The Apprenticeship of Connie Mack

Connie Mack managed 53   years in the state of Pennsylvania. (via Library of Congress)

Connie Mack managed baseball for 53 years in the state of Pennsylvania. (via Library of Congress)

Connie Mack died in 1956 at the age of 93. Though I was only 6 years old, I certainly knew who he was. My grandfather was a lifelong A’s fan, so he revered Mack as something close to a demigod. The A’s transfer to Kansas City left the city to the Phillies, a taste my grandfather never acquired. He might have been the only man in town who reveled in the infamous 1964 Phillie Phold.

Ironically, every trip to see the Phillies took me to Connie Mack Stadium, renamed from Shibe Park in 1953. Benjamin Shibe, a sporting goods magnate, had been the president of the A’s from their 1901 founding till his death after the 1921 season, but Mack served as treasurer and handled all baseball matters. Shibe and Mack were the most dominant figures in A’s management during the tenure of the franchise in Philadelphia, so it is fitting that the ballpark honored the two founding fathers in tandem.

Beginning with the 1957 season, a statue of Connie Mack stood at Reyburn Park across the street from the stadium named after him (it was later relocated to Veterans Stadium and eventually Citizen’s Bank Park). The statue shows Mack in a characteristic position, scorecard in hand and one foot on the dugout step.

In the statue, as well as in photographs, Mack is always shown managing in street clothes. When I was a child, this struck me as odd. All the managers I saw at Connie Mack Stadium or on TV wore uniforms. In truth, when Mack began his managerial career, he too wore a uniform. If this is surprising, it is because the Philadelphia A’s were not his first rodeo.

While Mack is inextricably intertwined with the 1901-1954 life span of the A’s in Philadelphia, he was 38 years old when his lengthy tenure in the Quaker City began. So he had already served a long apprenticeship before he took over the A’s.

Mack (aka Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy) was born on Dec. 22, 1862, in East Brookfield, Mass. The battle of Fredericksburg, a disaster for the Union Army, had finished just one week before. While spreading death and destruction, the war also spread baseball to parts of the country that had not seen it before. By the time Connie Mack came of age, it had established a secure foothold in the national consciousness.

The captain of his local townball team, Mack earned his living working in a shoe factory. One can imagine how excited the 20-year-old Mack must have been when Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings, then on their way to a 59-39 second-place National League finish, to Brookfield.

In Boston to play the Beaneaters (who would go on to win the 1883 NL pennant), the White Stockings had accepted an invitation to make a side trip to East Brookfield for an exhibition game. In addition to Anson, the team included King Kelly and Billy Sunday, legendary names even today. This exhibition game might have convinced Mack that perhaps it was possible for a young man to make a living playing baseball.

Mack made his pro debut (for $90/month) at age 21 in 1884 with Meriden of the Connecticut State League. As the name implies, all teams (the others were in New Britain, Hartford, Waterbury, Rockville and Willimantic) were located in the cozy confines (5,019 square miles) of the Nutmeg State, so long road trips were not a problem. Almost all of Mack’s minor league career was played out in New England, or in nearby Eastern League venues in metropolitan New York.

Mack’s offensive stats in the minors were forgettable, but he was versatile, playing mostly at catcher (at 6-foot-1 and 150 pounds, he was hardly the physical archetype of the position), but also logging time at all three outfield positions and all infield positions save third base. As a catcher, Mack was one of the first to block the plate and to set up directly behind the batter, as opposed to hanging around the backstop.

At age 23, he made his major league debut with the Senators (then of the National League) on Sept. 11, 1886. Again, his versatility was a big plus. Though catcher was his main position, he could be found everywhere else but third base.

Mack was no star, but he was good enough to stick around for 11 seasons. Altogether, he played with the Senators for four years and logged one season (1890, his busiest, the only one in which he had more than 500 at-bats) with the last-place Buffalo Bisons in the Players League. Mack had actually played a part in founding the league and even invested in his own team, but it all went bust after one season.

Mack cast his lot as a part-timer with the Pirates (playing catcher, first base and outfield) in 1891. As a catcher, he led the league in fielding percentage in1891 and 1892, but an injury in 1893 slowed him down for the rest of his playing career. He was offered a position as a player-manager toward the end of the 1894 season. A handful of games at the end of 1894 and two full seasons afterward allowed him to garner his first experience as a big league manager while winding down his playing career (his last game as a player in the majors was on Aug. 29, 1896). Obviously, as a player-manager, he was not wearing street clothes while running the team.

Mack’s initial foray into managing was not bad. He finished the final month of the 1894 season with a 12-10 record and had a winning record the next two years (71-61, and 66-63), but in a 12-team league that didn’t count for much.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Despite his winning record, Mack was at loggerheads with management and was fired before the end of the 1896 season. Outfielder Patsy Donovan was chosen as player-manager for the 1897 Pirates.

Henry Killilea (sounds Hawaiian, actually Irish), owner of the Milwaukee Brewers of the Western League, offered Mack a position as player-manager for 1897. Obviously, this was a drop in class, but it actually proved to be a valuable experience for Mack, as he was 25 percent owner of the franchise. More importantly, he was allowed to manage the club without interference from the front office.

For the most part, the results in Milwaukee were positive. Mack had three winning seasons (85-51 in 1897, 82-57 in 1898, and 79-59 in 1900) but no pennants.

In Mack’s first season in Milwaukee, he got to manage former heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett for one game. Having lost his title to Bob Fitzsimmons after a knockout in the 14th round on St. Patrick’s Day, Corbett was spending the season barnstorming, playing a game here and a game there in the minors. In his one game with Milwaukee, he went 2 for 5. (At the same time, Corbett’s younger brother Joe was enjoying his best big league season, going 24-8 for Brooklyn).

Mack’s last day as a minor league player came on Sept. 4, 1899. In 1900 he was strictly a manager for the Brewers. By then the Western League had changed its name to the American League, but it was still one year away from major league status.

Mack’s major league and minor league experience, as a player and a manager, had proved invaluable. His main position, catcher, was a key strategic spot, a definite plus for a future manager. Having played other positions gave him different perspectives; he had more than two years of major league managing under his belt, and his minor league managing experience had acquainted him with front office operations.

His resume surely impressed his friend Ban Johnson, president of the Western/American League, which was about to assert major league status. The league’s projected alignment called for four midwestern teams (Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland Milwaukee) and four eastern seaboard teams (Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Boston).

Mack probably could have remained with the Brewers for the inaugural American League season. By that time, however, Johnson had recruited Mack to undertake the start-up of the new Philadelphia franchise. So Hugh Duffy took over the managerial duties in Milwaukee and Mack went to the Quaker City. When he moved to Philadelphia in 1901, he took with him Rube Waddell, whom he had discovered in Milwaukee.

One wonders what might have happened if Mack had remained as manager in Milwaukee. Perhaps the results would have been better and perhaps more fans would have shown up. The total attendance for Milwaukee’s inaugural season (48-89, good for last place) was just 139,034, well below the new league’s average of 210,448.

After one season, the Brewers pulled up stakes, changed their name to the Browns, and moved to St. Louis. Had the Brewers remained in Milwaukee, baseball history would be devoid of the dynastic ineptness of the Browns. Of course, had Mack remained in Milwaukee and made it a success, Philadelphia baseball history would also be very different.

Given the transitory nature of franchises and baseball leagues 115 years ago, it is not likely that Mack anticipated that Philadelphia would be the last stop in his career and that he would be there more than half a century. But that part of his career has been well chronicled and does not concern us here.

I have to wonder how the six-year-olds today look at Mack’s statue when they attend Phillies games. Here stands a man born during the Civil War, whose playing career spanned the Gilded Age and the Gay ’90s, and whose managerial career started in 1894 and carried through the first half of the 20th century. Still, it’s been more than six decades since the A’s left for Kansas City, so small fry today would likely be unimpressed by the statute of the gaunt old man waving his scorecard. I think kids would probably look at him as a remote historical figure like, say, General Pershing or William Howard Taft.

I suspect few people – even old-time baseball fans in Philadelphia – are aware that Mack didn’t start his big league managerial career in Philadelphia, but at the other end of the state. Interesting to note that Mack not only holds the record for most seasons (50) managing the same franchise, but most seasons (53) managing in the same state.

I guess you could say the same for Mack’s major league record of games managed (7,775). Since more than half of them were played in Pennsylvania (50 seasons with the A’s and two-plus seasons of home games in Pittsburgh with periodic road trips to play the Phillies), he is also the record-holder for most games managed in Pennsylvania.

Same goes for his records of most wins (3,731) and most losses (3,948). I’m not about to comb through his long career to figure out exactly how many games he won and lost in Pennsylvania, but surely no one else in the Keystone State won or lost more major league games.

Considering that Connie Mack earned his managerial spurs in Pittsburgh, perhaps we could start a fund or a petition to erect a statue of him – in uniform – outside PNC Park. Scorecard and dugout step optional.

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.

Comments are closed.