La Veta, Colorado, was a small mining community in the Rocky Mountains, taking its name from the Spanish word for a vein or a seam of ore. Robert T. McGraw had come to Colorado from Ireland (or maybe Iowa) and found work there with the railroad. His wife, Ellen Kelly McGraw, had been born in Missouri to two Irish parents. The couple raised four children – Helen, Margaret, Robert, and Sampson. Robert the son was born in La Veta on April 10, 1895. His father worked as a conductor for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad at the time of the 1900 census, was promoted to trainmaster and living with the family in Denver in 1910, and living in Pueblo as a superintendent with the railroad in 1920.i
Young Robert graduated from Pueblo Central High School and was fortunate to be able to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder and spent three years there. He registered as a first-year law student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, for the 1916-17 academic year. There were reportedly half a dozen clubs after McGraw, particularly interested in him after he struck out 22 opposing batters in a nine-inning game for Colorado. Scout George Leidy of the New York Yankees prevailed and the 21-year-old right-handed pitcher signed a contract with the Yankees on August 25, 1916.ii He was asked to report in the spring of 1917.iii McGraw was tall and thin, 6-feet-2 and 160 pounds.
He trained with the big-league club in Macon, Georgia, and was released to the International League’s Newark Bears on April 19 – a routine move so he could begin to develop professional experience. The Newark team did well, finishing 18 games over .500, but McGraw was 8-9 (with a good 3.16 earned-run average). He was brought up to the New York club in September, and enjoyed a terrific start on September 25 against the Tigers at the Polo Grounds – for the first 8⅔ innings. He had allowed two hits and was in the process of shutting out Detroit, though his teammates were also scoreless. An error and a walk set the stage and McGraw weakened and was touched for four runs on four hits (with a second New York error hurting, too). A New York rally produced only a pair of runs in the bottom of the ninth, and McGraw bore the 4-2 loss. He also started the last game of the season, the second game of a October 3 doubleheader against the visiting Athletics. He threw the first three innings, allowing one run on two hits. Scoring late in the game, the Yankees won. McGraw’s season ended with 11 innings of work and an 0.82 ERA. He was 0-1.
McGraw had one start in 1918, on April 26 in New York. The New York Times said that he “needed a civil engineer and a blue print map to find out where the homeplate was located. He scattered passes broadcast to the first four Senators who faced him and forced in a run. Out of nineteen balls he pitched at these batsmen only three were strikes. McGraw couldn’t get the ball near enough to the plate to let the batters foul it. Manager Huggins is going to take McGraw out to the Polo Grounds alone some morning and show him just where the plate is.iv The newspaper didn’t let up. For McGraw, it was his only appearance of the year. He faced four batters, walked them all, watched them all score off reliever Hank Thormahlen, and that was his season. His ERA was infinity. The World War was under way and on May 20 McGraw was ordered to report to an Army camp in New Mexico. Anticipating McGraw’s departure for military service, the Yankees had purchased Hugh Bedient from Toledo and added him to the roster.v
McGraw served with the American Expeditionary Forces in France from September 17, 1918, until April 17, 1919. He was discharged on May 1. McGraw rejoined the Yankees and appeared in his first game on June 18, 1919. He pitched in six games for New York, exclusively in relief, and got his first win in a three-inning stint on July 19, not allowing a hit (though walking two) and being the pitcher of record as the team scored four runs in the top of the ninth for a 9-8 win at Sportsman’s Park, St. Louis. He didn’t win another game in the major leagues for almost seven years.
By the middle of the 1919 season, the Boston Red Sox were getting sick and tired of their talented but unpredictable – and sometimes irascible – pitcher Carl Mays. After he’d taken “Dutch leave” (gone AWOL) from the club during a road trip, owner Harry Frazee traded him to the Yankees for McGraw, Allen Russell, and a reported $40,000. McGraw appeared in ten games for the Red Sox, losing two games including the only game he started – his last – when he was boomed for eight earned runs in four innings in Washington. The Red Sox scored seven runs, but couldn’t get McGraw off the hook. After the season, the Red Sox put him on waivers and the Yankees reclaimed him in mid-November.
In 1920 McGraw appeared in 15 games for the Yankees, all in relief and without a decision after 27 innings of work. His earned-run average was 4.67.
The 1921 Yankees really wanted infielder Jack Mitchell, and on January 27, they traded a raft of players to the Pacific Coast League’s Vernon Tigers in order to get him: Ernie Shore, Truck Hannah, Ham Hyatt, and Bob McGraw. It was part of a three-way deal that also featured Lefty O’Doul and a couple of other players going to San Francisco. McGraw won ten games for Vernon, with a 3.94 ERA. He also hit pretty well (.284), winning one game with a home run, which went into the center-field bleachers in Portland. He lost 13 games.
For the next four seasons, McGraw pitched in the American Association for the Minneapolis Millers. He won a good number of games, but with an earned-run average that was over four runs a game. He was 16-11 in 1922, 15-2 in 1923, 6-6 while missing half the season in 1923, and then became a 20-game winner in 1925 with a 22-13 record (despite a 4.40 ERA). The Brooklyn Robins dealt for him on September 21, sending Wilbur Hubbell and Dock Loftus to Minneapolis. With Brooklyn McGraw started two games and lost them both, but with a 3.20 ERA in 19⅔ innings of late-season work. The deal in September apparently completed one struck two months earlier, on July 21, which also involved a reported $25,000 going to the Millers.
McGraw pitched for Brooklyn in 1926 and was 9-13 with an elevated 4.59 ERA. It was the last time his ERA was under five runs a game in the three years he still had left in his second round of major-league baseball.
The New York Times dubbed him Prince Bob McGraw in a story detailing the five-hitter he threw against the Phillies on April 19, 1926; somehow he had picked up the moniker “The Prince of Santa Monica.”vi He was a bit of a card, too. Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich passed on a story from spring training with the Dodgers. At the team hotel, McGraw pinch-hit for the front-desk clerk at one point and was asked by a prospective guest whether the hotel had running water. He replied, “All our rooms have running water and mice. The $2 room has a trap and the $3 room has a cat.”vii McGraw was a streaky pitcher, running up significant win totals before suffering his first loss both in 1921 and 1926, to mention the two most remarkable years.
The 1927 season had just begun – one start, a loss – when the team packed him off to St. Louis for utility infielder Jake Flowers on April 28. With the Cards McGraw started 12 games and appeared in a half-dozen others, with a 4-5 record and a 5.07 ERA. On September 8 he was traded to the Phillies for pitcher Tony Kaufman – but he was far from happy. The Cardinals were just two games out of first place, with the players well-positioned to earn a share of the extra money paid out to leaders in the standings. The Phillies were 29½ games behind the leaders, in last place and without even a reasonable shot at seventh place. McGraw complained, “I do not think it is fair to take me away from this club three weeks before the end of the season when we have a chance to finish in the money. I plan to carry the case to Judge Landis.”viii An Associated Press story quoted Cardinals president Sam Breadon as acknowledging it was “perhaps a bit unfair” to have packed McGraw off to “a club with no hope of World Series money, at a time when the Cardinals seem sure to gain some kind of a paying position.”ix
Matters were worked out, and McGraw pitched for Philadelphia in both 1928 and 1929, working primarily in late relief and leading the National Leagues in games finished both years. He was 7-8 (5.15) and 5-5 (5.73), working more often than not as a closer who averaged around three innings per game.
On December 29, 1929, McGraw was traded back to the Cardinals (along with outfielder Homer Peel) for Grover Cleveland Alexander and catcher Harry McCurdy, but on March 1, 1930, his contract was sold to the Rochester Red Wings. He played in 1930 for the Red Wings (10-8, 4.05 in 129 innings) and in 1931 for the Seattle Indians, back in the Coast League (3-7, 5.59 in 74 innings of work). On April 1, 1932, he was released by Seattle manager Ernie Johnson. His time in Organized Baseball had come to a close.
McGraw kept in touch with ballplayers, of course, and in November 1933 took first place in the annual baseball players’ golf tournament at California’s Potrero Country Club. Over the years he was active in golf and particularly special events involving baseball alumni. In terms of work, McGraw took a position working on the Los Angeles aqueduct.x In 1941 he worked as assistant manager and then started at the Rancho California Water District.
McGraw never married. He retired to Long Beach, California, then moved to a community in nearby Seal Beach named Leisure World. In March 1978 he moved to Boise, Idaho, and was admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital there just two months later, in mid-May, with a fractured hip. McGraw died on June 2, 1978. He had been preceded in death by his three siblings; he left a nephew and a great-niece and great-nephew.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed McGraw’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i The 1900 census says that Robert T. was born in Ireland but both the 1910 and 1920 censuses say Iowa. All agree that his parents were natives of Ireland. Ellen was called Mellie in 1900, Nellie in 1910, and Ellen in 1930.
ii New York Times, February 11, 1917.
iii Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1916; Washington Post, August 27, 1916.
iv New York Times, April 27, 1918.
v Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1918.
vi New York Times, May 16, 1926.
vii Washington Post, April 30, 1944.
viii Washington Post, September 9, 1927.
ix Unattributed clipping in McGraw’s player file at the Hall of Fame.
x Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1936.