19to21: December 4, 2007
In Search of Connie Mack: Norman Macht Completes a 22-Year Quest
19 to 21
No, Connie Mack didn’t live quite that long, but this is the conclusion of the 2007 version of Baseball...Then and Now...
News Item: December 22, 1862 (not December 23, 1862, as he told everyone for most of his life) – Cornelius McGillicuddy is born in East Brookfield, Massachusetts.
To anyone even vaguely familiar with the history of baseball in the first half of the 20th Century, it should come as no surprise that undertaking a definitive biography of the sport’s one active figure who truly spanned that entire 50-year period would be a monumental task, not just because of the sheer volume of information the biographer would have to cover, but because the true picture of Connie Mack has long been shrouded in the mists of myth. And, it is not just in the almost 52 years since his death that Connie Mack has become a mythic figure… he was already the subject of legend and fable long before he stopped waving his scorecard at the end of the 1950 season. Thus, determining the real Connie Mack, to not even mention the task of trying to write about him, would loom as a towering task for the researcher/author.
So, we who care about baseball and baseball history, and its reporting, are then fortunate that one of the best, Norman L. Macht, decided to undertake this task… 22 years ago. Read that again carefully. Norman Macht spent 22 years on his just-released biography of Connie Mack, “Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball.” Twenty-two years. And I’m here to tell you, it was worth the wait.
Macht’s latest book from the estimable University of Nebraska Press (UNP) is far from “just” a biography of Connie Mack, although writing a good, accurate biography of Connie Mack is a feat unparalled in baseball literature. First, it covers “only” the years from 1862 to 1914, a little more than half of Mack’s extended life, and actually less than half of his life in baseball. Even so, Macht has produced a 700-page+ tome that will answer many of the questions about the earlier life of the Tall Tactician (or the Slim Schemer, depending on how you feel about Mack… see what I mean?) Second, obviously not content with “just” writing a biography of Mack, Macht has given us insight into “the early years of baseball,” most notably insight into the founding of the American League (only the seminal event in the game’s first three-quarters of a century) and the first long-term dynasty in baseball, Mack’s 1901-1914 Philadelphia Athletics.
But wait, you ask. If Mack was such an important figure in the development of baseball as we now know it, didn’t someone else previously undertake to tell his story, even if it didn’t take them 22 years? The answer to that one is yes… and no. Tell you what, go out on the Internet and google “books on Connie Mack” and see what you get. I’ll wait… You’ll find several, including at least one on former U.S. Senator Connie Mack, III (who, by the way, wrote the foreword for Macht’s book… indeed the cooperation of the McGillicuddy family is clearly a key factor in the excellence of this work). And you know what? Most of them aren’t worth beans (a subject we’ll come back to later.) Of particular note are “My 66 Years in the Big Leagues,” Mack’s ghost-written autobiography from 1950, which was so bad that even the 66 years part wasn’t correct, and Fred Lieb’s “Connie Mack, Grand Old Man of Baseball” from 1945. The latter book is the better of the two, and does give some insight into Mack’s baseball career and baseball in general… as long as you don’t take everything Lieb says as gospel. While this author reveres the memory of that fine old Philadelphia sportswriter, it should also be noted that Lieb was both a confidant of Mack’s and not adverse to making up stories if they suited his purpose. Hence, Lieb was actually doing PR for the old man, and was, as a result, the source of many of the untruths and obfuscations about Mack. In other words, he put a lot of words in Connie’s mouth. Such are PR people.
(An aside: We should not judge Lieb too harshly in this regard. The practice of sportswriters just making stuff up out of whole cloth was a relatively common one in Lieb’s time. Charles Dryden was even worse/better at it than Lieb, to say nothing of the flights of fantasy of the Damon Runyan’s, et al. Hence, when reading old – let’s say at least before World War I – sportswriters, the caveat for the researcher is, caveat emptor.)
And therein lies the essential value of Macht’s work. Not only does he recognize the unreliability of previous works on Mack, but he takes nothing for granted, carefully weighing the stories, fables, myths and legends about Mack and his teams and his background, in search of truth, justice and the American Pastime. Thus, we have a work that is notable for both its content, and how that content was assembled.
“The pennant races, world series, etc. were all matters of fact available to anyone interested. What was not known was the man himself - the unveiling of which is any biographer's responsibility - and that was my primary objective,” says Macht.
However, the “unveiling” was far from easy or quick. First, Macht was dealing with an individual who was born during the Civil War, and second, an individual about whom volumes had been written, much of it inaccurate and, in many cases, unnecessarily laudatory (especially in Mack’s later years.). The result, in this case, is a book where the preface is almost as valuable as the rest of the book, in that Macht uses the preface to explain at length his research and the standards he held himself to. Since the book has no (as in zero) footnotes, nor a bibliography (though it does have a superior index and an excellent note on Macht’s sources… mostly about a million old periodicals… it’s a wonder he’s not blind), the preface is vital to the historian’s view of Macht’s work.
“On footnotes, when this book was first proposed to UNP, Dan Ross was the editor,” he explains. “At the time it was pitched as a one-volume bio of unspecified length. I had no idea how long it would become. I told him from the start it would be a popular as opposed to an academic or scholarly work and there would be no footnotes.”
In the book’s description of his sources, Macht admits, “I still was not the kind of diligent source-noter who warms the hearts of academic PhD thesis advisers. So I cannot cite date, page, and column whence cometh all the raw material of this book. Nor do I think most readers care.”
However, Macht also makes it clear in his preface that, “my Quixotic quest has been for 100 percent accuracy.” In that quest, as detailed later in the preface, Macht notes that he would often come upon different versions of the same event, said different versions often coming from the same source. In those cases, he writes, he generally relies upon the version that was told the closest in time to the event taking place. In other words, the most contemporaneous account. Suffice it then to say that Macht has, in this author’s opinion, produced a work as accurate, comprehensive (and readable) as the marvelous and highly footnoted biographies of Charles Alexander. And, if you won’t take my word on it, here’s what the Poet Laureate of Baseball, Jim Baker has to say… “After only about 10 pages, I am already blown away by the research he did.”
Moving on to content… what does Macht have to say about Connie Mack and baseball? Well, contrary to the initial impression of those two noted baseball critics, the Brothers Coyne (Matthew and Andrew – no relation to Toots Coyne, who played one game for Mack in 1914), Macht does not review what Mack had for breakfast every morning. What he does give us is the first balanced portrait of the man, starting with, and including throughout, his extensive family background. After the first-ever published review of Mack’s early years – including fixing the date of his birth on December 22, not December 23 – Macht covers the young catcher’s early years in baseball – a subject often not covered since Mack would later be so closely identified with the Philadelphia Athletics. Of most note in this part of the book are Macht’s observations on how the game was playing in the 1880s, his work on the Brotherhood War (Mack jumped to the Players League, and was even an investor in the Buffalo franchise) and especially his descriptions of Mack as a catcher. This latter characterization provides a picture somewhat askance from the view of “St. Connie” that later authors and sportswriters tended to give. The fact is, the man was looking for any edge to give him an advantage behind the plate. Essentially a good-field (although he had trouble making the throw to third base), no-hit catcher, Mack was among the first backstops to NOT actually position himself BY the backstop. At the time he broke in to baseball, catchers often caught pitched balls on the bounce, only moving up behind the batter when there were men on base or two strikes on the batter. Mack took up that position full-time, the better to perform some of his tricks – faking the sound of a foul tip (any caught foul tip was an out at this time), quick pitching, and tipping the batter’s bat (not yet considered catcher’s interference). Mack was also most certainly not adverse to distracting the batter with a continuous stream of chatter, whether he was catching or coaching third base. Macht quotes Wilbert Robinson as saying, “Don’t let anyone kid you that Connie was a little tin god behind the plate.”
Macht then provides us with the portrait of a crafty catcher who was not afraid to try something new or to bend the rules a bit. When he moved out from behind the plate to the managerial/administrative side of baseball, he was no different. Macht makes it clear that Mack was an excellent needler of the John McGraw School (even if he wasn’t as profane as McGraw) of Diplomacy and that, on one occasion in 1895, he blew up sufficiently at former teammate, now umpire, Hank O’Day, to not only get thrown out of a game, but to require the police to remove him from the premises. “And they had to call the cops to put me out,” is how Macht quotes Mack on the incident. St. Connie, indeed.
Mack’s transition from chatty/catty catcher to full-time manager in street clothes also covers the period of the founding of the American League, and the extensive raiding that Mack, Ban Johnson, Charlie Somers, McGraw, et al, performed on the National League. Macht’s exhaustive research provides us with a definitive tale of these very important years in the development of major league baseball. In effect, this book without footnotes becomes its own reference work for use by future authors (including this one.)
Having gotten Mack started in Philadelphia, Macht proceeds to tell the story of the first baseball dynasty of the 20th Century. While continuing to elucidate us on Mack’s true character, Macht also tackles some of the controversies, fables and tales of the 1901 to 1914 Athletics – as interesting a crew as one could hope for, although the most interesting was, without question, George Edward Waddell. As Dan O’Brien, the expert on Mr. Waddell, has pointed out (including pointing it out to Macht), many of the wild stories about “The Rube” are just that, stories, many of them concocted by Dryden and Lieb. Ever the careful historian, Macht’s treatment of the Rube is indicative of his overall approach to the story (and stories) he does tell…
“I tried to cast the Waddell stories with the deserved skepticism, while using them to illustrate that he was the kind of character about whom such tales could be believable,” he says. “Even so, I've used very few and those I believe have some basis in reality.”
(It’s irresistible at this point to mention one Waddell story that didn’t make the cut because, as O’Brien communicated to Macht, it was totally a figment of Dryden’s imagination. That would be the tale that a Waddell foul ball in Boston was the eventual cause of a major explosion at a baked bean factory, showering the Americans’ grounds with hot beans. Never happened. And the point is, Macht made the effort to find that out.)
Even though he sticks just to Waddell stories that might be believable (like Mack’s trip to Punxsutawny to retrieve the Rube), Macht’s work is still overflowing with information, some of which deals with the major controversies of Mack’s early years in Philadelphia… e.g., the contract jumping of Christy Mathewson, the origin of the White Elephant, Waddell’s status at the end of the 1905 season, the fate of Mike Powers, what happened in 1914 (a long-questioned subject that Macht shines on – you would think he was in the A’s clubhouse), etc. And, even if we choose not to agree with Macht on his interpretation of some events, in particular, just what John McGraw meant when he made the original White Elephant quote, well, that’s what history is often about… getting the facts, and then arguing over them. Daniel Boorstin and Samuel Eliot Morison and Harold Seymour and David Voigt would have us do no other.
And the facts are all here in this history. Maybe never in baseball history has one man labored for so long with such ultimate success. Norman Macht has brought us the true Connie Mack, and has done so in a most readable and informative style. How can you not love a book that begins, “The Irish had a bad year in 1846, finishing last in the international league. For the third straight year, the potato crop had failed like a staff of sore-armed pitchers.”? We should all spend the next 22 years turning out a triumph such as “Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball,” clearly a major highlight of the 2007 baseball season.
Thus ends the fifth year of “19 to 21.” Having strung 2007 out into December, we shall take a break until sometime in 2008, when “19 to 21” will return for a sixth year, though most likely in a more limited version. In other words, I don’t plan to write a book on the 2008 season, because I will be occupied with another book project, “10/10/13” (working title). A somewhat different look at the Athletics dynasty of 1901-1914, culminating in a review of a single game that marked the pinnacle of baseball’s first 50+ years in Philadelphia.
- John Shiffert