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Book Review: The Days of Mr. McGraw By Joseph Durso

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1924 World Series - Game 1: New York Giants v Washington Senators Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

If I become nostalgic over the great New York Times sportswriter Joe Durso, it’s because I can actually remember reading his baseball stories regularly from the time I was an adolescent until his death in 2004. That was a stretch of roughly forty to forty five years, when Durso was a household name during the latter half of a golden age of New York sportswriting. Once upon a time every major New York daily, including the Journal-American, the Mirror, the World Telegram, the Post, the Herald Tribune, the Forvitz (Forward, the city’s Yiddish newspaper), and the Times had its star writer. I was bottle fed baseball writing from the Forvitz by my Polish-Ukrainian Yiddish speaking grandfather in gnarly translations (“The Yankiss shtink!”) to which I now wish I’d paid more attention. I got the rest of my baseball education from Durso’s New York Times, which my father picked up on weekday evenings at Penn Station on his way home to Lon Gisland. You could also find Durso’s longer, more discursive feature writing in the Times’ Sunday puppy training edition. Writing for that cumbersome foldout reserved the New York City sportswriter’s gold-plated catbird seat for him. You had to be better than good to hang on to it.

If Durso is worthy of nostalgia now, nested in his quaint and curious bygone day in Baseball, even he grew up at a time when the giants of the deadball era still cast long shadows over the game. Imagine a wooly mammoth looking back at the sauropods and therapsids who predated him. One of the towering figures of New York’s baseball Pleistocene, he was passionate about the rugged players not only of his own childhood but of his older relatives’ childhoods too. None of those cleated warriors, at the time, cast as long a shadow over the Gotham diamond as John McGraw, a great infielder with the 1890s Baltimore Orioles and then the fin de siècle New York Giants, a joke of a team he hammered first into respectability and then into champions as a player-manager until 1907, then bench manager for an unfathomable thirty years in total. Only Connie Mack, who managed the A’s for a Biblical 53 years, lasted longer. McGraw retired in 1932 with a managerial record of 2,763–1,948 (and in 1907 with a lifetime BA of .334) and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937 by the Veteran’s Committee.

Durso was endowed with the Golden Age sportswriters’ gift for pure prose poetry; he belongs in memory with giants like Roger Kahn, Roger Angell, Red Smith, Shirley Povich and, reaching back a bit, Ring Lardner. When I was in college and about to DJ a music show on Fordham’s WFUV, someone—to this day I don’t know who—left me a note by the microphone shortly to become mine: “Paint word pictures!” Some kindred spirit must have left the same note for Durso when he first crawled from his crib. His opening pages of Mr. McGraw don’t just describe the young John McGraw’s arrival from the tulies in Baltimore to begin his career. They put you there, on the station platform with him, and evoke the bustle and urban madness of Baltimore in the late 1880s. Then, with bardic elegance, he escorts you through one of the most tumultuous careers in the history of sports. So transparent, so unselfconscious is his prose that you often forget you’re reading words. Forty years later, he puts you in the butt-busting wooden seats of the Polo Grounds for those lost epic contests with the Pirates, Cubs and, of course, the Yanks with the same raptor’s eye for both nuance and bombast.

You get to know this fiery, flamboyant, tough-as-nails martinet in all his outlandishness: Bon vivant, Broadway dandy adapted to the roaring twenties like some fashion-forward chameleon, charming drinking companion to the rich and famous like George M. Cohan, and politically connected like Gentleman Jimmy Walker, who could metamorphose into a tyrant of the clubhouse with a temper volcanic to rival Krakatoa at the flip of a neural switch. Durso details McGraw’s ferocious commitment to winning and what you get would be terrifying in a modern baseball locker room. If winning was the only thing to Red Saunders, McGraw would have parsed the “only” because it implied there actually was anything else, so one-pointed was he in his pursuit of championships, even on a day to day basis. You may recall Charlton Heston’s football commissioner from Any Given Sunday remarking to an aide about Cameron Diaz’ Miami Sharks owner, “I do believe that woman would eat her children.” Durso’s McGraw might have vivisected his first.

It may be difficult imaginatively to frame this now but yes, there was a time before Babe Ruth came to the Yankees in 1920 and then for several more years while the rest of the franchise caught up with him, during which the New York team was John McGraw’s Giants. Durso will walk you, practically week by week, through that deranged period when the baseball loyalties of the Big Apple were first strained, then torn, then re-set in the snarling antitheses of Yankee-Giant October rivalries.

His inning-by-inning accounts of the first set of Giants-Yankees October classics during the 1920s could easily be published as a standalone volume. You’re escorted inside McGraw’s head in a sort of Being John Malkovich reversed predication—what Nietzsche would have called a chronologische umdrehung—for his response to the advent of Babe Ruth and his realization the formerly upstart Highlanders—his tenants!—might now pose a threat to the draw his Giants had been. The various hijinks he ordered his pitchers and fielders to pull on the Babe to keep him inside the park and off the bases in those early years reek with scandalous delights. Later, as McGraw watches “the house that Ruth built” rise like a masonry and copper castle across the Harlem River from his aging wooden Polo Grounds, you’re invited to sense his anxieties, his perception of the turning of the angelus, and his angry determination not to let slip his grip on the New York baseball fan.

Of course as the 20s burned to an end the Giants’ young stars had aged and other teams had been copying McGraw’s style. Even as the Yankees rose to power the Giants were entering a rebuilding phase and skidding to the second division. Durso’s readers can breathe in that extended moment in history when the sports scene in New York was undergoing a sea change, players were becoming financially savvier and more defiant, and McGraw was becoming fossilized. Meanwhile Durso has been skillfully setting up these shifts in the city’s sports ethos as an avatar of the impending market crash and great depression as the Roaring Twenties came down in a heap and took McGraw, who was so well suited to his time, with them. Two years later, frustrated by players he could no longer cow and the difficulty of pulling fans into his rickety ballpark, McGraw came home one night to his wife in Westchester County and announced in resignation and disgust, “I have quit.” The book concludes two and a half decades later with the Giants migrating to San Francisco, and with the long since widowed Mrs. McGraw, standing alone in the evacuated ballpark cradling a dozen roses, sighing that John was lucky to have died before he had to see this.

Please note this wonderful book is technically out of print, and only available on Amazon in a facsimile edition hardcover. There are copies of the original runs available on eBay and, occasionally, even on Amazon. If you are fortunate enough to live near a used or antiquarian bookstore which survived the digital K/T meteorite, you might pick up a pristine copy there. If you can, you should. It’s a keeper.