Playing The Game From The Bench
Behind Every Big League Ball Game there Is a Master Mind which
Directs the Moves of the Players--How McGraw Won Two Pennants for the
Giants from the "Bench" and Lost One by Giving the Players Too Much
Liberty--The Methods of "Connie" Mack and Other Great Leaders
The bench! To many fans who see a hundred Big League ball games each
season, this is a long, hooded structure from which the next batter
emerges and where the players sit while their club is at bat. It is also
the resort of the substitutes, manager, mascot and water cooler.
But to the ball player it is the headquarters. It is the place from which
the orders come, and it is here that the battle is planned and from here
the moves are executed. The manager sits here and pulls the wires, and
his players obey him as if they were manikins.
"The batteries for to-day's game," says the umpire, "will be Sallee and
Bresnahan for St. Louis; Wiltse and Meyers for New York."
"Bunt," says McGraw as his players scatter to take their positions on the
field. He repeats the order when they come to the bat for the first
inning, because he knows that Sallee has two weaknesses, one being that he
cannot field bunts and the other that a great deal of activity in the box
tires him out so that he weakens. A bunting game hits at both these flaws.
As soon as Bresnahan observes the plan of battle, he arranges his players
to meet the attack; draws in his third baseman, shifts the shortstop more
down the line toward third base, and is on the alert himself to gather in
slow rollers just in front of the plate. The idea is to give Sallee the
minimum opportunity to get at the ball and reduce his fielding
responsibilities to nothing or less. There is one thing about Sallee's
style known to every Big League manager. He is not half as effective with
men on the bases, for he depends largely on his deceptive motion to fool
the batters, and when he has to cut this down because runners are on the
bases, his pitching ability evaporates.
After the old Polo Grounds had been burned down in the spring of 1911, we
were playing St. Louis at American League Park one Saturday afternoon, and
the final returns of the game were about 19 to 5 in our favor, as near as
I can remember. We made thirteen runs in the first inning. Many spectators
went away from the park talking about a slaughter and a runaway score and
so on. That game was won in the very first inning when Sallee went into
the box to pitch, and McGraw had murmured that mystic word "Bunt!"
The first batters bunted, bunted, bunted in monotonous succession. Sallee
not yet in very good physical condition because it was early in the
season, was stood upon his head by this form of attack. Bresnahan redraped
his infield to try to stop this onslaught, and then McGraw switched.
"Hit it," he directed the next batter.
A line drive whistled past Mowrey's ears, the man who plays third base on
the Cardinals. He was coming in to get a bunt. Another followed. The break
had come. Bresnahan removed Sallee and put another pitcher into the box,
but once a ball club starts to hit the ball, it is like a skidding
automobile. It can't be stopped. The Giants kept on and piled up a
ridiculous and laughable score, which McGraw had made possible in the
first inning by directing his men to bunt.
The Giants won the championship of the National League in 1904 and the New
York fans gave the team credit for the victory. It was a club of young
players, and McGraw realized this fact when he started his campaign. Every
play that season was made from the bench, made by John McGraw through his
agents, his manikins, who moved according to the wires which he pulled.
And by the end of the summer his hands were badly calloused from pulling
wires, but the Giants had the pennant.
When the batter was at the plate in a critical stage, he would stall and
look to the "bench" for orders to discover whether to hit the ball out or
lay it down, whether to try the hit and run, or wait for the base runner
to attempt to steal. By stalling, I mean that he would tie his shoe or fix
his belt, or find any little excuse to delay the game so that he could get
a flash at the "bench" for orders. A shoe lace has played an important
role in many a Big League battle, as I will try to show later on in this
story. If it ever became the custom to wear button shoes, the game would
have to be revised.
As the batter looked toward the bench, McGraw might reach for his
handkerchief to blow his nose, and the batter knew it was up to him to hit
the ball out. Some days in that season of 1904 I saw McGraw blow his nose
during a game until it was red and sore on the end, and then another day,
when he had a cold in his head, he had to do without his handkerchief
because he wanted to play a bunting game. Until his cold got better, he
had to switch to another system of signs.
During that season, each coacher would keep his eye on the bench for
orders. Around McGraw revolved the game of the Giants. He was the game.
And most of that summer he spent upon the bench, because from there he
could get the best look at the diamond, and his observations were not
confined to one place or to one base runner. He was able to discover
whether an out-fielder was playing too close for a batter, or too far
out, and rearrange the men. He could perhaps catch a sign from the
opposing catcher and pass it along to the batter. And he won the pennant
from the bench. He was seldom seen on the coaching lines that year.
Many fans wonder why, when the Giants get behind in a game, McGraw takes
to the bench, after having been out on the coaching lines inning after
inning while the club was holding its own or winning. Time and again I
have heard him criticised for this by spectators and even by players on
"McGraw is 'yellow,'" players have said to me. "Just as soon as his club
gets behind, he runs for cover."
The crime of being "yellow" is the worst in the Big Leagues. It means that
a man is afraid, that he lacks the nerve to face the music. But McGraw and
"yellow" are as far apart as the poles, or Alpha and Omega, or Fifth
Avenue and the Bowery, or any two widely separated and distant things. I
have seen McGraw go on to ball fields where he is as welcome as a man with
the black smallpox and face the crowd alone that, in the heat of its
excitement, would like to tear him apart. I have seen him take all sorts
of personal chances. He doesn't know what fear is, and in his bright
lexicon of baseball there is no such word as "fear." His success is partly
due to his indomitable courage.
There is a real reason for his going to the bench when the team gets
behind. It is because this increases the club's chances of winning. From
the bench he can see the whole field, can note where his fielders are
playing, can get a peek at the other bench, and perhaps pick up a tip as
to what to expect. He can watch his own pitcher, or observe whether the
opposing twirler drops his throwing arm as if weary. He is at the helm
when "on the bench," and, noting any flaw in the opposition, he is in a
position to take advantage of it at a moment's notice, or, catching some
sign of faltering among his own men, he is immediately there to strengthen
the weakness. Many a game he has pulled out of the fire by going back to
the bench and watching. So the idea obtained by many spectators that he is
quitting is the wrong one. He is only fighting harder.
The Giants were playing Pittsburg one day in the season of 1909, and
Clarke and McGraw had been having a great guessing match. It was one of
those give-and-take games with plenty of batting, with one club forging
ahead and then the other. Clarke had saved the game for Pittsburg in the
sixth inning by a shoe-string. Leifield had been pitching up to this
point, and he wasn't there or even in the neighborhood. But still the
Pirates were leading by two runs, having previously knocked Ames out of
the box. Doyle and McCormick made hits with no one out in our half of the
It looked like the "break," and McGraw was urging his players on to even
up the score, when Clarke suddenly took off his sun glasses in left field
and stooped down to tie his shoe. When he removes his sun-glasses that is
a sign for a pitcher to warm up in a hurry, and "Babe" Adams sprinted to
the outfield with a catcher and began to heat up. Clarke took all of five
minutes to tie that shoe, McGraw violently protesting against the delay in
the meantime. Fred Clarke has been known to wear out a pair of shoe laces
in one game tying and untying them. After the shoe was fixed up, he jogged
slowly to the bench and took Leifield out of the box. In the interim,
Adams had had an opportunity to warm up, and Clarke raised his arm and
ordered him into the box. He fanned the next two men, and the last batter
hit an easy roller to Wagner. We were still two runs to the bad after that
promising start in the sixth, and Clarke, for the time being, had saved
the game by a shoe string.
McGraw, who had been on the coaching lines up to this point, retired to
the bench after that, and I heard one of those wise spectators, sitting
just behind our coop, who could tell Mr. Rockefeller how to run his
business but who spends his life working as a clerk at $18 a week, remark
to a friend:
"It's all off now. McGraw has laid down."
Watching the game through eyes half shut and drawn to a focus, McGraw
waited. In the seventh inning Clarke came to bat with two men on the
bases. A hit would have won the game beyond any doubt. In a flash McGraw
was on his feet and ran out to Meyers, catching. He stopped the game, and,
with a wave of his arm, drew Harry McCormick, playing left field, in close
to third base. The game went on, and Wiltse twisted a slow curve over the
outside corner of the plate to Clarke, a left-handed hitter. He timed his
swing and sent a low hit singing over third base. McCormick dashed in and
caught the ball off his shoe tops. That made three outs. McGraw had saved
our chances of victory right there, for had McCormick been playing where
he originally intended before McGraw stopped the contest, the ball would
have landed in unguarded territory and two runs would have been scored.
But McGraw had yet the game to win. As his team came to the bat for the
seventh, he said:
"This fellow Adams is a youngster and liable to be nervous and wild.
The batters waited with the patience of Job. Each man let the first two
balls pass him and made Adams pitch himself to the limit to every batter.
It got on Adams's nerves. In the ninth he passed a couple of men, and a
hit tied the score. Clarke left him in the box, for he was short of
pitchers. On the game went to ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, innings. The
score was still tied and Wiltse was pitching like a machine. McGraw was on
the bench, leaving the coaching to his lieutenants. The club was still
waiting for the youngster to weaken. At last, in the thirteenth, after one
man had been put out, the eye of McGraw saw Adams drop his pitching arm to
his side as if tired. It was only a minute motion. None of the spectators
saw it, none of the players.
"Now hit it, boys," came the order from the "bench." The style was
switched, and the game won when three hits were rattled out. McGraw alone
observed that sign of weakening and took advantage of it at the opportune
time. He won the game from the bench. That is what makes him a great
manager, observing the little things. Anyone can see the big ones. If he
had been on the coaching lines, he would not have had as good an
opportunity to study the young pitcher, for he would have had to devote
his attention to the base runners. He might have missed this sign of
McGraw is always studying a pitcher, particularly a new one in the League.
The St. Louis club had a young pitcher last fall, named Laudermilk, who
was being tried out. He had a brother on the team. In his first game
against the Giants, played in St. Louis, he held us to a few scattered
hits and gave us a terrific battle, only losing the game because one of
his fielders made a costly error behind him. The papers of St. Louis
boosted him as another "Rube" Waddell. He was left-handed. McGraw laughed.
"All I want," he said, "is another crack at that Buttermilk after what I
learned about him this afternoon. He can't control his curve, and all you
fellows have got to do is wait for his fast one. He gave you that fight
to-day because he had you all swinging at bad curve balls."
Laudermilk made another appearance against the Giants later, and he made
his disappearance in that game in the fourth inning, when only one was out
to be exact, after we had scored five runs off him by waiting for his fast
one, according to McGraw's orders.
After winning the pennant in 1904 by sitting on the bench, keeping away
from the coaching lines, and making every play himself, McGraw decided
that his men were older and knew the game and that he would give them more
rein in 1905. He appeared oftener on the coaching lines and attended more
to the base runners than to the game as a whole. But in the crises he was
the man who decided what was to be done. The club won the pennant that
year and the world's championship. The players got very chesty immediately
thereafter, and the buttons on their vests had to be shifted back to make
room for the new measure. They knew the game and had won two pennants,
besides a championship of the world.
So in the season of 1906 McGraw started with a team of veterans, and it
was predicted that he would repeat. But these men, who knew the game, were
making decisions for themselves because McGraw was giving them more
liberty. The runners went wild on the bases and tried things at the wrong
stages. They lost game after game. At last, after a particularly
disastrous defeat one day, McGraw called his men together in the clubhouse
and addressed them in this wise:
"Because you fellows have won two championships and beaten the Athletics
is no reason for you all to believe that you are fit to write a book on
how to play baseball. You are just running wild on the bases. You might as
well not have a manager. Now don't any one try to pull anything without
orders. We will begin all over again."
But it is hard to teach old ball-players new tricks, and several fines
had to be imposed before the orders were obeyed. The club did not win the
championship that year.
When McGraw won the pennant in 1911, he did it with a club of youngsters,
many of them playing through their first whole season as regulars in the
company. There were Snodgrass and Devore and Fletcher and Marquard. Every
time a batter went to the plate, he had definite orders from the "bench"
as to what he was to attempt--whether to take two, or lay the ball down,
or swing, or work the hit and run. Each time that a man shot out from
first base like a catapulted figure and slid into second, he had been
ordered by McGraw to try to steal. If players protested against his
judgment, his invariable answer was:
"Do what I tell you, and I'll take the blame for mistakes."
One of McGraw's laments is, "I wish I could be in three places at once."
I never heard him say it with such a ring to the words as after Snodgrass
was touched out in the third game of the 1911 world's series, in the tenth
inning, when his life might have meant victory in that game anyway. I
have frequently referred to the incident in these stories, so most of my
readers are familiar with the situation. Snodgrass was put out trying to
get to third base on a short passed ball, after he had started back for
second to recover some of the ground he had taken in too long a lead
before the ball got to Lapp. McGraw's face took on an expression of agony
as if he were watching his dearest friend die.
"If I could only have been there!" he said. "I wish I could be in three
places at once."
He meant the bench, the first base coaching line, and the third base line.
At this particular time he was giving the batters orders from the bench.
It was one of those incidents which come up in a ball game and have to be
decided in the drawing of a breath, so that a manager cannot give orders
unless he is right on the spot.
It is my opinion that it is a big advantage to a team to have the manager
on the bench rather than in the game. Frank Chance of the Chicago Cubs is
a great leader, but I think he would be a greater one if he could find one
of his mechanical ability to play first base, and he could sit on the
bench as the director general. He is occupied with the duties of his
position and often little things get by him. I believe that we beat the
Cubs in two games in 1909 because Chance was playing first base instead of
directing the game from the bench.
In the first contest Ames was pitching and Schlei catching. Now, Schlei
was no three hundred hitter, but he was a good man in a pinch and looked
like Wagner when compared to Ames as a swatter. Schlei came up to the bat
with men on second and third bases, two out, and a chance to win or put us
ahead if he could make a hit. The first time it happened, McGraw unfolded
his arms and relaxed, which is a sign that he is conceding something for
the time being.
"No use," he said. "All those runners are going to waste. We'll have to
make another try in the next inning. They will surely pass Schlei to take
a chance on Ames."
Then Overall, who was pitching, whistled a strike over the plate and
McGraw's body tightened and the old lines around the mouth appeared. Here
was a chance yet.
"They're going to let him hit," he cried joyfully.
Schlei made a base hit on the next pitch and scored both men. Almost the
same thing happened later on in the season with men on second and third
bases, and Raymond, another featherweight hitter, pitching. It struck me
as being an oversight on the part of Chance on both occasions, probably
because he was so busy with his own position and watching the players on
the field that he didn't notice the pitcher was the next batter. He let
Schlei hit each time, which probably cost him two games.
The Giants were playing St. Louis at the Polo Grounds in 1910, and I was
pitching against Harmon. I held the Cardinals to one hit up to the ninth
inning, and we had the game won by the score of 1 to 0, when their first
batter in the ninth walked. Then, after two had been put out, another
scratched a hit. It looked as if we still had the game won, since only one
man was left to be put out and the runners were on first and second bases.
Mowrey, the red-headed third baseman, came to the bat.
"Murray's playing too near centre field for this fellow," remarked McGraw
to some of the players on the bench.
Hardly had he said it when Mowrey shoved a long fly to right field, which
soared away toward the stand. Murray started to run with the ball. For a
minute it looked as if he were going to get there, and then it just tipped
his outstretched hands as it fell to the ground. It amounted to a
three-base hit and won the game for the Cardinals by the score of 2 to 1.
"I knew it," said McGraw, one of whose many roles is as a prophet of evil.
"Didn't I call the turn? I ought to have gone out there and stopped the
game and moved Murray over. I blame myself for that hit."
That was a game in which the St. Louis batters made three hits and won it.
It isn't the number of hits, so much as when they come, that wins ball
Frequently, McGraw will stop a game--bring it to a dead standstill--by
walking out from the bench as the pitcher is about to wind up.
"Stop it a minute, Meyers," he will shout. "Pull Snodgrass in a little bit
for this fellow."
The man interested in statistics would be surprised at how many times
little moves of this sort have saved games. But for the McGraw system to
be effective, he must have working for him a set of players who are
taking the old look around for orders all the time. He has a way of
inducing the men to keep their heads up which has worked very well. If a
player has been slow or has not taken all the distance McGraw believes is
possible on a hit, he often finds $10 less in his pay envelope at the end
of the month. And the conversation on the bench at times, when men have
made errors of omission, would not fit into any Sunday-school room.
During a game for the most part, McGraw is silent, concentrating his
attention on the game, and the players talk in low tones, as if in church,
discussing the progress of the contest. But let a player make a bad break,
and McGraw delivers a talk to him that would have to be written on
Arthur Wilson was coaching at third base in one of the games in a series
played in Philadelphia the first part of September, 1911. There were
barely enough pitchers to go around at the time, and McGraw was very
careful to take advantage of every little point, so that nothing would be
wasted. He feels that if a game is lost because the other side is better,
there is some excuse, but if it goes because some one's head should be
used for furniture instead of thinking baseball, it is like losing money
that might have been spent. Fletcher was on second base when Meyers came
to bat. The Indian pushed the ball to right field along the line. Fletcher
came steaming around third base and could have rolled home safely, but
Wilson, misjudging the hit, rushed out, tackled him, and threw him back on
the bag. Even the plodding Meyers reached second on the hit and McGraw was
boiling. He promptly sent a coacher out to relieve Wilson, and his oratory
to the young catcher would have made a Billingsgate fishwife sore. We
eventually won the game, but at this time there was only a difference of
something like one, and it would have been a big relief to have seen that
run which Wilson interrupted across the plate.
McGraw is always on Devore's hip because he often feels that this
brilliant young player does not get as much out of his natural ability as
he might. He is frequently listless, and, often, after a good hit, he will
feel satisfied with himself and fan out a couple of times. So McGraw does
all that he can to discourage this self-satisfaction. "Josh" is a great
man in a pinch, for he hangs on like a bulldog, and instead of getting
nervous, works the harder. If the reader will consult past history, he
will note that it was a pinch hit by Devore which won the first
world-series game, and one of his wallops, combined with a timely bingle
by Crandall, was largely instrumental in bringing the second victory to
the Giants. McGraw has made Devore the ball-player that he is by skilful
The Giants were having a nip and tuck game with the Cubs in the early part
of last summer, when Devore came to the bat in one of those pinches and
shot a three bagger over third base which won the game. As he slid into
third and picked himself up, feeling like more or less of a hero because
the crowd was announcing this fact to him by prolonged cheers, McGraw
"Gee, you're a lucky guy. I wish I had your luck. You were shot full of
horseshoes to get that one. When I saw you shut your eyes, I never thought
you would hit it."
This was like pricking a bubble, and "Josh's" chest returned to its normal
Marquard is another man whom McGraw constantly subjects to a
conversational massage. Devore and Marquard room together on the road,
and they got to talking about their suite at the hotel during a close game
in Philadelphia one day. It annoys McGraw to hear his men discussing
off-stage subjects during a critical contest, because it not only
distracts their attention, but his and that of the other players.
"Ain't that room of ours a dandy, Rube?" asked Devore.
"Best in the lot," replied Marquard.
"It's got five windows and swell furniture," said Devore.
"Solid mahogany," said McGraw, who apparently had been paying no attention
to the conversation. "That is, judging by some of the plays I have seen
you two pull. Now can the conversation."
Devore went down into Cuba with the Giants, carrying quite a bank roll
from the world's series, and the idea that he was on a picnic. He started
a personally conducted tour of Havana on his first night there and we lost
the game the next day, "Josh" overlooking several swell opportunities to
make hits in pinches. In fact he didn't even get a foul.
"You are fined $25," said McGraw to him after the game.
"You can't fine me," said Devore. "I'm not under contract."
"Then you take the next boat home," replied the manager. "I didn't come
down here to let a lot of coffee-colored Cubans show me up. You've got to
either play ball or go home."
Devore made four hits the next day.
In giving his signs from the bench to the players, McGraw depends on a
gesture or catch word. When "Dummy" Taylor, the deaf and dumb twirler, was
with the club, all the players learned the deaf and dumb language. This
medium was used for signing for a time, until smart ball players, like
Evers and Leach, took up the study of it and became so proficient they
could converse fluently on their fingers. But they were also great
"listeners," and we didn't discover for some time that this was how they
were getting our signs. Thereafter we only used the language for social
Evers and McGraw got into a conversation one day in the deaf and dumb
language at long range and "Johnny" Evers threw a finger out of joint
replying to McGraw in a brilliant flash of repartee.
Every successful manager is a distinct type. Each plays the game from the
bench. "Connie" Mack gives his men more liberty than most. Chance rules
for the most part with an iron hand. Bresnahan is ever spurring his men
on. Chance changes his seat on the bench, and there is a double steal.
"Connie" Mack uncrosses his legs, and the hit and run is tried.
Most managers transmit their signs by movements or words. Jennings is
supposed to have hidden in his jumble of jibes some catch words.
The manager on the bench must know just when to change pitchers. He has to
decide the exact time to send in a substitute hitter, when to install
another base runner. All these decisions must be made in the "batting" of
an eye. It takes quick and accurate judgment, and the successful manager
must be right usually. That's playing the game from the bench.
Next: Coaching Good And Bad
Previous: Big League Pitchers And Their Peculiarities