John Joseph McGraw was in over his head.
The fiery future Baseball Hall of Famer had just signed his first professional contract — on April 1, 1890 — coaxing a deal out of Albert Kenney, who’d recently purchased a portion of a fledgling New York-Penn League team … in Olean, N.Y.
McGraw, who’d previously starred at the position under Kenney with his hometown Truxton Grays, wasn’t allowed to pitch. The latter didn’t think the boy’s curveball would fool professional hitters. He began the season on the bench. And when he finally did get his chance, on Day 3 as a third baseman, the outing was a nightmare.
McGraw, then just 17, committed a throwing error on the initial ball hit his way, the first of an astonishing eight in 10 chances on the day. He continued to struggle and, after just six days, was released by Kenney, who gave the youngster $70 and a parting message: “Good luck.”
Decades later, McGraw was still perplexed by his inauspicious start.
“For the life of me, I could not run to get it,” he recalled of that first fielding opportunity in Olean. “It seemed like an age before I could get the ball in my hands, and then as I looked over to first, it seemed like the longest throw I ever had to make. The first baseman was the tallest in the league, but I threw the ball way over his head.”
McGraw could hit, but his poor defense followed him, even after jumping to the big leagues, with the Baltimore Orioles, a year later. During his rookie season, he made 18 errors in 86 chances at shortstop.
Later, he made the decision to start spending his winters at the local college. It was here that McGraw truly began to transform himself defensively while sharpening the skills that would make him one of the winningest managers in MLB history.
IT WAS, without question, one of the saddest off-field stretches for the sport, and the museum where its biggest names are etched forever.
In total, seven Baseball Hall Famers — Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver — died in 2020, the most to pass in a single calendar year. A week into 2021, that unwanted trend only continued with the passing of famed Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who’s enshrined as a coach.
Each instance provided the same conflicting sentiments — the brief joy that came with recalling their greatness and the sorrow over the latest icon the sport had lost. They also, collectively, served as a reminder:
St. Bonaventure boasts not just one, but two, Baseball Hall of Famers: McGraw and Hugh Jennings. And they made their mark here together, while cementing their place as two of Baltimore’s original “Big 4” (alongside Joe Kelley and Willie Keeler), which helped the Orioles to a trio of National League championships (1894-96) just before the advent of the modern era.
McGRAW ARRIVED at Bona in the winter of 1892, trading his baseball mind and talent for the ability to attend school tuition-free.
He did this for the next four offseasons, rejoining the Orioles each spring, eventually bringing along Jennings, whom Baltimore acquired in 1893 and who supplanted McGraw at shortstop, leading the latter to making the permanent switch to third.
As player/coaches, near the field that would eventually bear their name, they helped set the foundation for Bona baseball. While at Bona, they also pioneered a couple of techniques that McGraw, specifically, would introduce in Baltimore, and quickly became fundamental aspects of the game.
The longstanding story is that McGraw and Jennings invented the bunt inside Bona’s Alumni Hall (later named Butler Gym). But that “fun fact,” unfortunately, isn’t true… the concept of the bunt had been around since the 1860s.
The pair did modify the bunt, however. And McGraw did originate what would become known as the “Baltimore chop.” Amid generally bad weather, the baseball team was often forced into Alumni Hall, where the tight quarters left little space for actual hitting. To compensate, McGraw had his players take half-swings while driving the ball into the ground, resulting in the high bounce that accompanies the “chop.”
And what was necessary for indoors became an effective approach outdoors.
AT BONA, McGraw helped to fine-tune the still-novel concepts of the squeeze play and the hit-and-run.
He’d then incorporate these strategies at the major league level, supplementing his already-natural ability at the plate — he was a career .334 hitter — and helping the Orioles become one of the better organizations at the turn of the century.
In 1895, McGraw spent just one semester at Bona, returning to Baltimore in mid-December, saying he was “exhausted” and leaving the coaching duties to Jennings. And while his time locally had come to an end, his impact on the sport was only just beginning.
McGraw eventually became a player/coach with both Baltimore and the New York Giants before taking a full-time spot in the NY dugout in 1907. He’d then go on to one of the most successful managerial careers in MLB annals, accumulating 2,763 victories (second most all-time behind Connie Mack and still the most in National League history) while winning three World Series (in 1905 as a player/coach, and 1921 and ‘22) until retiring in 1932.
Both players left an undeniable imprint on the game … and not always in the most welcoming of ways.
McGraw, just 5-foot-7, 155 pounds, was known for his quick temper (he held the record for most ejections until Atlanta’s Bobby Cox broke that mark in 2007) and bending the rules. Jennings, known for his hoots, whistles and chants of “Ee-Yah!” from the third base coaching box as manager of the Detroit Tigers, still holds the pre-modern day record for hit-by-pitches in both a season (51) and career (287).
Both, though — McGraw, who was part of the second Hall of Fame induction class in 1937, and Jennings, enshrined in 1945 — were among baseball’s standard-bearers in the deadball era.
And both came to Bona as a stepping stone for that success.