October 20, 2021

John McGraw’s youth documented in new book

Cortlandville author captures life of Truxton native and baseball Hall of Famer

Photos by Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

Tony Kissel of Cortlandville has just published “Young John McGraw of Truxton,” his second book on baseball.

People know about baseball Hall of Famer John McGraw as an adult.

But little is known about the Truxton native’s childhood, Tony Kissel said — how he grew up poor and lost his mom and three siblings within months of a mysterious illness in the 1880s.

Kissel, of Cortlandville, a baseball historian, just put out “Young John McGraw of Truxton,” self-published through Amazon KDP Kindle Direct Publishing. The book is a look at McGraw’s life from 1873 to 1889 while he lived in Truxton, before he left town to become a professional ball player, Kissel said.

It covers a few stories after that — like the 1938 benefit game in Truxton when the New York Giants played an all-star local team to raise money for the McGraw monument that is prominent in Truxton.

The book is available at the Amazon and Kindle website and at the Cortland County Historical Society, which will also have copies at its table this weekend at the Great Cortland Pumpkinfest. It is also available at Reakes Country Goods in Truxton.

Kissel, 67, is a substitute teacher in the Homer Central School District, after working for a number of companies in the area: Nestle, Marietta Corp., Smith Corona and Prudential Insurance Co. He grew up in Boston.

“When I was a kid, Boston newspapers had great commentary on baseball,” he said. Kissel, a Red Sox fan, soaked it up as a kid who wanted to be a baseball player. “I was OK … I have always been a fan,” he said.

He joined the Society for American Baseball Research to access baseball records and has also done extensive research on the Cortland Wagonmakers, Cortland’s only professional team, around 1900, said Jere Dexter, former sports editor at the Cortland Standard.

Kissel co-wrote “The Legend of Wild Bill Setley,” another baseball book, several years ago.

His book on McGraw grew out of a short story he wrote that won first place in 2008 in a Cultural Council of Cortland County writing competition.

“I always wanted to get more information on John McGraw,” Kissel said.

McGraw played with the original Baltimore Orioles in the late 1800s. “Rough and tumble guy. Very innovative as a third basemen and batter. Managed the New York Giants for 30 years in the early 1900s and was named the century’s best skipper,” Dexter said.

But as a boy, he had it rough.

“When he was 10, his grandmother died,” Kissel said. “Then he had his birthday. His mom had an eighth child. She died one month after giving birth to her eighth child. She had an infection in her abdomen. Within a month, three of his brothers and sisters died.”

“The town of Truxton thought they all had diphtheria. They quarantined the family. They lived a little bit down from Labrador Mountain, on Route 91,” Kissel
said. “Who knows what happened. … The family debated the cause for years. There were only a few other deaths that summer, but it was not an epidemic.”

It was either bad well water or the the town doctor my have gotten diphtheria from a patient before coming to the McGraw household, Kissel said.

After that, his dad had a tough time raising the children. When McGraw was a teen, he lived with a neigbor because his father couldn’t handle his mischievousness.

The teen delivered newspapers and his dad got him a job on the railroad, on the route from Truxton to Elmira selling snacks to passengers.

“He’d go up and down the railroad, all the way to Elmira. In Elmira, he would play baseball until the train came back,” Kissel said.

Kissel looked to the newspapers for sources, from the Cortland Standard to papers like the Cortland News, Homer Republican and Tully Times. He also took into account McGraw’s 1923 book, “My Thirty Years in Baseball,” as well as the Cortland County Historical Society archives.

“I also talk about the history of Truxton baseball games. They were popular, and they were really good for a 30-year period,” Kissel said, with baseball diamonds cleared from hay fields and hand-made bats and uniforms.

“They won the county championship several years. That was a big thing back then in Cortland County. The two best teams would play. And there was a lot of betting on the games, even by players and managers, he said. “If there was a game going on Saturday afternoon, usually there were hundreds and hundreds of people there.”

“It was a big thing here,” said Mindy Riha, Cortland County Historical Society director. “You had a lot of local teams. Truxton had a team. Smith Corona had a team. Cortland had a team,” she said. Local baseball was more popular than the pros.

People in the town of Truxton supported McGraw.

“He left quite a mark on the town. Everyone followed his career,” Kissel said. “When he came back to Cortland years later, 600 people came out to talk to him and send him off — at midnight.”

McGraw left Truxton at 16 to be a paid player for a baseball team in Olean. But not only did he pitch at the time, he managed the team, and scheduled games.

“He was already doing things he would do as an adult,” Kissel said.