This might oversell the point. At SABR’s annual convention in 2007, I heard Cait Murphy talk about what she learned from researching her book, and she was surprised at how advanced the level of play sometimes was. Examples of intelligent play existed – for instance the Cubs had worked out an impressive system of defensive signals amongst each other. However, such plays coincided with embarrassing miscues, as the floor for acceptable play was quite low. A wide discrepancy existed in the quality of fundamental ball played in these years. The more advanced examples of shrewd gamesmanship were often the result of major league managers instilling those values into their charges.
This explains why coaching fundamentals mattered so much for this generation of managers. The basic ideas of how to play had been worked out, now it was a time to diligently instruct them to the players. McGraw, Chance, and their ilk focused on the fundamentals because their players so sorely lacked knowledge that these pointers could significantly improve squads.