November 30, 2021

‘Truxton Against The World’

John J. McGraw and his monument

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

The John J. McGraw statue, located in Truxton.

By BILL ORZELL Contributing Writer

The John J. McGraw monument in Truxton is a dignified, uncomplicated sculpture.

Yet it captures a great deal of what might be described as “the essence of the game,” with the man himself portrayed in bas-relief on a truncated obelisk wearing his New York Giants pinstriped flannels and cap.

The entire monument is surmounted by an oversized, yet scaled, baseball on a stepped plinth. The sculpture is engraved on the front with his name and deeds, and mentions he was “One of Baseball’s Immortals.” The ball is inscribed with the interlocking initials NL, for National League, and the rear inscription details how the monument was funded by a special ball game played in town.

Truxton had every right to be proud of John McGraw. He played big league baseball with a skill and passion new to the game. He moved into management when his playing days ended and was an incredible judge of baseball talent, and his player development program made the Giants perennial contenders.

He was well rewarded financially, and was made a partner in the franchise. Health issues forced McGraw into retirement midway through the 1932 season, yet he was able to manage the National League team in the first-ever All-Star Game in 1933. He died the next year at age 60.

John McGraw was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, acknowledgment of his career, and perhaps the impetus of creating a memorial in his hometown of Truxton.

Beginnings

McGraw’s father arrived in upstate New York as an infant, as his parents emigrated from Ireland in 1844, making him just the right age to be called upon by the Union Army for the Civil War. Privations of the times made the future ballplayer’s upbringing and home life difficult. This was further complicated by his mother’s chronic illness and premature death, and he was taken in by Mr. and Mrs. David Goddard, where he joined the couple’s six sons on their farm just outside of the village.

John McGraw displayed a talent for baseball at a very young age. He is mostly remembered as a flashy and fast infielder, but he could pitch, too. He once was chided following Mass at St. Patrick’s Church for having a baseball in his back pocket protruding beneath his cassock.

McGraw left Truxton as a teenager and attended the school of hard knocks before continuing his education at St. Bonaventure University. He played professional ball at Olean and other minor league teams before breaking into the big leagues with Baltimore.

Associated Press file photo

An undated photo of John McGraw, while a member of the Baltimore Orioles.

After moving to New York and the National League, McGraw took an interest in the theater and performers, and also horse racing; at one time he was a partner in Oriental Park race track at Havana, Cuba. His Giants teams were performers and the path to the pennant regularly passed through the Polo Grounds, their home field along the Harlem River in upper Manhattan.

Even with all his success, it seems McGraw’s hometown was never far off in his mind; throughout his life all his pet Airedale and Boston bulldogs were named Truxton.

Idea for a statue

In 1938, a committee was formed to create a memorial to John McGraw, and a Syracuse lawyer named Willfred E. Hoffman was made chairman. The best fund-raising plan the memorial committee could think of was to bring the New York Giants to Truxton, and to feature them in a ball game.

It seems amazing the Giants agreed to play a mid-season exhibition game, but they did.

As the calendar changed to June and the weather warmed, the Giants were in second place behind the league-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. The Giants owner, Horace Stoneham, committed his ball club to a memorial fund raising game in Truxton in early August.

McGraw as manager

John McGraw once described his managerial style by saying, “with my team I am an absolute czar. My men know it. I order plays and they obey. If they don’t, I fine them.”

Because he had a deaf-mute pitcher, he began having his players use American Sign Language on the field, and could signal plays and instructions from the dugout.

Some of his novel strategies were at the least impolite, and pushed the limits of the baseball rule book, leading others who considered his type of play just beyond clever, to refer to him as “Mugsy.”

McGraw had a contentious nature, leading to 131 ejections from ball games, a major league record only recently broken.

Major league baseball needed to adopt the four-umpire system because of the McGraw managed teams’ tactics, such as grabbing or tripping opposing base runners or hiding additional baseballs on the field.

“The main idea is to win,” McGraw said.

Game on in Truxton

The memorial game in Truxton was scheduled for Aug. 8, 1938. The Giants would travel there following a weekend series with the Pirates in New York, as the first stop on a road trip to Boston. The New York Giants would play a local “all-star” team, which would be referred to as the Truxton Giants. The game would be played at a diamond in the village donated by John McGraw, and known to this day as McGraw Field.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

The John J. McGraw Ballfield, located in Truxton, seen here July 22.

Both Cornell and Syracuse universities, who also supplied players to Truxton Giants, lent bleachers.

Big league baseball was in full swing in August 1938, with the media and fans all abuzz about Walter O. Briggs, owner of the Detroit Tigers, firing his manager, Mickey Cochrane.

On Aug. 6, the heat broke and showers began along the Great Lakes. A ferocious thunderstorm at Jacob Riis Park on Long Island’s southern shore killed three swimmers and injured 15. The Yankee game at Cleveland was delayed almost an hour, and the Reds at Dodgers was postponed, as were the Pirates vs. Giants at the Polo Grounds.

Both of New York’s National League teams scheduled double headers for Sunday with the Dodgers earning a sweep. The first-place Pirates dealt a blow to the Giants’ pennant hopes, and heartbreak to the 50,468 in attendance, by winning two games, despite Mel Ott homering in his first plate appearance in both games.

The weather in Truxton, in contrast, was perfect for baseball, a wonderful summer day, with the corn coming into its own.

The Giants, like all big league teams of the era, had their own rail cars. They entered the Lehigh Valley Railroad system, and traveled as far as Ithaca, where the players had breakfast at the Hotel Ithaca. The Giants’ rail cars would be left there for a later train, which would rendezvous with the team in Truxton. School buses were used to transfer the Giants from Ithaca to Truxton along Route 13.

Every church group in town had a concession stand, peddling hot dogs, soda and lemonade.

The New York Giants brought their whole organization. Owner Horace Stoneham made the trip as did Polo Grounds groundskeeper Henry Fabian, who had played minor league ball with McGraw. Future Baseball Hall of Fame members Travis Jackson and Mel Ott signed autographs.

As game time neared, fans made their way into McGraw Field, and the air was filled with the sound of the crowd. Mrs. John McGraw was visiting her friends, Mr. & Mrs. C. Leonard O’Connor of Cortland and staying with them at their home at 37 Tompkins St., which we know today as the 1890 House Museum.

Mrs. McGraw had granted an interview to the Syracuse American in the O’Connor home the evening before the memorial game.

“She seems to live in the memory of the fightin’ Irish boy from Truxton, who made baseball history with flaming colorful deeds on the diamond,” the evening edition stated.

She said while in a scrap, his favorite rumbling expression was “Truxton Against The World!”

Nearly two decades after her husband’s death, Mrs. McGraw published a biography titled, “The Real McGraw,” where she detailed her husband’s talent seeking ability, crossing the color barrier decades before it actually happened when she wrote, “Without mincing words, John bemoaned the failure of baseball, himself included, to cast aside custom or unwritten law, or whatever it was, and sign a player on ability alone, regardless of race or color.”

Blanche McGraw received an ovation from the crowd, and she was seated directly behind home plate.

Gearing up for the game

St. Mary’s school band from Cortland played the national anthem, as the crowd sang. Bob Kenefick, a sportscaster on station WFBL, Syracuse, was the master of ceremonies. Following the anthem, he asked the audience to remain standing for a moment in silence. He then read a poem titled ‘John J. McGraw Comes Home,’ penned by fellow sportswriter Joseph H. Adams of the Syracuse Post-Standard.

George “Hooks” Wiltse of Syracuse, who had a successful career as a left-handed pitcher for John McGraw’s Giants, made a short tribute. Wiltse, whose nickname came from his long arms against his gangling frame, moved onto the field where he umpired the bases. The home plate umpire, also from Syracuse, was former big league pitcher-turned-umpire Bill Dineen.

Sidenote on a 1902 game

An interesting side note is that in a game in Baltimore on April 29, 1902, while on the mound, Bill Dineen hit John McGraw with a pitched ball five times during one at bat, yet he was never awarded first base as the umpire did not believe he made any effort to avoid being struck.

McGraw sat down in the batter’s box and refused to leave the field. This protest developed into suspensions and fines, which led McGraw to move to the New York Giants and the National League.

With the official ceremonies concluded, attention turned to baseball. The ‘visiting’ New York Giants batted first against Bob Nugent, pitching for the Truxton Giants. He held the big leaguers scoreless into the third, when shortstop Dick Bartell stole home for the first run of the game.

The Giants had recently purchased the contract of pitcher Johnny Wittig, and manager Bill Terry wanted to see him pitch before the team got to Boston to face Casey Stengel’s Bees.

Terry had been manager of the Giants since John McGraw’s illness in June 1932. Memphis Bill, as he was known, and still the last National League player to bat above .400 for a season, continued to play first base and manage until 1936, when he managed full time.

For the game in Truxton, he put himself back into the lineup and returned to first base. Wittig did not disappoint his manager, pitching six scoreless innings against Truxton, while surrendering only two hits, and helping his own cause by slapping a double while at bat.

Between innings, the crowd was entertained by popular tunes played by the Cortland American Legion Fife and Drum Corps, the Ten-Town Band of Tully and the St. Mary’s School band.

Those who could not afford the $1.10 admission could follow the game, announced over portable loudspeakers.

Game time

The big league Giants broke loose in the top of the fifth inning, hitting three doubles. These hits, combined with an outfield error, allowed the major leaguers to post three more runs. They added another two in the top of the seventh, to take a 6-0 lead.

In the bottom of the seventh, Giants manager Terry brought himself into pitch. This move, mostly to spare his pitching staff for their pennant race with the Pirates, delighted the crowd.

The visiting Giants added two more runs in the top of the ninth inning, bringing their total to eight.

The Truxton Giants came alive during their last ‘ups’ in the bottom of the ninth, with back-to-back singles.

Their hitting star Nick Cappaletti, a 17-year-old lad on loan from the Syracuse Chiefs, belted another single off Bill Terry, and drove in the Truxton team’s only run. Final score: New York Giants 8, Truxton Giants 1.

The sun was working its way west, and shadows began to lengthen as the ballgame concluded. The bovine residents of Cortland County began making their way toward the milking parlors and Roscoe McGowen filed his article to the New York Times sports page through the local Lehigh Valley Railroad telegrapher. The spectators started for home and the Giants rail cars awaited their boarding at the Truxton station, which was just beyond right field. The players moved first to the showers at the new Truxton Central School, and then gathered in the dining hall for local entertainment.

Memorial committee chairman Wilfred Hoffman reported that 7,650 people had attended the game. The funds collected were converted into the John McGraw monument we see today in Truxton.

Provided by the Cortland County Historical Society

The August 1938 game in Truxton.

The actual monument

The Sept. 29, 1942, Cortland Standard mentions that the sculpture was designed by George Bull of the Nelson Memorial Co. of Homer, contractor Charles Brosius of Cortland prepared the foundation and built the circular stone retaining wall and the Barre, Vt., firm of Beck and Beck carved the monument of Green Mountain granite, and made the final installation in Truxton. The John J. McGraw Monument, funded by the special event in 1938 and the Giants of that time, provided for a fitting tribute to one of baseball’s immortals.
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Bill Orzell of DeRuyter is a lifetime baseball fan. He grew up in Binghamton and his folks would take him to DeRuyter Lake his entire childhood. They’d stop at Les Rainbow’s Ashland gas station in Truxton and he’d admire the nearby John McGraw sculpture.