NAPA, Calif. — In newspaper clippings and on decades-old baseball cards are the images of two men of common parents yet different stripes.
One was a 6-foot-tall, jut-jawed catcher with a sweet batting stroke, seemingly destined for major league stardom before he had even left the high school ballfields of Vallejo. The other was his kid brother, an undersized and late-blooming pitcher for whom the name of his reverse-twisting pitch — a screwball — seemed to perfectly capture an amiable and none-too-serious character.
But it was Tug McGraw, the younger brother, who would make the family’s name famous as a top-flight relief pitcher, a two-time World Series champion who recorded 180 saves across two decades in the major leagues. A younger generation came to know him as the father of Tim McGraw and father-in-law of Faith Hill, perhaps the best-known power couple in country music.
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The elder brother that a youthful Tug worshiped would travel a far more circuitous — and often rough — road through and eventually out of baseball, constantly changing his work and his home through the years.
That path has led Hank McGraw to Napa County, his home for more than two decades. Yet 20 years after the death of Tug McGraw, Hank — now a white-haired, white-mustached and weathered 81 — continues to remember the upbringing he and his brother shared, and the bonds that endured even as their lives veered apart.
At the heart of that bond, from their boyhood, was baseball, he said in mid-December while sitting on the porch of his home, a cottage tucked within a quiet vineyard tract north of Napa, about three weeks before the 20th anniversary of his younger brother’s death.
In the winters when the baseball diamonds were empty and the days short, Hank and Tug had their own private game, scoring points by throwing beneath a street lamp in their Vallejo neighborhood.
“There was a street light on an alley by our house — the light was on the same level as the second floor,” said Hank. “In winter the light flowed, so from there to there, the light was 60 feet, 6 inches” — the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. “And we’d be out there (throwing) until near 10 o’clock until our dad would come out and say, ‘All right, boys.’”
Before the brothers were prospects trying to make it in baseball, Hank and Tug — the nickname of Frank Edwin McGraw Jr. — were two boys in a working-class city, occupying their free time with as much sports as possible. Sports were the glue that helped Hank and Tug, younger by 19 months, hang together as their family endured loss.
“The story of my family is the tale of three brothers who lived in a house of many uncertainties, a troubled mother who managed to destroy and damage those around her, and a father who struggled to create a good life for his kids. The three boys wound up taking three very different paths in life,” Tug McGraw would recall in “Ya Gotta Believe!”, the memoir he wrote during a nine-month battle with brain cancer that ended with his death in January 2004.
The brothers’ mother Mabel McKenna, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was admitted to Napa State Hospital, and eventually left her husband and sons during a later stay at the hospital when Hank was 14.
Hank and Tug’s younger brother Dennis — three years Tug’s junior — eventually drifted away to an oil-pipeline construction job in Alaska, fell into drug addiction on returning to California, and in 2002 shot and killed a Vallejo neighbor he said had harassed him for months. (Dennis McGraw served 11 years in state prison for murder before an appeals court overturned his conviction; he died in July 2023.)
The McGraws’ divorce left Frank Sr., known to his friends as Big Mac, to singlehandedly raise his sons while holding a succession of jobs — at the Union Oil refinery in Crockett, then as a butcher, a long-haul truck owner, a firefighter and finally as operator of the Vallejo city water treatment plant.
With their father constantly at work, he encouraged his sons to immerse themselves in the sports programs that were plentiful in postwar Vallejo, from youth programs across the city to the teams at St. Vincent Ferrer High School, which they both attended.
“Mostly it was dad’s influence,” Hank remembered of Tug tagging along. “If I said was going to so-and-so’s place, or going to play basketball, dad would say, ‘All right, son, so what’s your brother doing? I think he’s on the front porch waiting for you.’”
Tug eagerly followed Hank’s lead on the ballfield, starting in the local Peanut League where the brothers got their first taste of organized baseball in the 1950s — and where their father told coaches to play both of his sons or neither.
“I basically followed my brother’s lead for years after that. If he did something, I did the same thing,” Tug would later write. “Fortunately for me, he stuck with baseball or Lord knows where my life would have headed.”
Though Hank became a high school standout playing football and basketball as well as baseball, stardom at the next level wasn’t immediately on his radar.
“It wasn’t a dream; it wasn’t anything we thought about,” he recalled. “It was a part of our thing, it was so …” He raised his arms as if in mock resignation at pondering the unattainable.
But starting in Hank’s junior year, the unattainable began to feel reachable.
Men in sport coats and fedoras began to show up in the bleachers, holding clipboards as they intently watched Hank playing for the St. Vincent Ferrer team. These were scouts for big league baseball clubs, on the lookout for 18-year-olds with the arms, legs and instincts to become the next Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford.
“The pearl at the bottom of the ocean. A mythical figure,” Tug would say of his big brother and high school teammate to a Sports Illustrated reporter more than four decades later.
“He was All-Everything when I was a kid, and all I ever wanted was to be part of his world. Even after I’d made a name in the big leagues, Hank would appear in the clubhouse, and it was like Jesus showing up: ‘He’s risen! He’s returned!’”
Hank’s athletic exploits in Vallejo were earning him college scholarships in football and basketball, as well as the interest of the 20 Major League Baseball teams of the time. In 1961 he signed with the Mets — who were still a year away from taking the field — for $15,000, after exacting an unusual promise from the team.
The McGraw brothers would have to be a package deal, he told the Mets’ scout Roy Partee. Once Tug graduated high school in two years, the team would sign him too — even though scouts were ignoring the hardworking but undersized non-prospect.
“Roy Partee was reluctant,” recalled Hank. “Tug weighed 140, and 11 (other) teams offered me money and they all balked. Roy was the only one who didn’t.
“I told the Mets, ‘Look, he won’t always be a midget — just look at my dad and mom and me; he just hasn’t grown yet.’ He was slim; I looked thick next to Tug. He just gradually got bigger and his fastball got a little bigger.”
In 1963, as promised, the Mets took on Tug, who had pitched two years for Vallejo Junior College (now Solano Community College) and eventually grew to 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. After two years of minor-league ball he made it onto the Mets roster, where he was soon converted from a starter into a reliever who compensated for a lack of blinding speed with a level of guile and control that gained his sibling’s admiration.
“That was the one thing that annoyed him — he thought he’d be 6-foot-3 but he ended up 5-11 — but he’s the best pitcher I ever saw,” he recalled during a mid-December interview on the porch of his cottage, set amid a vineyard tract north of Napa.
“Red on black, red on black — the red of the seam, the black of the plate,” he continued, gesturing with his hands to describe the path of a spinning baseball nipping the edge of the strike zone, safely away from the heart of the plate where batters crush doubles and home runs.
By the time Tug was playing pro baseball, though, Hank, the seemingly sure thing, was facing a far more difficult path despite his physical talent. Not three days into his pro baseball career, he had begun to see things that would set his baseball dreams and his principles in deep conflict.
On the bus taking his team from Lexington, North Carolina to a road game, he saw the squad’s three Black players, walked to the back of the bus and innocently shot the breeze with them — naïve to the deep-seated realities of Southern racism in the 1960s. Once at the ballpark clubhouse, he heard his manager bark at him: “McGraw! C’mon in here!”
“He ragged me out for ‘sitting in the back of the bus with those (expletive) (N-words),’” McGraw said, his voice shaky at the memory. “’There’s a lot of ways you can get ahead in this game, but sitting in the back of the bus with those (expletive) (N-words) isn’t one of the ways!’”
“I almost broke down and started crying; I’d never been confronted with that. I called dad, and I was crying and I said, ‘I just didn’t know people were like that. Anywhere.’”
On the phone back in Vallejo, Frank McGraw talked his son away from quitting the team on the spot. “Son, those are the ways you become an adult,” he told Hank. “There’s gonna be people like that.”
Hank’s easy friendships with Black and Latino teammates — in an atmosphere where an umpire once had to fire a gun in the air to drive off an angry road crowd after a Black teammate started a game-saving triple play — were but one of the qualities that left managers and front-office staff leery of him.
A player who strung bead jewelry in the clubhouse for teammates’ girlfriends, who toured libraries and historical sites in opposing teams’ towns, who could even sing Bobby Darin’s rollicking “Splish Splash” after a loss stood out in an otherwise conformist world. Still, through the 1960s, Hank slowly advanced through the minor leagues and reached the Triple-A level, one notch below the majors.
But Hank’s path to big-league renown was effectively halted in 1970, when he was hitting better than .300 for the Triple-A Eugene (Oregon) Emeralds, a team affiliated with the Phillies. A new manager, Lou Kahn, was hired in July and ordered Hank to cut back his collar-length hair and bushy sideburns.
Hank was 27 and enjoying one of his best seasons, but he was also nearing the now-or-never point when a minor leaguer’s next shot at the big leagues might be his last. Still, faced with Kahn’s ultimatum, he stood his ground, declining to cut his hair unless the Phillies organization demanded the same from all its players in the system.
The next day, Hank was suspended from the team.
A few weeks later, the Phillies traded him to a Honolulu team with no direct pipeline to a major league ball club. By 1972, after a dozen years with 18 minor league teams, he was through as a player at age 29.
“There are so many things I admire about Hank, but one thing that stands out is how he is a man of principles, and he put that before his career,” Tim McGraw said of his uncle in an email.
As Hank McGraw’s baseball career petered out, Tug was becoming the star his brother had seemingly been destined to be.
Tug McGraw was promoted to the Mets in 1965 and four years later helped his team to a World Series victory, just seven years after the team had lost a record 120 of 160 games. When New York in 1973 improbably rose from last place in August to another World Series trip in October, his war cry — a scream of “Ya gotta believe!” — became one of the most famous mottos in sports, a motto of persistence and eventually the title of his autobiography. Seven years after that, Tug was on the mound to record the last out of the Phillies’ first World Series victory ever.
Through 19 major league seasons, Tug became as famous for his quick laugh and quicker wit as for his late-inning coolness on the pitcher’s mound, endearing him to numerous fans.
When a reporter in 1974 asked whether he preferred grass or the then-newfangled AstroTurf he quipped: “I don’t know. I’ve never smoked AstroTurf.” Replying to another newsman who asked how he felt about walking in the losing run in a 1981 game against the Cincinnati Reds, he noted the sun would one day exhaust its fuel and leave the earth a lifeless snowball, “and when that day comes, who’s going to give a (expletive)? I’m thinking 50 billion years down the road.”
Tug remained in the public eye after retiring from baseball in 1985, taking on numerous speaking engagements, serving as a product spokesman for Gillette and 7Up, and spending seven years as a Philadelphia TV news and sports reporter.
Hank, meanwhile, bounced across jobs and towns in the decades after baseball — making leather goods, bartending, gold panning, coaching a Phillies minor league team (a job for which he made the concession of cutting his hair), and eventually traveling with his nephew Tim, who broke out into country superstardom in the 1990s, on his sold-out concert tours.
Through his travels and then through decades in the Napa Valley, Hank lived quietly, both his early fame and his later notoriety forgotten to most people except for diehard baseball fans. Not until the fall of 2002, when Sports Illustrated reporter Gary Smith found his way to the guesthouse where Hank was then staying, did the ex-ballplayer’s story become more widely known.
Then nearing his 60th birthday, Hank frankly recounted what his freethinking ways had won and cost him — and confessed to uncertainty about his future.
“Sometimes I worry how I’ll end up,” he said during Smith’s visit. “I had an uncle who was a sailor, a wanderer, a boxer, a storyteller. I saw Uncle Tom go over the railing on the back porch one night, he was so drunk. Saw him with the DTs. He died from a rotted liver. I’ve seen both sides of a free spirit’s life.”
Hank, however, expressed little regret that his baseball career hadn’t panned out — modestly protesting he had never quite been major league timber in the first place — and doubled down on living by his principles and taking his stands.
“My life’s been great in ways people won’t understand,” he said at the time. “I still like waking up each morning. Just by waking up, you got another shot at a miracle. And damn, I got some stories.”
A few months after that interview, in March 2003, Tug became severely ill — and increasingly confused and erratic — while staying in Florida to work as a pitching instructor at the Phillies’ spring training camp. Rushed to a hospital, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive type of brain cancer in adults.
Hank headed east from Napa to help care for his younger brother and take him to medical appointments after an operation to remove the tumor, and also joined him that September on the field of Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium — where Tug had played for the Phillies for a decade — at a ceremony for the ballpark’s closing.
“It was so hard to believe it, because he was still so vibrant,” Hank remembered, his voice still wavering nearly 20 years later. “It was hard to believe that he was sick, dying.”
“We were all trying to believe. That’s what he kept saying: ‘Ya gotta believe.’”
In December 2003, when doctors at the Duke University hospital told Tug’s family they could do no more, Tim McGraw flew his father to the musician’s farm south of Nashville, where Tug chose to live out his final days in a cabin on the property. Hank was among the family members who came to be with Tug for the end.
On Jan. 5, 2004, family and friends took turns keeping vigil with the fast-fading Tug. At 4:45 that afternoon, as Hank McGraw entered his younger brother’s room, Tug McGraw took his last breath.
By the time Tug McGraw died, the project already was underway that would carry his name forward for years to come.
The previous fall, he had worked with Jennifer Brusstar — a close friend and then-wife of his Phillies teammate Warren Brusstar, and who had helped care for him and do research for his memoir — to launch the Tug McGraw Foundation. The nonprofit would devote itself to raising funds and awareness to improve the quality of life for both brain cancer patients and those living with traumatic brain injuries, including soldiers wounded in combat.
Among the events the foundation has organized have been softball games by the Mixed Nutts team, whose players include military retirees from the nearby Yountville Veterans Home who play squads of firefighters and townspeople.
And throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for the Mixed Nutts on its opening days has been Hank McGraw — whose brother had never lost his admiration, even awe, of him however far apart their lives’ paths had diverged.
“I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to still consider him a role model, but I just admire his independence,” Tug wrote in his memoir during his final months. “It’s a paradox. I admire his tenacity, the way he’ll stand up to his beliefs. I’ve often compared him to the forward scout for the wagon train. He went out ahead of the rest of us, blazing the trail and willing to fall off a cliff so the rest of us would know when to turn back.
“… When it comes to the person I am, Hank was key to my development. People thought I was a freethinker, a screwball. They just didn’t know Hank!”
You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.