It has become a joke among Yankee fans that when the team faces a pitcher making their MLB debut or just facing him for the first time, that they’re going to struggle to put up runs. While you would think a team of experienced major league players could hit off a rookie, it stands to reason that every once in a while, you can get got by one of them. Everyone who makes the major leagues has good enough stuff pitch-wise to have gotten to the bigs. There’s always a chance that batters who’ve never seen that pitcher before can be held in check before they have a chance to get used to what they’re seeing.
That being said, if you do get an outing like that from a debuting pitcher, you better put it to good use. The 1917 Yankees did not get that message.
With the 1917 season heading towards it’s conclusion, the Yankees were under .500 and not really in play for anything. Seeing a chance to look ahead to the future, they gave the start in a late season clash against the Tigers on September 25th to 22-year old Bob McGraw.
The Colorado born McGraw had been a hot commodity, with the Yankees beating out several teams to get his signature. He had gotten the attention from scouts thanks in part to a reported 22-strikeout game he had while pitching for the University of Colorado. After signing with the team in late 1916, McGraw reported to spring training with the big league team in ‘17 before starting the season in the minors. His performances were good enough that the team called him up and manger Bill Donovan gave him the start on September 25th.
McGraw got his career off to a perfect start, throwing a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the first. He allowed his first ever baserunner with a leadoff single in the second, but induced a double play to get out of the inning damage free. That was generally the pattern from there on after that. There was a couple more perfect innings, but the times there weren’t McGraw would work around anyone that reached. Through the first eight innings, he had allowed no runs on two hits and a walk, with two errors from the defense behind McGraw sprinkled in. Unfortunately for McGraw and the Yankees, the offense was unable to plate any runs against Tigers’ pitcher Willie Mitchell. That set the stage for a very unfortunate top of the ninth.
The 8-9-1 spots were due up for Detroit in the ninth with no score. In that situation, the last thing you want to do is put either the eight or nine hitters on. That is exactly what the Yankees proceeded to do. First, catcher Oscar Strange reached after Yankees’ first baseman Wally Pipp made an error after being unable to handle a throw to first on a grounder. McGraw then walked the pitcher, Mitchell, putting two runners on.
Despite that, the Yankees were then given a lifeline by Tigers’ leadoff hitter Donnie Bush. Looking to move the runners up with the heart of Detroit’s order — including one Ty Cobb — on the horizon, he attempted to lay down a bunt. However, he popped it straight up. Yankees catcher Les Nunamaker caught the ball and quickly fired it down to second, getting Strange, who had strayed too far off, for a double play.
Despite just being an out away from another scoreless inning, McGraw couldn’t seal the deal. The Tigers fought back with four hits and a stolen base, all of which combined for four runs. However, because of the error, all of them technically go down as unearned runs. Now, you can argue it shouldn’t be that way since the runner that reached on the error was erased on the double play, but in statistical terms, there should’ve been one out when the double play happened, meaning that it should’ve ended the inning. Any runs that score count as unearned ones if they happen because of an error keeping an inning alive.
Naturally, after all that, the Yankees offense did muster a couple runs in the bottom of the ninth. However it wasn’t enough, as they left the bases loaded and fell 4-2. McGraw went down as the losing pitcher despite being credited with no earned runs.
After that still fairly impressive debut outing, McGraw would be back for the Yankees in 1918. However in his first and only start/appearance of the season, he didn’t even manage to record an out, walking all four of the batters he faced. After continuing to struggle the next season, the Yankees included him in a trade that brought them pitcher Carl Mays, who would help the team to their first ever World Series title in 1923. Meanwhile, McGraw would end up back on the Yankees in 1920 after Boston placed him on waivers.
McGraw would spent all of the 1921-24 season in the minors before finally getting picked up by the Brooklyn Robins in 1925. He would then spend the next couple seasons on a few different teams. While with the Cardinals, he was included in a trade that sent Grover Cleveland Alexander to St. Louis from the Phillies.
Bob McGraw was obliviously far from perfect in his 1917 major league debut. On some level, it’s also partially his fault that the Tigers scored four runs in the ninth inning. That being said, give him some help, guys!
New York Times, September 26, 1917