A welcome encore

Monday Book Review

September 11, 1995|By John Goodspeed

MY 30 YEARS IN BASEBALL. By John J. McGraw. University of Nebraska Press. Illustrated. Index. 273 pages. $12.95. THIS IS the second reprint of a book first published in 1923 and credited to the baseball immortal, John J. McGraw (1873-1934) -- the first reprint appeared in 1974. McGraw is most widely remembered as manager of the National League New York Giants; he led them to 10 league pennants and three World Series victories. Provincial Maryland fans, though, can say they idolize him as the third baseman for the immortal Baltimore Orioles who won three American Association pennants in the 1890s -- or, if really serious, honor him as one of the proprietors of a Baltimore bowling alley called The Diamond where duckpins were first played in 1900. McGraw is believed to have named the sport because -- according to "The Home Team," by James H. Bready -- when hit, duckpins resemble ducks rising in flight.

Or you may admire McGraw because he married twice, both times to Maryland women -- Minnie Doyle and Blanche Sindall. Or maybe because he's buried in Baltimore. He was pretty immortal.

And yet, however, ingenious he may have been in sports or courtship, McGraw probably didn't write "My 30 Years in Baseball." His ghost writer, unmentioned on title or copyright pages, was "probably either John Wheeler or Stoney McLinn; both had ghosted for other baseball figures. . . ." according to the introduction to this new edition of the book by Charles C. Alexander, a baseball scholar at Ohio University and author of a McGraw biography. H. L. Mencken praised "My 30 Years in Baseball," whoever wrote it, and George Bernard Shaw called McGraw "the real and authentic most remarkable man in America."

The book, I will say, is a less ludicrous piece of ghost-writing than, for example, "Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball," originally published in 1928. Still, "My 30 Years in Baseball" is pretty dry and will mainly interest those fans who are interested only in the strategy, tactics and maneuvers of the game, because that's mainly what McGraw writes about (through his ghost, of course). For example, he pretty much takes credit for perfecting the hit-and-run play and the short throw used to thwart a double steal. He reveres place-hitting and sign stealing and all that tricky stuff. He does concede that Babe Ruth, just entering his prime in 1923, could sock a pitch into eternity, but McGraw prefers "inside" baseball to slugging matches and disapproves of the "lively" ball that allegedly replaced the "dead" one after World War I and the heyday of Home Run Baker.

The book says repeatedly that McGraw thought college men make better baseball players than "sandlot boys," but the greatest player of all time, in his opinion, was Honus Wagner (1874-1955), the Pittsburgh Pirates infielder, no collegian he.

When McGraw was strictly a player, he opposed the (now defunct) contract "reserve clause" that bound an athlete to one employer, but when he became a manager, he said it was the "backbone of the game." His book includes very little gossip about players' conduct off the field or the owners' greed in the front office.

What would McGraw think of today's mean baseball scene? He says in "My 30 Years in Baseball" that players should have a union, but the union should cooperate with the owners for the good of the fans and the game. Which, of course, is what almost everyone says. My guess, though, is that McGraw's heart would be with the players and his head with the owners. The fans and the game? They'll live.

John Goodspeed writes from the Eastern Shore.

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