By Matthew Veasey
Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. And if you know anything about Frank Edwin ‘Tug’ McGraw, then you know that this is the perfect day to look back on the career of the Little Leprechaun of baseball.
Do you remember where you were at 11:29 PM ET on the night of October 21, 1980? I was 18 years old and standing in the tiny living room of my small one-bedroom apartment in South Philly, glued to the television as my beloved Philadelphia Phillies battled the Kansas City Royals in Game Six of the World Series.
Just a little more than two miles away, 36-year-old Tug McGraw was standing on the pitcher’s mound at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies, who had never won a world championship in the 97-year history of the ball club to that point, were leading Kansas City by three games to two and held a 4-1 lead with two outs in the ninth inning of that Game Six.
At the plate was Willie Wilson, the Royals’ 25-year-old left-fielder, who had hit .325 and would win both an American League Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Award that year. The Royals had the bases loaded, so Wilson represented the go-ahead run.
McGraw and Wilson battled the count to 1-2. On the NBC television broadcast, former big-leaguer Joe Garagiola summed up what was about to take place, leaving the moment to the sounds of the ballpark: “The crowd will tell you what happens!”
The 15-year veteran southpaw McGraw, mostly a junk-baller whose specialty was the screwball, opted in this pivotal moment to fire a fastball. That clearly fooled Wilson, who swung late and through the pitch for the final out.
As the crowd exploded at the Vet and the Phillies mobbed one another on the mound, my friends and I watching from my apartment roared out cheers, spilled some beers, and hugged one another. Nearly a century of futility and pent-up frustration for the Phillies and their fans would be released on the streets of Philadelphia over the ensuing hours and days.
For that and so many wonderful memories provided during his decade-long career in Phillies pinstripes, but especially for that Fall Classic moment, Tug McGraw has always been one of the most beloved athletes in the history of the City of Brotherly Love.
Frank Edwin McGraw was born on August 30, 1944, just north of San Francisco, California, a little more than two months after the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France began to turn the tide of World War II in favor of the Allied forces.
For the book “A Magic Summer: The Amazin’ Story of the 1969 New York Mets”, McGraw explained to author Stanley Cohen that his famous nickname had come from his mother based on the way that he had nursed as an infant: “He’s a real tugger”, she would say. However, McGraw and his two brothers would be raised by their father. Their mom battled mental illness and abandoned the family, leading to a divorce when the children were still young.
His two older brothers played baseball, with older brother Hank talented enough to sign as a catcher with the expansion New York Mets in 1961. Tug would follow in their footsteps, going on to sign with the Mets himself at age 19 after graduating from Vallejo Junior College.
McGraw would make his big-league debut with the Mets in 1965 at just age 20, thanks mainly to what was known as the “bonus baby rule” in Major League Baseball during those days. Any player who had signed for $4,000 or more had to be carried on the big-league roster for an entire season or risk being taken by another club.
Having enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserves after high school, McGraw reported to the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island following that MLB rookie campaign. Upon graduation he was assigned to continue training at Camp Lejeune where, in his own words, he became a “trained killer” as a rifleman using an M14 rifle and M60 machine gun. While working out in the corps, McGraw hurt his arm, relegating him to just 11 games in the minors and another 15 in the bigs during the 1966 season.
It was while at an Instructional League assignment following that 1966 campaign that he learned what would become his bread-and-butter pitch, the screwball, from veteran pitcher Ralph Terry. McGraw enjoyed solid 1967 and 1968 seasons but was still left unprotected in the Expansion Draft. Thankfully for the Mets, he would not be selected by either San Diego or Montreal.
In 1969, McGraw finally reached the big leagues to stay. That year, at age 24, he appeared in 42 games, including making four starts. He fashioned a 2.24 ERA, allowing just 89 hits over 100.1 innings with 92 strikeouts. As those ‘Miracle Mets’ went all the way to their first-ever World Series championship, McGraw also appeared in his first postseason game.
McGraw would pitch with the Mets for the first nine years of what became a 19-year big-league career. He went 47-55 with a 3.17 ERA and 1.306 WHP over 361 games, including 36 starts. McGraw recorded 86 saves, allowing 685 hits across 792.2 innings with 618 strikeouts with New York. He was also a 1972 National League All-Star and received MVP votes in both 1972 and 1973.
With the lefty turning 30 years of age and battling shoulder problems, the Mets included him as part of a six-player trade with the NL East Division rival Philadelphia Phillies in December of 1974. Those shoulder issues turned out to be easily corrected by a minor surgical procedure, and McGraw would go on to pitch the final decade of his career in Philly.
His first full season with the Phillies would result in a 9-6 record and 14 saves. McGraw made 56 appearances despite missing the first month as he recovered from that minor procedure, allowing just 84 hits over 102.2 innings and earning his second NL All-Star team berth.
Over his 10 seasons in Philadelphia, McGraw would make 463 appearances, including three starts. During that unforgettable 1980 campaign, he finished fifth in the National League Cy Young Award voting for what proved the best season of his career. Over 57 games, he went 5-4 with a 1.46 ERA, 0.921 WHIP and 20 saves. He allowed 62 hits over 92.1 innings with 75 strikeouts.
During that 1980 postseason, McGraw cemented his place forever in the hearts of Phillies fans. He appeared in four of the six Fall Classic games against Kansas City, winning one and saving two of the Phils’ four victories with a 1.17 ERA.
In 1999, 15 years after his playing career had ended, McGraw’s place in Phillies franchise lore was forever cemented when the club enshrined him on the Wall of Fame. Just over four years later his life would come to a tragic early end in January 2004 at just age 59 following a battle with brain cancer.
The summer prior, McGraw re-enacted his dramatic final pitch of that 1980 World Series as the team celebrated the closing of Veterans Stadium. The appearance allowed Phillies fans one final celebration with ‘The Tugger’ at the place where he had brought them so many fond memories.
All three of Tug’s sons, including famed country music superstar (and 1883 TV star) Tim McGraw, have leprechaun tattoos in honor of their father. Earlier this week, Tim explained the tattoos in an appearance on the ‘Rob & Holly’ podcast: “I like it. My brothers both have one too because my Dad liked leprechauns. He had a leprechaun necklace he wore, so that’s why I got it. That’s why my brothers have it as well.”
May the luck of the Irish be with you and yours on this Saint Patrick’s Day!
Matt Veasey is the voice behind @PhilliesBell on Twitter, the most interactive Philadelphia Phillies news and history social media account on the Internet. His email is email@example.com
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