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Born Frank Edwin McGraw, August 30, 1944, in Martinez, CA; died from cancer, January 5, 2004, in Franklin, TN. Professional baseball player. The 2004 death of retired baseball player Tug McGraw from cancer at the age of 59 stunned legions of his longtime fans. McGraw was one of the sport’s most exuberant and popular figures during the 1970s and 1980s as a pitcher with the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1980, he led the Phillies to their only World Series victory. McGraw’s personal life was similarly mythic: late in life, he learned he was the father of a young boy, who went on to become country-music star Tim McGraw.
Born Frank Edwin McGraw in 1944, the future Major League Baseball legend grew up in Vallejo, California, where he played ball for St. Vincent Ferrer High School. His nickname dated back to infancy and his insistent feeding habits. After a stint on the team at Vallejo Junior College, he was signed to the New York Mets in 1964 as a free agent, and played with the Mets’ farm team for a season. He emerged as a top-notch left-handed pitcher with a good fast-ball and solid curveball, but a third throw was necessary to advance him out of the minors, and so McGraw perfected the screwball pitch, which would become his trademark.
McGraw went on to help the Mets win the 1969 World Series, but it was in the build-up to the 1973 post-season that his signature phrase, “Ya gotta believe!” was coined. In August of that year, the Mets were down more than eleven games, and after a particularly bad performance, Mets chair M. Donald Grant delivered a torrid locker-room lecture to the chastened team. Coming out of the meeting, McGraw was said to have uttered the phrase, poking fun of Grant’s pep talk, but his teammates burst out laughing and they went on to a winning streak that landed them in the World Series. Though the Mets lost to Oakland in seven games, “Ya gotta believe!” became the catchphrase of the season and would remain indelibly associated with McGraw’s high-spirited personality.
McGraw amassed a solid record as a pitcher, though he admitted that the pressures of performing as a relief pitcher occasionally unnerved him. “Coming into a game, my knees always feel weak,” he admitted to New York Times columnist Dave Anderson. “I have to push off the mound harder.” Known for his spontaneous quips and graciousness to his fans, McGraw became one of the sport’s most beloved figures of the times. “He wore his sandy hair long,” noted New York Times writer Frank Litsky, “and with his little-boy face and boyish enthusiasm he was a crowd favorite. After a third out, he would run off the mound, slapping his glove against a thigh. After a close call, he would pat his heart.” Traded to Philadelphia in 1974, he went on to help the franchise take East Division titles in 1976, 1977, and 1978, and the National League pennant in 1980 and 1983. But it was Game Six of the Phillies’ World Series race in 1980 that would define McGraw’s career and make him a hero forever in his adopted home-town: in the ninth inning, with bases loaded, he struck out batter Kansas City’s Willie Wilson, and the Phillies won the World Series pennant for the first time in Major League history.
The photograph taken just after that moment showed McGraw jumping off his mound, hands high in the air, and became one of the classic images in sports history. Another timeless photo was captured just seconds later, when Phillies third-base player Mike Schmidt jumped into his arms on the mound. Schmidt later said the two had planned it on their ride to Veterans Stadium that night. “Both of us knew whoever was on or near that mound for the final out would probably be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, ” Schmidt told the same publication. “Sure enough, it worked. Tug struck out Wilson and then turned to look at me at third base. Of course I came running and jumped on him.”
The 1984 season was McGraw’s last in baseball. He retired with a 96-92 record and a 3.14 earned-run average. He became a television reporter for a Philadelphia station, wrote three children’s books, and remained a fan favorite. The father of two sons and a daughter, he belatedly discovered his fourth and oldest child after an eleven-year-old Louisiana boy came across his birth certificate. Tim Smith was an ardent baseball fan, and was stunned to find the name of one of his heroes in the space on the document that listed the father’s name. Smith, who later took his father’s name, was the product of a romance between McGraw and Betty Trimble that occurred during his minor-league career, and McGraw had never known of the boy’s existence. McGraw and his long-lost son enjoyed a close relationship, and Tim McGraw grew up to become a country-music legend and husband of Faith Hill, another Nashville star.
McGraw was diagnosed with a brain tumor in March of 2003 while working at Phillies spring-training camp in Clearwater, Florida, as a special instructor. He underwent surgery in Tampa, after which his doctors—a team of top specialists assembled and paid for by his son, Tim—believed they had eradicated it completely, but a wait-and-see policy was in place when McGraw next appeared in public again on May 29. “I’m not fearful,” McGraw told reporters in a characteristically upbeat mood, according to a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service report by Paul Hagen. “I have confidence.” He went to work on his autobiography, which carried the not-unexpected working title, Ya Gotta Believe! .
In September of 2003, McGraw reprised his 1980 World Series moment at the closing ceremonies at Veterans’ Stadium in Philadelphia, which was slated for demolition in March of 2004. He had hoped to be there for the demolition, but on December 31, 2003, he suffered a seizure, and died six days later at a cabin in Franklin, Tennessee, near the home of his son, Tim, and family. His former Philly teammate Schmidt told Sports Illustrated that McGraw accepted his fate with the same attitude that had made him such a favorite among players and fans alike. “Publicly, he never let on that he had gotten a raw deal,” Schmidt noted. “As he always said, ‘I front-loaded my life, just like my contract.’”