John McGraw’s legacy is that of a fiery, rough and tumble sort, whose pugnacious nature on the baseball diamond was matched only how he acted off the field. He could cuss and fight with the best of them, and scrapped his way to a Hall of Fame career in baseball, first as a player and then as a manager, that spanned more than four decades. Along the way McGraw developed quite a reputation for his aggressiveness; earning nicknames like “Mugsy” and “Little Napoleon.” Despite this, he was well liked and held in high esteem, particularly throughout his career in New York.
While aggression and grit were considered positive attributes in baseball, particularly in the early days of the game, McGraw often took things too far. One such event happened in 1920, and actually had nothing to with baseball. It was the result of an argument over whether Brits or Americans made better stage actors. Despite such an inconsequential topic, it greatly embarrassed McGraw, and endangered his standing in New York and baseball.
Around 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, August 8th, McGraw arrived at his 109th West Street apartment in a cab, having come from The Lambs, a private club known for its patronage of the theatre and high class clientele. Joining McGraw in the cab were his friends, Winfield Liggett, a retired naval officer and John C. Lavin, a well known middle-aged comedian.
According to the cab driver, William Meagan, upon reaching McGraw’s residence, his passengers “argued loudly in a friendly dispute as to who would pay my bill…. When I looked around, I saw Slavin had fallen to the sidewalk. McGraw had gone into the house…. Mr. Liggett helped me put Slavin into the cab and we drove to the hospital.”
Liggett later told police that he couldn’t understand what had happened, because according to him, neither he nor Slavin had been drinking that night, and he was unaware of any illness. A police report partially contradicted Liggett, and indicated that a man had assaulted McGraw at the club, and that it was “an actor, whose name is unknown.” The report also referred to “intoxication of certain individuals,” though it declined to name who those individuals were.
Slavin reached the hospital, suffering from a fractured skull and fighting for his life. The pleas of ignorance from his companions ensured that the story became fodder from the papers, and resulted in a full blown inquiry to find out what had really happened. As Slavin’s life hung in the balance, the story became a sensation in New York.
Slavin’s injuries included two missing front teeth, a cut lip, a bite through the tongue, and bruises on both sides of his face. McGraw told police he didn’t know how Slavin was hurt, but suggested the possibility that he had fallen; though he declined to explain how that could have led to such severe injuries. McGraw described his mind as “blank” when it came to how Slavin had gotten hurt, so rumors ran rampant about McGraw’s true involvement.
As McGraw started to feel heat from the publicity, he issued a statement. “There was no trouble between me and Slavin. We have long been the warmest of friends. There was not a word of anger spoken during the taxi ride… At no time did anything occur by which Mr. Slavin could have received any injury.”
In the beginning, investigators tried to work quickly to piece together what had happened. District Attorney Edward Swann- who unsuccessfully ran for the New York Supreme Court later that year- attempted repeatedly to interview McGraw to get his version of events. However, the only word from McGraw came from his doctor, who sent a note stating the Giants’ skipper was under his care and too ill to leave his house. Swann also sent one of his staff to McGraw’s home with a subpoena, but he was unable to serve it after the door was slammed in his face once he announced himself.
Swann publicly stated that he believed an attempted cover up was under way. In addition to his assistant with the subpoena, he also sent a county medical examiner and a stenographer to McGraw’s home, but they too were denied admittance. McGraw sent word that he would come into Swann’s office, but he never showed.
Finally, on August 13, 1920, Swann announced he planned to present the case to the grand jury, without an interview from McGraw, as soon as he had enough information from Slavin- assuming the stricken actor regained consciousness. This announcement came after McGraw failed for a second time to show to an appointment at Swann’s office.
McGraw continued to battle the allegation by fighting back through the press. On August 17, 1920, he asked through his lawyer to assist in his indictment so he could protect himself against innuendo.
As each day went by, bits of the story began to emerge. Actor William H. Boyd and Slavin were at The Lambs, playing cards and talking with a group of friends, when McGraw came in. He supposedly bought several quarts of whiskey from the doorman, and starting passing them around. McGraw was described as being in rare form, blustering to all within earshot, and Boyd began protesting the vulgar language he was using in front of two female cleaners, who were tidying the club after another long night of partying guests. Boyd told McGraw, “As a man I like you, as a baseball manager I like you, but I don’t like your language.” This exchange evolved into an argument over the superiority of American or English stage actors, and whether John Emerson should have defeated Wilton Lackaye for Presidency of the Actors’ Equity.
McGraw, apparently an avid support of the American arts, took umbrage with the way Boyd was taking up for British actors, and from there a physical altercation broke out. In addition to fisticuffs, water bottles and chairs were said to have been thrown about during the dispute, including items thrown by others besides McGraw and Boyd. McGraw suffered a concussion, a black eye, and other minor injuries. Boyd was observed by reporters to have a cut on his nose and another above his eye.
Officials from The Lambs told investigators that McGraw was the aggressor and the only one to blame in the altercation. They also said that Slavin acted as a peacemaker and it was possible he could have received his injuries at that time. However, Slavin’s doctors nixed that theory by emphatically stating that the nature of the injuries he had received would have made it impossible for him to have left the club and taken a cab ride before collapsing.
Boyd confirmed The Lambs’ story, and said he had simply defended himself. He told reporters, “The Lambs’ statement about McGraw being the aggressor is absolutely true. I didn’t hit McGraw first. It was an unfortunate affair, and I really don’t want to discuss it. I did not bawl McGraw out, and the fact is, that he bawled me out. Some of the men standing nearby said to me, ‘Don’t hit him,’ when they heard his language. I didn’t want to hit him, but when McGraw rushed at me what else was I to do?”
McGraw, who finally got around to having a conversation with Swann, played dumb. He admitted that there was a commotion at the club, but that he remembered nothing after being hit in the head with a water bottle. McGraw was a smart man and was not going to aid in his own prosecution.
The Lambs Council, headed by A.O. Brown, later amended their previous statement, and said that Slavin was never struck within their premises. It was a slick way of denying culpability and laying it at the feet of McGraw. In this revised statement, Brown coyly pointed the finger at McGraw beating up Slavin. “I cannot understand, however, how Slavin could have got his injuries, such as they are described, by a fall. It is hard to fall on both sides of one’s face.”
Slavin gradually recovered and after several months in the hospital was discharged and resumed his career on Broadway. Once he was back on his feet he began intimating that he planned to sue McGraw for $25,000 for hitting him, but never followed through on those threats. It is rumored however that he and McGraw eventually worked out a private settlement that kept him quiet on the assault. Slavin never gave District Attorney Swann the information needed to pursue a case; which also points to the strong possibility of a settlement.
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