Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years, 1915 -1931.
How does a noted baseball biographer follow up a 673-page, award-winning biography of a baseball icon? He does it by writing an equally engaging 648-page biography of the exact same icon. Norman Macht's subject is the revered Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy, aka Connie Mack. The first volume of what promises upon completion to be a three-volume set is aptly entitled Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). It ends as owner-manager Mack picks up the pieces of his Philadelphia Athletics club following its stunning defeat in four games by the Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series. The second volume finds Mack moving forward in 1915 with a large dose of optimism but far less star power. Macht does a fine job describing why the A's leader felt he could still win, despite the loss of greats like second baseman Eddie Collins, pitchers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank, and, a bit later, disgruntled third baseman Frank "Home Run" Baker.
The fact that Mack miscalculated in grand fashion, sending his ball club to baseball Siberia for a decade, comprises the first half of the book. During these "turbulent" years the A's finished in the basement seven times and in the second division an additional three times. It takes a skilled writer to maintain interest through some three hundred pages detailing how Mack, once wildly successful, battled to climb the American League standings and maintain his dignity. Macht is up to the task. He sprinkles the text with interesting stories of Mack and his players, many of whom received no more than a tryout on the recommendation of one of Mack's many friends and acquaintances. A number of these stories, like that of Sam Crane, an A's short-timer who Mack rehabilitated after a stint in prison, serve to show Mack's humanitarian side (49)
The author has a way with a simile, using the device to maintain a brisk pace during the down years. At one point as Mack struggles to find a winning combination he is said to feel "like a cross-eyed safecracker." In describing surprisingly strong attendance as yet another edition of the Ns falters, Macht ventures that just "maybe the organist was playing well" (80). As the saga of the lean years unfolds, Macht introduces particularly insightful personal correspondence from Mr. Mack. One that stands out is a letter to Frank Baker (13-14) seeking to bring the slugger back into the fold after his surprise retirement.
In analyzing Mack's early struggles to regain the preeminence his organization once enjoyed, Macht points out that Mack attempted to build his teams by finding young, untried, and often untrained talent. This was the method that worked so well in forming the teams that carried the A's to success from 1909-1914. In so doing, he essentially eschewed available talent from the minor leagues. He finally relented in the early 1920s, tapping the top-level minor leagues for prospects such as future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove. Macht reports that "[a]fter seven years in the wilderness Connie Mack concluded that he could no longer grow stars from seedlings" (276). He funded the effort through increased attendance afforded by the emergence of the slugging Babe Ruth. As a result the A's, buoyed by a nucleus of solid performers already in place, began a slow rise to the top. The crafty formulation of those teams ultimately led to the "triumphant" years, forming the second half of the book.
The A's ascendancy, culminating in pennants from 1929-1931 and World Series victories in 1929 and 1930 was not meteoric. In 1924, a season which saw the club finish fifth, a twelve-game losing streak is described as burying the team "in the basement like a vampire at noon" (330). Nonetheless, you can almost feel the electricity vibrating through Macht's pen as he describes the exciting 1928 pennant race as Mack, now sixty-five, experienced his first real pennant race since before 1910. The As finished a close second to the Yankees, but by then it was clear that the club, packed with now-familiar names like A1 Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Jimmy Dykes, Rube Walberg, and Grove, to name just a few, was on the threshold of greatness.
Any lengthy, well-written, well-researched biography like this one has many highlights. Several deserve special mention. The controversial tug-of-war over the rights to pitcher Scott Perry is masterfully detailed. Macht not only ably describes a particularly complex issue, but uses the debacle to plumb Mack's psyche and illustrate his strength of character. In a similar vein is Mack's handling of the aforementioned retirement of Frank Baker. Another matter receiving a detailed treatment is Al Simmons reputation as a "bucket foot" hitter. Macht thinks otherwise, strongly supporting his position. The oft-told "mysterious" retirement of Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker in late 1926 is told here with gusto from the A's viewpoint. Finally, Macht carefully dissects the legend that grew around Mack's choice of the almost forgotten Howard Ehmke to start Game One of the 1929 World Series. In so doing, the author literally becomes a baseball detective.
Almost any book this length will also have some drawbacks. Often they depend on one's perspective. The length of this book will most certainly wear on some, particularly the casual baseball fan. Since this second volume does almost no backtracking on the Mack timeline, those readers would be best advised to begin with the first volume, deciding whether to proceed from there. As with volume one, there are no footnotes and no bibliography. Their absence is either of no consequence, a minor annoyance, or downright frustrating, depending on the degree of one's interest in the main subject and his times. When, for example, Macht tells us newspaper man J.V. Fitz Gerald "reports" something (212), fellow baseball historians might want to locate that report to shed additional light on the subject. The task could be simplified by a citation, but none is provided. Finally, there is Macht's repeated defense of Mack's reputation as a penny-pincher. In a way it is understandable as the allegations stand as just about the only attack on Mack's character. Still, at times the author's approach seems a bit strident. At one point he asserts that Mack was "at heart a builder of teams, not a merchant of flesh" (132). Branch Rickey is described as one example of the latter. This illustration totally discounts the fact that as a major owner of the A's, the sale of players by Mack was a significant part of the business equation. There is no indication that profit was a dirty word in the Mack household.
It is clear, however, that the strengths of this telling of Connie Mack's middle years heavily outweigh any weaknesses. The work stands as a major addition to the study of the game and its longest-serving icon. Baseball fans lust for statistics. One number that should bring a smile to fans of Connie Mack and baseball history is that after 1,321 jam-packed pages, the final chapter of Connie Mack's life has not been written. There is more to come, and no question Norman Macht is the one to write it.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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