Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Old Ball Game

How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball

by Frank Deford

“[Deford] tips a journalist’s fedora, rather than a child’s cap, to one of the most remarkable pairings in sports history.” –Alan Schwarz, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date April 20, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4247-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

Frank Deford is one of our most beloved sports commentators, familiar to listeners of NPR and readers of Sports Illustrated. Now Deford retells the story of one of the most unusual friendships between two towering figures in baseball history.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Christy Mathewson was one of baseball’s first superstars. Over six feet tall, clean cut, college educated (at a time when only a tiny fraction of Americans had even finished high school), he didn’t pitch on the Sabbath and rarely spoke an ill word about anyone. He also had one of the most devastating arms in all of baseball. New York Giants manager John McGraw, by contrast, was ferocious. Nicknamed “the Little Napoleon,” the pugnacious tough guy was already a star infielder who, with the Baltimore Orioles, helped develop a new, scrappy style of baseball, with plays like the hit-and-run, the Baltimore chop, and the squeeze play. When McGraw joined the Giants in 1902, the Giants were coming off their worst season ever. Yet within three years, Mathewson clinched New York City’s first World Series for McGraw’s team by throwing three straight shutouts in only six days, an incredible feat that has never been surpassed by any pitcher and is invariably called the greatest World Series performance ever. Because of their wonderful odd-couple association, baseball had its first superstar, the Giants ascended into legend, and baseball as a national pastime bloomed.

The Old Ball Game
is a masterful chronicle of the early days of baseball from America’s most beloved sportswriter.

Frank Deford on why the 1905 season
is considered a turning point for modern baseball:

The 1905 World Series was really the first official championship. That the nation’s largest city, New York, qualified for the Series made it even more of a scintillating national event. There had been heavyweight championship fights that had attracted a great deal of interest in the past, but boxing, then as now, was distasteful to many citizens and banned in most states. In many respects, the Series of ought-five was the first entertainment phenomenon to captivate the whole sprawling country. After all, baseball was everywhere recognized as “the American National Sport.” Indeed, as immigrants piled into the United States, young boys in particular used baseball as the turnstyle to their new American identity. The showdown between the Giants and the American League champion Philadelphia Athletics–whom McGraw had earlier disparaged as a collection of “white elephants’–was telegraphed to anxious crowds who assembled across the forty-five states.


“[Deford] tips a journalist’s fedora, rather than a child’s cap, to one of the most remarkable pairings in sports history.” –Alan Schwarz, The New York Times Book Review

“The topic is a natural fit for Frank Deford, who hasn’t lost a thing on his literary fastball and is one of the best at humanizing sports that are driven by statistics.” –Sean Smith, The Boston Globe

“Vintage Deford, lively and learned and fun . . . He is especially deft at depicting forgotten athletes and their stories. It is a pleasure to get to read him again on such a subject. . . . Deford cuts all the fat from the story.” –John Eisenberg, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“The story of New York’s first great baseball team . . . is told with customary grace by sportswriter Frank Deford. . . .Deford’s wonderful book is both a colorful history of baseball and baseball culture in the first decades of the twentieth century and a joint biography of Giants manager McGraw and pitcher Mathewson.” –Bruce Dancis, The Sacramento Bee

“Deford’s dual biography is more than simply sketches of two starkly different personalities. It re-creates the early-twentieth-century period, explaining the mood of the country and the nascent stages of a game in flux.” –David Plaut, USA Today Sports Weekly

“One of our more melodious sportswriters . . . Deford is in command of this story, as much a piece of social as of sporting history. Characters are made real. . . . Deford writes with a cunning sparkle in his eye. . . . It’s Deford’s reach of baseball knowledge, its color and historical circumstance–all the minutiae that pile up into a grand and recognizable edifice–
that sets this one apart.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Frank Deford writes the kind of sentences that you find yourself rereading for the sheer pleasure of it. The Old Ball Game was never more fun, or more real, than it is in the pages of his marvelous book.” –Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four

“Frank Deford brings his hall-of-fame talent to the story of two of baseball’s greatest hall-of-famers–Mathewson and McGraw–baseball’s original ‘m and M” boys. By temperament, they could hardly have been more different, but the game brought them together, and together, their impact on the game was profound.” –Bob Costas, commentator, NBC and HBO Sports

“Deford’s mastery, like Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ late-inning maestro, demonstrates the most enviable traits associated with excellence in any field: it is smooth and effortless.” –Erik Spanberg, Creative Loafing

“Thank heaven for Frank Deford–or rather the person who talked one of today’s greatest sportswriters into doing a baseball book. . . . [He] has done a masterful job with his first effort on the grand old game. . . .Written with the deft touch and the huge vocabulary of a great author, The Old Ball Game is worth reading–twice, just to pick up all the details. Here’s hoping someone talks Deford into doing more baseball books.” –David King, San Antonio Express-News

“A breezily incisive look at the sport when it truly was America’s pastime. . . . The surprising similarities between today and yesteryear pulse through Game‘s narrative.” –Michael Roberts, Westword

“Deford does an excellent job of relating the story of Mathewson and McGraw and the excellence they forged with the New York Giants.” –Richard Weigel, Daily News (Kentucky)

“Baseball lovers and history buffs alike will delight in reading . . . [this] fascinating story. . . . Thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable. He is not only well-acquainted with the game of baseball in general but he is also highly conversant with the history of turn of the century American popular culture.” –Patricia D”Ascoli, Fairfield County Times

“Deford has a thoughtful eye for the details of a century past, but he also points out how much early 1900s baseball culture shares with today’s. . . . This lively volume offers great diversion for any baseball fan.” –Publishers Weekly

“Vividly rendered sports history; for all collections.” –Paul M. Kaplan, Robert C. Cottrell and Nathan Ward, Library Journal

“Throughout his long and distinguished career as the Secretary of Sport in the nation’s cabinet of letters, Frank Deford’s many admirers have hoped he might turn his attention to baseball. Now finally comes his vivid account of a seminal partnership between the All-American Boy, pitcher Christy Mathewson, and his Giants manager, the All-American striver, John ‘muggsy” McGraw. Their unlikely association suggests that in this country gentlemanly skill and brazen pluck were not competing qualities, but dual virtues required in tandem for a man get ahead on the ball field–and everywhere else. Deford imbues his account with signature skill and pluck of his own, displaying the shrewd cultural observations, the feel for Americana, and the exuberant, disarming prose that have made him an unmatched interpreter of games and the people who play them.” –Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Catcher Was A Spy and The Fly Swatter

“Frank Deford knows more baseball and writes with more graceful good humor than any man I know.” –Richard Ben Cramer, author of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life



A lthough neither one of them ever seems to have mentioned it for posterity, John J. McGraw and Christopher Mathewson must surely have first encountered each other on the warm after­noon of Thursday, July 19, in the year 1900, at the Polo Grounds in the upper reaches of Manhattan on an occasion when, as was his wont, McGraw made an ass of himself.

Inasmuch as people at that time were more correct and less impatient than they would be a hundred years later, that summer of 1900 was taken as the last year of an old century rather than the first of a new one. For purposes of symbolism this was good, for it wouldn’t be until two years later, in the genuinely new twentieth century, that McGraw and Mathewson would start to work together in New York, there to have such a profound effect upon their sport that they would raise it to a new eminence in the first city of the land, and then beyond, into Americana.

How odd it was, too, how much Mathewson and McGraw achieved together, for never were two men in sport so close to one another and yet so far apart in ilk and personality. Well, maybe that was why they were good for baseball, because they offered us both sides of the coin. Mathewson was golden, tall, and handsome, kind and educated, our beau ideal, the first all-American boy to emerge from the field of play, while McGraw was hardscrabble shanty Irish, a pugnacious little boss who would become the model for the classic American coach–a male version of the whore with a heart of gold–the tough, flinty so-and-so who was field-smart, a man’s man his players came to love despite themselves. Every American could want to be Christy Mathewson; every American could admire John J. McGraw.

Nevertheless, that midsummer’s day at the Polo Grounds, when the two young men first saw each other, it was not a formal meeting. McGraw might not have even noticed Mathewson, who was what was then called a ‘debutante” –a raw rookie, just arrived in the National League only a week or so beforehand. Still only nineteen years old, the pitcher had enjoyed an absolutely spectacular tenure at Norfolk in the Virginia League. There, in barely half a season, he had won twenty games while losing only two. The Giants had paid the princely sum of fifteen hundred dollars to purchase young Mathewson, but his initial appearance two days previous, on Tuesday, July 17, had been an abject disaster. At Washington Park in Brooklyn, against the defending champion Superbas, he was sent in to relieve Ed Doheny who, according to one unforgiving newspaper account, “hardly had the strength to get the ball to the plate.” Well, to give the devil his due, it was estimated to be 110 degrees down on the diamond. Notwithstanding, the last straw for Doheny was when he allowed a Brooklyn runner to steal third “while he was collecting his thoughts and looking for a breeze.”

Out went the call to bring in the “phenom” from the bull pen. Several reporters noted that Mathewson showed some speed, but alas, nothing else. In his first full inning, he gave up five runs. Altogether, in a bit more than three innings pitched, he hit three batters, threw a wild pitch, and allowed four hits while watching his woebegone teammates “go up in the air,” butchering various routine chances.

The latter was, however, standard procedure for the Giants. Of special note was the third baseman, “Piano Legs’ Charley Hickman, who set a season’s record for errors at the hot corner–ninety-one–a mark in ignominy that survives to this day. But then, the New-Yorks were an all-around terrible team, a “baseball menagerie,” in last place with a 23–43 record. Newspapers seemed to all but keep in type such headlines as: NEW-YORKS BEATEN AS USUAL and SECOND CLASS BASEBALL IN HARLEM. Indeed, Mathewson had been given a choice by the Norfolk owner–who also had offers from Philadelphia and Cincinnati for his young star–and Matty had chosen New York precisely because the Giants were so weak. Indeed, so dreadful was the team that few observers could bring themselves to call such diamond pygmies Giants. More often they were referred to as the “Harlemites,” in recognition of their locale, or the “Tammany Hall team” in honor of their owner, Andrew Freedman, who was an important operative in that corrupt machine. Thus, while Mathewson had correctly concluded that his chances to play would be better in New York, the Harlemites were far worse and more star-crossed than he could possibly have bargained for.

Mathewson joined them in New York after the Giants’ return from a particularly disastrous western road trip. In St. Louis, one stalwart, first baseman ‘dirty Jack” Doyle, had even been arrested for assaulting the umpire while the “fair-minded spectators yelled ‘shame!”” The Giants were so riven with dissent that as soon as the team staggered back to New York, the manager, Buck Ewing, tendered his resignation. Freedman, the owner, thereupon chose as Ewing’s successor George Davis, the very player who led the clique that had refused to give their best for Ewing. Now, as the fresh-faced Mathewson arrived, much of the other half of the team quit on Davis.

Freedman himself was the most hated man in the sport, a distinction he had labored hard to achieve. Bill James, the baseball historian, refers to Freedman as “George Steinbrenner on quaaludes, with a touch of Al Capone.” Nobody could work for him. Davis was his fifteenth manager in six years. Hardly any “cranks’ (as fans were called till about this time) would travel up to Harlem to see Freedman’s team play. Attendance at the Polo Grounds was usually referred to as a “handful.” After being on the road for two weeks, only eight hundred showed up to see the team play its first game back, with Mathewson on the roster. The Tribune found even those sorts of numbers startling, calling Giant supporters “hoodwinked.” So the paper’s baseball reporter offered some explanation: ‘many strangers find themselves in New-York every day and some of them continue to wander up to this mismanaged institution at the Polo Grounds [where Boss] Croker unearthed “Andy” Freedman and permitted him to get the fingers of the strangler upon the throat of professional baseball” in New York.

Welcome to the big time, Mr. Mathewson.

On July 16, the day before his debut on the mound (or the “pitcher’s box,” as it was more commonly referred to), when the Giants played Brooklyn, Mathewson even got to enjoy his first baseball riot. Although the World was not impressed by the imbroglio, calling it “a touch of farce-comedy,” it had seemed sufficiently threatening for twenty-three of New York’s finest to have been called to the ballyard to protect the umpire. ­After all, ‘dirty Jack” Doyle had been released from the St. Louis hoosegow, and you couldn’t be too sure. Then, the very next day, Mathewson got shelled in his debut, where upon who should come to town but the St. Louis Cardinals. For reasons lost to antiquity, the New York sports writers enjoyed referring to the Redbird aviary as “the Terrors.” Well, perhaps it was all because of their bellicose third baseman, the luminous Mr. McGraw.

Ah, there one can imagine young Christy Mathewson before the game, sneaking a peek at McGraw as he came out onto the field to warm up. He may not have been easy to spot right away. Whereas Mathewson himself was a towering six-feet-two, McGraw was only five-feet, six-and-a-half inches tall; not for nothing would he be known as “The Little Napoleon.” He was pasty-faced, too, with light blue eyes–’slitty little cold, gray eyes’ someone who disliked him thought–but as a young man he offered up almost a sweet countenance in repose. He wore his coiffure fashionably swirled on the sides in what was known then as the “fishhook effect.” Not to put too fine an Irish point on it, but McGraw looked like a leprechaun without a conscience.

Probably, as Matty eyed him, ‘muggsy” was horsing around with Wilbert Robinson, “Uncle Robbie,” his pal and business partner from their days together in Baltimore. Still, if McGraw was hollering and razzing, as he usually was, Mathewson might not have heard him across the diamond. Muggsy didn’t possess a foghorn. Rather, as his wife remembered: “John’s voice was light and pitched rather high.” But, she added: “It was hairpin sharp.”

Mathewson, like so many young baseball players, held McGraw in awe. He had not only been one of the stars of the most glamorous team of the century, the Baltimore Orioles, but McGraw was both the soul and brains of that brazen outfit. A couple years before, as captain of his town team back in Pennsylvania, Mathewson had proudly used a stratagem that he had read that McGraw had dreamed up for the Orioles. “I worshiped him in those days,” Mathewson would write years later, “little thinking that I should ever know him; and it was beyond my fondest dreams that I should ever play ball for him.”

And here he was–the fabled ‘muggsy” McGraw–coming out to take batting practice on the same diamond where Mathewson cowered to the side, eyeing him. McGraw was, by then, probably the most famous athlete in America, his renown the measure of James J. Jeffries, the heavyweight champ. His fame had grown all during the Gay Nineties as he led the Orioles to three championships. He was still only twenty-seven, but had already lived life full. Not only had he spent a decade playing in the majors, he had become a successful manager as well. He was, too, already widowed, and had barely escaped death himself from typhoid fever. He had played ball in Cuba–”El Mono Amarillo,” they called him with delight: “the Yellow Monkey” –and had traveled to England and the Continent in style. On the town, where he often sallied forth, McGraw favored shirts and shoes from Cuba to go with one of his blue serge suits that every gentleman then wore all year round. He and his buddy Robinson were prominent Baltimore citizens, owners of the famous Diamond Caf”, where the sporting gentry of the Monumental City drank, ate, played billiards, and bowled midst handsome oak furnishings. Indeed, so successful was McGraw that when the Orioles franchise had been folded the year before, after the “99 season, he had pretty much called his own tune.

He deigned to go to St. Louis, with the portly Robinson–”his avoirdupois partner” –for only a one-year contract of ten thousand dollars, the highest in the game, and an unprecedented under-the-table arrangement that he and Uncle Robbie would not be bound by the game’s reserve clause. That is, once the season was over, the two gentlemen proprietors of the Diamond Caf” would be free to sign with whomever they pleased. Some McGrawologists figured Muggsy must surely have been angling to take the St. Louis manager’s job away from Oliver Wendell “Patsy” Tebeau, but McGraw laughed at that. In his own cockeyed scuffler’s style, he explained: “Why, I had more scraps with Patsy than any other man. As a result, we were close friends.” No, after the 1900 sojourn in St. Louis, Muggsy wanted to return to some team on the East Coast–ideally to a newly constituted Baltimore nine.

McGraw was still a whale of a player. In “99, even as he had also managed Baltimore, McGraw had hit .391. With St. Louis, although he was just going through the motions, he batted .344 for the 1900 season, leading off and playing third. And so here is young Christy Mathewson, in his first week in the major leagues, eyeballing the famous McGraw’s every move, and in the second inning–just the second inning!–Matty watches aghast as Muggsy throws a conniption fit.

Contemporary accounts don’t explain what upset McGraw so. We only know that it was a decision at first base. He alone appears to have taken umbrage. Nobody could figure out why. “It was apparent that the decision was imminently correct,” the Times assured its readers. Umpire Terry finally had enough, though, and ejected McGraw, a dismissal, observed the Tribune, “that seemed to dishearten the other members of the St. Louis team.” Indeed, with McGraw expelled, the Giants garnered a rare victory, beating the Terrors 8–3. Only then, in defeat, did the losers appear to come to life again “when they applied uncalled for verbal abuse to the umpire.”

So did Matty first encounter Muggsy. Probably, as he went back to his room at the Colonial Hotel on 125th Street, he wondered what possibly could have set McGraw off. But then, that’s the sort of thing Mathewson might have pondered often for the rest of his baseball life. Sometimes Muggsy just blew his top because that’s what Muggsy did. You never could be sure, though. Sometimes he would feign anger and get himself thrown out of a game early on so that he could go to the horse races. That might account for his actions on that particular Thursday, July 19, 1900. St. Louis was out of the pennant race, and the crowd at the Polo Grounds was a handful. The best umpires were on to his scam, though. One time in St. Louis when McGraw pretended to argue a call so vociferously as to get tossed so he could head over to the track, umpire Tim Hurst just smiled at him and said: “There ain’t a chance, Mac.” No matter how vile and animated Muggsy got with Hurst, the ump just grinned back. McGraw’s punishment was that he had to stay and play whether he liked it or not.

Anyway, two weeks after the Polo Grounds ejection, the ­Giants played in St. Louis. Matty had been rocked again in Pittsburgh the week before, giving up six runs in the first inning he worked in relief. Then, in St. Louis on Saturday, August 4, Mathewson actually pitched to McGraw. Although it’s unclear from the box scores exactly when he relieved ‘doughnut Bill” Carrick, he came on fairly early, and since McGraw got two hits in the game, at least one and maybe both came off the debutante. St. Louis won 9–8. If Mathewson had any consolation, he did get his first major league hit in this game, a triple. He was always a pretty fair-­hitting pitcher.

But unfortunately in 1900 he wasn’t much of a pitching pitcher. Manager Davis used him only three more times before the parsimonious Freedman sent Mathewson back to Norfolk so that the owner might get a refund on the deal. On the year with the Giants, Mathewson had no wins but three losses, giving up thirty-four hits, twenty walks, and thirty-two runs in thirty-four innings pitched. He grew terribly homesick living alone at the Colonial Hotel, and on the road nobody in either of the team’s two disputatious cliques seemed to have much time for the kid. By the end of the season Mathewson had decided that he was not good enough to make it in baseball. He considered a career in forestry or in the Presbyterian ministry, which is what his mother had in mind for him.

McGraw, too, could hardly wait for the “00 season to end. The Terrors finished tied for fifth, and as soon as the last game was played, McGraw and his advoirdupois partner were on the first train outta town, back to Baltimore, there again to greet their friends at the ­Diamond Caf”. As their railroad car crossed over the Mississippi River, Muggsy pulled down the window and he and Uncle Robbie chucked their St. Louis uniforms into the water. Already, McGraw had a pretty good idea of what other fish he would fry. By now he knew that there was going to be a second major league, titled the American, in 1901, and Baltimore was sure to get a franchise.

Meanwhile, Connie Mack, owner and manager of the new Philadelphia team in the upstart league, had heard good things about the debutante Mathewson and offered him a contract of fifteen hundred dollars. Mathewson, growing bold, asked for fifty dollars more, which Mack sent him as a cash advance. For now, forestry and preaching were put on the back burner. However, it would take a year and a half and considerable machinations more before Matty and Muggsy would be back on the field at the Polo Grounds, this time together, there soon to set the world on its ear.

©2005 by Frank Deford. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.