baseman and pinch hitter. The Giants made the World Series (against Washington) and Terry got into five games in the Series, hitting .429 in a losing effort. He managed to hit one home run. It came off Walter Johnson. By 1925 he was the regular first baseman. He hit well in the ’20s, peaking at .372 in 1929. He was also considered a superior first baseman and a knowledgeable baseball man. In 1930 he became the last National League regular to hit .400 (.401). He had some power, peaking at 28 in 1932 and enough speed to manage 20 triples in 1931. He was, in other words, a bona fide star; a star who didn’t like his manager.

Then in mid-season 1932, Giants manager John McGraw retired. Although it’s tough to argue against Babe Ruth as New York’s “Mr. Baseball” in 1932, John J. McGraw might have been a close second. He’d led the Giants to three World Series wins (Ruth would get his fourth championship as a Yankee in 1932), and several more pennants, including one in 1904 when no Series was played. And now he was stepping aside and whoever took his place would be instantly compared to him. With the Giants in last place (eighth), McGraw resigned and Terry, who appears, despite not liking McGraw, to have been McGraw’s choice, was tapped as the new manager. He got the team to sixth by the end of the season.

He built from there. His team won the National League pennant in 1933 and then took the World Series in five games (against Washington, thus avenging the 1924 loss). With Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell as team stalwarts, the Giants remained a force through the 1930s, winning pennants (and losing the World Series) in 1937 and 1938. By 1939 the Giants were aging and fell back to fifth. They were sixth in 1940 and fifth again in 1941, That was it for Terry. He moved, at his request, to the front office where he took over as general manager in charge of scouting and the farm system.

So we now get to ask ourselves, how did he do as a replacement for a legend? Well, he did pretty well. He won three pennants and one championship in six years. McGraw had won at about the same pace through 1924. His winning percentage was .555 to McGraw’s .581.

If it’s hard to replace a legend, and I think it is, Terry did a pretty good job of doing so over a decade of managing. He, like McGraw, made the Hall of Fame (although he’s in as a player and McGraw as a manager) and became one of the more important and famous Giants while the team was still in New York. He died in 1989.

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4 Responses to “Replacing a Legend”

  1. Steve Myers Says:

    there is the advantage of having nothing to lose. the thing that would mess me up is the comparisons. i would probably say something stupid like ‘an elephant can’t really be a canary’ and then they’d say ‘shut up and take left field.’

  2. Roger Melin Says:

    Appropriate article. Freddie Lindstrom expected that he would handle the reins of the Giants once McGraw retired, and he was somewhat surprised when Terry got the nod. Also – the two pennants following 1933 which the Giants won were in 1936 and 1937.

  3. wkkortas Says:

    You know, I thought maybe the problem was the McGraw had cut his teeth in the dead-ball era, and maybe he just couldn’t adapt, but the record doesn’t bear that out.

  4. Gary Trujillo Says:

    I have to thank John McGraw for for calling the Athletics team of the time “white elephants” which lead to the lovable mascot that we still cherish today.

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