Deacon McGuire, the catcher for the 1898 Washington Nationals, checked the runner on first and then wiggled his prematurely gnarled fingers, calling for a pitchout from Wild Bill Donovan. The subsequent delivery lived up to Donovan's nickname. "It was one of the wildest pitches Bill ever made, and you know he made a lot of'em," McGuire told Guy Smith, who wrote a 10-page biographical sketch about McGuire. Instinctively, McGuire thrust out his bare right hand to stop the ball. It caught the tip of his middle finger and stripped the flesh from the bone. Umpire Bob Emslie paid immediate tribute to McGuire's grit by fainting.
McGuire embodied the ethos of the game as it was played long before there was a disabled list. To the surprise of few fans of that era, he was back behind the plate within a week of his injury. "We were short of catchers," he said.
Resilience was the most outstanding attribute of James Thomas McGuire, who in 1895 caught every inning of Washington's 133 games and who holds the major league record for longevity, having played 26 seasons. Hall of Famers Eddie Collins (1906-30) and Bobby Wallace (1894-1918) appeared in 25 seasons, as did pitcher Jim Kaat, who this spring fell short in his bid to equal McGuire's record when the Pirates released him.
McGuire also played for as many teams—12—as any other player in major league history. He managed three of those clubs; his baseball savvy was admired widely. But not as much as his guts. During his career he broke all of his fingers, some several times.
McGuire, who played his first major league game with Toledo in 1884 and his last with Detroit in 1912, was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1863. He grew up in Cleveland and then, as a young adult, moved to Albion, Mich., where he was apprenticed to an iron-molder. On Saturdays McGuire played baseball. Hours of pouring molten iron from heavy, long-handled ladles had given him an extremely strong upper body, arms and hands. While playing for the town team in Hastings, Mich., he got a reputation as a good hitter but was better known for his work behind the plate. He was believed to be the only catcher within a 50-mile radius who could handle Charles (Lady) Baldwin, a southpaw with an incendiary fastball and sinuous curve, a so-called "snakeball." Baldwin, too, would play in the majors. Pitching for Detroit, he led the National League with 42 victories in 1886.
In 1883 McGuire turned pro and played for an independent team in Terre Haute, Ind. The following season he wound up with Toledo of the then major league American Association, where he shared duties behind the plate with Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black player in major league history. McGuire caught a fascinating duo. Tony (The Apollo of the Box) Mullane was Toledo's ace with a 35-25 record. He was also the only ambidextrous pitcher in big league annals, though he'd stopped throwing lefty by this time. As good as Mullane was, McGuire found it more interesting to catch Hank O'Day, a righthander with lesser ability but greater velocity than Mullane, who may be best remembered as the umpire who called Fred Merkle out at second when he made his famous blunder during a crucial 1908 game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs.
"He threw the heaviest and hardest ball I ever caught," McGuire said of O'Day. "It was like lead and came like a shell from a cannon. The reinforced full-fingered catcher's glove had just come into use the year before.
"One day on my way to that old Toledo park on Monroe Street, I passed a butcher pounding round steak. It gave me an idea, and I went in and bought a lot of it. I put a piece of it in my glove at the start of every inning, and Hank's pitches beat that steak into a pulp." In the next six years, McGuire and his "padded" mitt made stops in one minor league and four major league cities. In 1891 McGuire went to Washington, where he played one year in the American Association and 7½ in the National League.
When McGuire first got to the majors, his hitting was woeful. He batted below .200 his first three seasons. But after hitting .198 with Philadelphia in 1886, he averaged .307 the next season. In 1897 he batted .343, the best of his career, and the fourth straight year he hit above .300. His best all-around season was 1895. He batted .336 and had career highs of 179 hits, 30 doubles, 10 homers, 97 RBIs and 89 runs.
Yet those stats pale next to his singular accomplishment that year of catching all those innings without respite. And he went without rest in an age where batteries were listed as much to let fans know who was catching each day as to let them know who was pitching.
McGuire was never fined or ejected. In 1900 his teammates began calling him Deacon because he was so straight-arrow. He was also known as Pinch, for his timely hitting. Pinch hit .341—going 14 for 41—as a pinch hitter, and he became better with age. After his 40th birthday, he was 6 for 9 coming off the bench.
McGuire first managed in the latter half of the 1898 season for Washington. He had little success that year (19-49) or, indeed, thereafter. In all, he managed one full season and parts of five others. His career record was 208-289.
In 1899 Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon and a partner made a stock-transfer deal with the owners of the Brooklyn Dodgers that left Hanlon and his partner with a 50% ownership of each club. Hanlon, who had led the famed Oriole teams of the early 1890s to three straight National League championships, resigned his position in Baltimore and named himself the Brooklyn manager. He brought Wee Willie Keeler and four other Orioles with him and turned the Dodgers into contenders. In July Hanlon traded two players to Washington for McGuire, who, becoming a player again, hit .318 and helped Brooklyn to the first of two straight championships. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, for one, hailed the trade. "McGuire has always been looked upon as one of the best catchers in the league," the paper said, "while he has no superior as a coacher of pitchers and for steady and uninterrupted work."
But by 1902 McGuire was back on the road, playing for Detroit and the New York Highlanders before accepting managing posts with Boston and Cleveland. In 1912 he became a scout for Detroit. That May, Tiger star Ty Cobb pummeled a fan during a game and was suspended indefinitely by American League president Ban Johnson, who hadn't heard Cobb's account of the fracas. Cobb's teammates threatened to strike if the suspension wasn't lifted.
One day later, with the suspension still in force, the Tigers changed out of their uniforms and left Philadelphia's Shibe Park. To avoid the $5,000 league fine for a forfeit, Tiger manager Hughie Jennings combed the local sandlots, recruiting college students for the game with the Athletics. To strengthen his motley lineup, Jennings added McGuire and another Tiger scout. The paper Tigers lost 24-2 to the likes of Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker and Herb Pennock. McGuire went 1 for 2, drew a walk, scored a run, had three putouts, three assists (and two errors), and thereby made the record book with his 26th "season" in the big leagues.
From 1913 to '24 McGuire scouted for the Tigers. In '26 he coached the team at Albion College and then retired to his farm on Duck Lake outside Albion. In the fall of 1936, at 72, McGuire died of pneumonia and was buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Albion. Atop his tombstone two slender bats are crossed in tribute to the young iron-molder who became baseball's iron man.