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A thorough look at Connie Mack

Posted May 7, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated May 7, 2012 at 11:56 PM

It’s quite possible that the term “players’ manager” was first used to describe Connie Mack.

“He managed men with consideration and kindness but left no uncertainty as to who was the boss,” Norman L. Macht writes in his second volume on the life of the Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager.

Macht, who has written 30 books and produced the exhaustively long and extensively researched “Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball” five years ago, returns with an equally long and detailed work about the second — and I believe, more interesting — phase of Mack’s managerial career.

Connie Mack: The Turbulent & Triumphant Years, 1915-1931” (University of Nebraska Press, $39.95, hardback, 678 pages) does little to debunk the saintly image of Mack that was immortalized in the1948 Life magazine article written by Bob Considine (“Cornelius McGillicuddy — Mr. Mack”).

Macht, however, does humanize Mack and sets the record straight on several baseball legends, particularly those surrounding the 1929 World Series. 
Volume 2 (there will be a third volume covering the final 25 years of Mack’s life) opens after the 1914 World Series, when Philadelphia was shockingly swept in the World Series by the “Miracle” Boston Braves. The Athletics would sink into last place for the next seven seasons, finally contending in the mid-1920s before returning Mack to glory with three straight American League pennants and two World Series title from 1929 to 1931.

The first part of this volume rumbles through the Athletics’ misery, then picks up speed as Mack, through astute bidding and trading, rebuilds his team into a dynasty that has been compared with the 1927 New York Yankees for sheer dominance.

But this book is not just a Philadelphia story. Macht also gives the reader a sense of the political wrangling among American League owners, giving particular attention to the simmering feud between A.L. president Ban Johnson and the first commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

The advent of World War I curtailed the 1918 season, but Macht shows that there had been a real possibility baseball might have been closed down for the entire year. That scenario was real and was hotly debated by the owners.

Macht shows how Mack, who had a reputation as being cheap, was not afraid to spend money when he believed it would help his team contend.

“Try as he might and erroneous as it was, once that (miserly) reputation was hung on Connie Mack, repetition etched it into stone,” Macht writes. “It has outlived Mack by sixty years and counting.”

Certainly, Mack had contract battles with players, particularly with Frank “Home Run” Baker. Macht also documents a long (and at times, tedious) look at the legal battles involving pitcher Scott Perry. On the surface, this squabble seems obscure, but as Macht points out, it led to Mack filing a lawsuit in court to overturn a decision by baseball’s National Commission.

Although baseball litigation became the norm in the late 20th century, legal action was unheard of in the 1910s, as owners believed themselves a fraternity that could sort out its problems amicably. Using the courts as a solution sent a shiver through Mack’s fellow baseball owners, and allows Macht to bounce off a snappy line: “It was like the day a bar of Ivory soap sank at Procter & Gamble.”

Mack’s public criticism of players was rare, but every once in a while his candor would seep through his public persona. Macht quotes one example, uttered after the 1919 World Series, when Mack was asked about his team’s chances for the 1920 season

“There’s no use disguising the fact that I have a bad team, one that is fit only for last place,” Mack told a reporter.

Macht’s writing is lively and at times, pulls no punches. “(Bob) McCann resembled Rogers Hornsby in appearance, so the players called him Hornsby,” he writes. “The resemblance ended there.”

Or this: “After seven years in the wilderness Connie Mack concluded that he could no longer grow stars from seedlings. The soil of American society had changed.”

The 1929 World Series was Mack’s return to baseball’s biggest stage, and Macht examines the legend of Howard Ehmke in Game 1. It has been acknowledged for years that Mack held Ehmke back during the final month of the season, sending him to scout the games of the Chicago Cubs (Philadelphia’s World Series opponent). Armed with that knowledge, Ehmke set a Series strikeout record in Game 1, fanning 13 batters.

It’s a nice, neatly tied up story that has been etched in stone. Until now.

“Just as there are eight different towns in the West claiming the burial ground of Billy the Kid, there are as many versions of the Howard Ehmke story,” Macht writes.

According to a letter Mack wrote to Ehmke on Aug. 11, 1929 (when he allegedly was told to scout the Cubs), the Athletics’ manager expressed his disappointment in his pitcher and made no mention of scouting or the World Series.

Mack actually made the final decision to use Ehmke several hours before game time. It was based on the philosophy he adhered to for half a century.

“Do your job, and he left you alone. Need a shot of confidence, and he’d find the right time and the right words. Pull a bonehead play, and he’d call you aside the next day and suggest you try it a different way,” Macht writes. “He shook off physical errors. … But grouse or complain or talk back to him, and he wouldn’t hesitate to snap at you with a barb as sharp as an arrowhead.”

In addition to the season-by-season chronicles, Macht peppers the book with anecdotes about the Athletics’ spring training home in Fort Myers, his family life and the legion of friends (even strangers considered Mack a friend). If someone wrote a letter to Mack, he was certain to get a handwritten reply.
“It didn’t matter how high or low the correspondent’s station in life,” Macht writes. “Write to Connie Mack, he’d write you back …”

Legendary sportswriter Red Smith wrote this in 1941: Connie Mack “stands for everything the American people consider desirable and admirable — tolerance and sportsmanship and kindly justice and patience and the gentility that stems from within.”

Mack was able to stay grounded whether he was faced with turbulence and triumph. Macht’s third installment will chronicle the Athletics’ decline as a power. There are many facts I hope to learn about Mack’s final 25 years, particularly his transactions and the reasons for yielding the managerial reins several times during the 1930s.

I am guessing it will take another 675 pages to find out.


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