Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball
by Norman L. Macht
Nebraska, 742 pp., $39.95
By his own estimation, Connie Mack's 50-year (1901-1950) career as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics lasted precisely one year too long.
One year? Ten last-place finishes in the final 16 seasons of his incredible tenure might have been a hint that it was long past time to head in a different direction. Then again, maybe the octogenarian Mack was waiting for yet another rebuilding plan to bear fruit. After all, there had been another stretch of Athletics futility, highlighted by six straight cellar-dwelling seasons between the great A's teams of the pre-World War I era and the dynasty of 1929-1931.
By today's standards, Connie Mack's managerial career would have been cut short by multiple decades rather than a single year. Of course, in his case, it helped that Connie Mack, full time field manager, was also Connie Mack, part-time part-owner. It may also have helped that the other Philadelphia team was, well, the other Philadelphia team. (This season's Barry Bonds countdown saw the Phillies complete a countdown of their own by becoming the first major league team to reach 10,000 losses.) If there are other explanations for Mack's longevity, Norman L. Macht cannot be the final word--at least not yet, since this backstop of a book takes the Mack story only to 1914, or the end of the first of Mack's two (and, yes, there would be only two) Athletics dynasties.
The obvious questions are two: Why tell barely a fourth of Connie Mack's major league story over the course of a book that would be far too long if the subject were the entire history of professional baseball? The second is briefer, but no less pointed: Who will read this testament to Ruthian excess? It's one thing to face the prospect of a potentially endless baseball game, but does a biography of an important baseball figure have to be nearly as eternal?
Or the research. Having spent 22 years on this labor of love, perhaps the near-octogenarian Macht thought he'd better quit while he was still ahead. Actually, the Mack/Macht story began in 1948 when the 18-year-old Norman Macht introduced himself to the "Tall Tactician" at an Atlanta ballpark. Mack's Athletics were barnstorming their way north following spring training, and Macht was Atlanta Cracker broadcaster Ernie Harwell's gofer. In the intervening decades, Macht has authored numerous baseball books, but he has never quite forgotten Connie Mack.
A catcher by trade and preference, Mack (born Cornelius MacGillicuddy) escaped the mills of Massachusetts for a professional baseball career that took him to Washington, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee before collaborating with Ban Johnson to create the American League, and then with Ben Shibe to build the Philadelphia Athletics into the pride of the junior circuit. Despite his stretches of managerial failure, Mack belongs in the Hall of Fame and deserves a biographer's attention. But surely a crisp full story would have been better than this sprawling half-story.
The second half of the title might amount to an excuse, only because Connie Mack was a key figure during the "early years of baseball." On this score, Macht is to be credited with keeping multiple Macks at the center of his story: They would be Connie Mack behind the plate, as in the catching pioneer who moved right behind the plate; Connie Mack on the bench, trademark scorecard in hand, signaling to this or that outfielder to shift in this or that direction; and Connie Mack in the front office desperately trying to balance the books and diligently working to balance his lineup.
The last of the skippers in street clothes, the Tall Tactician was never quite one of the boys, but as of 1914, Mack, already 51, was not yet the remote figure of baseball legend. A superb finder and handler of baseball talent in his prime, Mack was proudest of his careful cultivation of pitchers. With gentle humor and numbing detail, Macht records Mack's care and feeding of the chronically zany Rube Wadell and the chronically ailing Eddie Plank, among many, many others. Then there were the three A's Hall of Famers who might have been: Christy Mathewson, Napoleon Lajoie, and Joe Jackson. To learn how and why these greats got away, you'll have to do your own plowing, or resort to the index.
The larger story in all of this is the story of Connie Mack at work assembling his first dynasty. It's a story of acumen and patience, as well as the story of the Mack/Shibe relationship. It's also a story of money, as in how and when to spend it, and how and when not to. In sum, it's a lower-budget version of the same baseball game that is still being played today.
The spending behemoths aside, there remains room in today's game for at least an abbreviated version of Connie Mack. That would be a man of infinite patience and voluminous baseball wisdom who (at least in Mack's case) also happened to be fortunate enough to have a major partner (Shibe) who had the wisdom to be patient with him. Such a combination of men and traits won't necessarily assure a dynasty, or even a world championship, what with 30 teams now competing for the prize. But it ought to produce a highly competitive squad more often than not, if the man on top has the skill and time to spot and develop talent and the good sense to surrender the reins a few years (or perhaps a few decades) more than one year too late.
Who knows? Maybe Norman Macht's target audience was current or budding general managers on the lookout for that ever-elusive edge. Judging baseball talent has never been an exact science. By the same token, it's always been something other than a crapshoot. All else being equal, Mack looked for ballplayers who were "quick thinkers." Hence this high school dropout's sometimes-misplaced preference for "college boys" over "rowdies." While Mack may not have been right to equate baseball intelligence with academic credentials, he was surely on the mark in stressing the former. On defense, he could excuse physical, but not mental, errors: "A man should know what to do with a baseball once he gets it." On offense, he considered base-running the "most important, most interesting, and most intelligent" aspect of the game.
On the mound, Macht deems Mack to have been the game's "original Captain Hook." After all, his 1914 Athletics pitching staff set a record for fewest complete games (68--yes, 68), which stood for 10 years. He also instructed his hurlers to pitch to a batter's strength. When baseball was essentially a fielder's game, the idea was to put the ball in play and let the defenders do the rest. Hence that folded scorecard as choreographer's baton.
In the front office, Mack had a reputation as a penny-pincher. He was supposed to have said that the "best thing for a team financially is to be in the running and finish second. If you win, the players all expect raises." True or not, it's "nonsense" to Macht: With or without free agency, Mack was simply stating an economic fact of baseball life. Then and now, the trick has always been to know just when to jettison a player, especially a star.
Mack thought that one star was all that a winning team really needed. For six years of the first A's dynasty, that star was Eddie Collins. Mack dealt Collins to the White Sox in 1915--or at least a decade (rather than a year) too soon. Maybe Mack wasn't speaking "nonsense" after all. For that matter, you have to wonder what one-star Mack would have done with Collins, Mathewson, Lajoie, and Jackson on the same team! No doubt, there are other baseball tidbits here; at least there ought to be in a tome this size. Does that suggest that I might have missed a nugget or an inning--or a base--along the way? Maybe, maybe not. After all, both scouts and reviewers have long been known to keep a few things to -themselves.
John C. Chalberg teaches history in Minnesota and performs a one-man show as baseball's Branch Rickey.