01/09/2004 2:47 PM ET
Tug McGraw, a jack of all trades
By Ken Mandel / MLB.com
A tribute to Frank "Tug" McGraw
|"The thing about Tug [McGraw] was that you never had a sense that you were with a celebrity," David Fisher said. (Levine/Verni/NY Mets)
PHILADELPHIA -- Not fazed by the pressure of a bases-loaded, no-out jam with the National League pennant on the line -- Scroogie delivered his patented pitch to Cincinnati's George Foster.
The power-hitting outfielder lined into a game-ending triple play, sending the underdog Pets to the World Series. What a season for Scroogie and his mates.
Welcome to the fictional world of Tug McGraw, whose cartoon self appeared in about 100 newspapers in 1975-76, and in two since out-of-print books.
You had to believe. While the nationally syndicated strip takes up a sentence or two in McGraw's list of achievements, it illuminates the wild creativity of a man the world lost on Monday, someone whose popularity extended well beyond a pitching mound and clubhouse.
"I've known lots of athletes, but never anyone as creative as him," said David Fisher, one of the strip's creators. "This was something he really wanted to do. He had such a wonderful time in life."
Fisher, 57, met McGraw in the early '70s while working on a freelance article for Sport magazine, and that turned into a series of articles. For Scroogie, Fisher contacted Mike Witte, an artist who was toiling in the art department at Time magazine.
Witte signed on as illustrator, and generated ideas. A third man, Neil Offer, contributed as well.
Scroogie's teammates included Tyrone, a Reggie Jackson-like bopper with a tremendous ego. Ace pitcher Royce Rawls was the golden boy pitcher -- think Tom Seaver. Chico manned shortstop and Homer was an intellectually challenged slugger who could send a ball into orbit.
"Homer was Mark McGwire before Mark McGwire, only McGwire wasn't as dumb as Homer," said Witte, who grew up and still is a Cardinals fan, despite attending Princeton University in New Jersey, and moving to Nyack, New York.
Add in Herb the announcer -- a Lindsay Nelson-type with loud jackets -- and owner Millicent Cashman, and the Pets were set. The team name itself was an homage to the Mets.
Fisher and Witte pitched their strip to Universal Press Syndicate, and eventually landed with New York News Daily Syndicate. A bump occurred two weeks before the scheduled run date when the Mets dealt McGraw to the Phillies.
The New York paper pulled out, but The Philadelphia Daily News came aboard, though they were a smaller paper. While the "P" in Pets resembled that of the Phillies uniform "P", Fisher called it a coincidence.
In one strip, Scroogie explains the game-of-inches adage to his skipper during a mound conference. The skipper says, "Inches? That ball went 793 feet!"
Scroogie's reply: "Yeah, 9,516 inches."
Such a situation wasn't uncommon for the fun-loving McGraw, who once gave up a mammoth home run to Willie Stargell, then called shortstop Larry Bowa to the mound, and asked, "Do you know how hard I had to throw that ball for it to go that far?"
The Pets battled real opponents and endured a lot during their first NL season. The strip's flaws become evident in the winter months, when Scroogie and the gang donned football helmets and shoulder pads.
"That was a little bit contrived, to say the least," Witte said. "We were totally flying by the seat of our pants. The strip got much better as we went along."
Scroogie had gotten up to 100 papers by the end of the second year. McGraw moved on to other things, and the strip became too time-consuming and not as profitable for the authors, so Scroogie retired.
The careers of Witte and Fisher were just beginning. Witte, 59, has contributed more than 8,000 illustrations in magazines in his 25 years as a freelance artist, though he never did another strip.
Fisher has written more than 50 books, including Ron Luciano's The Umpire Strikes Back, and titles with lawyer Johnnie Cochran, former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and entertainer George Burns.
Fulfilling rich lives, though both owe much to Scroogie, the lovable left-handed screwball pitcher with the oversized glove.
"I'm grateful," Witte said. "I probably would've never made it out of the art department if it hadn't been for Scroogie."
"We still talk about it," added Fisher.
During that time, McGraw did more than just lend his inspiration and name.
"He would call at night and say, 'I got this great idea' and talk about it for a while," Fisher said. "I'd write it down, and also run some of my original ideas by him. Mike would then draw them up in his own inimitable way."
These past nine months have been trying, as Fisher and Witte followed news of McGraw's illness. Witte had lost touch with McGraw, so the news made him nostalgic.
"When Tug took ill, I took [the book] out and looked at it," said Witte. "I still have 700 original Scroogies in my attic. I called Dave when Tug died, and we consoled each other."
Fisher, who lives in Riverdale, N.Y., considers himself lucky to have called McGraw a friend. They stayed in contact. They had dinner just before McGraw left for Spring Training in 2003.
"The thing about Tug was that you never had a sense that you were with a celebrity," Fisher said. "He was a friend."
Fisher, who roots for the Yankees from his home in Riverdale, has always been a McGraw fan and remembers the 1980 World Series. While the whiff of Willie Wilson sealed the Phillies' only world championship, Fisher's most vivid memory came in Game 5 after Hal McRae hit a home run just foul.
"That's the moment I remember," he said. "The idea that you're in this incredibly tense situation -- people have spent their whole life waiting for this -- and there he is tapping his heart. He had it right."
Ken Mandel is
a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval
of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
"I've known lots of athletes, but never anyone as creative as him."
-- David Fisher