After he passed Mike Schmidt as the Phillies’ all-time hits leader, I spoke with shortstop Jimmy Rollins on many topics, including the city’s infamous fans.
Their negativity, I told him, was because of what happened to the 1964 team.
“Really?!” he asked.
I told him about a man who wanted to write a book about that season, when, with 12 games to play and the Phils holding a 6.5 game lead, they lost 10 straight and saw the pennant slip away (and the team had mailed World Series tickets to fans).
I asked him why he would want to relive that tragedy.
“It was the only time I ever saw my father cry,” he responded.
I don’t think he wrote that book, but Rollins got the point.
“And there’s more, if you want a real quick history lesson,” I said.
“I love history,” said Rollins (and he later showed it).
Not once, but twice, Connie Mack broke up two of the best teams in baseball history for financial reasons, I said. I told him how the Philadelphia Athletics from 1910-1914 won four pennants and three World Series. After the ’14 season, Mack began breaking up the club, and two years later the A’s lost 117 games.
“In a 154-game season?!” exclaimed Rollins (he did know his history; many players and fans don’t know the season was 154 games long before expansion in 1961).
“Yes,” I said. Then I told him how from 1929 to 1931 the A’s won three pennants and two World Series, but then The Great Depression hit and again Mack sold off his best players. By 1935, the team finished last or next-to-last and lost more than 100 games. Twenty years later, Mack’s sons sold the team to a man who bought it with the intention of moving it to Kansas City, which he did.
A member of the first group of inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mack won more games than any other manager: 3,731. He also lost more games than any other manager: 3,939 at a sub-.500 record of .486.
Cornelius McGillicuddy (later referred to as Connie Mack) was born in 1862 in Massachusetts. He had a decent career primarily as a catcher. In 1894 he became player/manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates until 1896.
He was managing Milwaukee in the Western League when its president, Ban Johnson, renamed it the American League and declared it on par with the National League. He added a franchise in Philadelphia, and arranged for Mack to be manager and let him buy 25 percent of the team’s stock.
Johnson then paired Mack with Ben Shibe, a local sporting goods manufacturer who acquired 50 percent of the team. The other quarter of the club was controlled by two local sports writers. In 1902, his second season managing the A’s, Mack’s team won the AL pennant. The following year the two leagues started having its champions play a World Series. The A’s won the 1905 pennant, but lost the series to John McGraw’s New York Giants.
Five years later, Mack put another championship team on the field, led by the famed “$100,000 infield” that included Hall of Famers Frank “Homerun” Baker and Eddie Collins, along with Stuffy McInnis and Jack Barry. There was a solid outfield and a top pitching staff featuring Jack Coombs and two more Hall of Famers, Eddie Plank and Albert “Chief” Bender. They won the 1910 World Series against the Cubs and repeated as AL champs the following year to face McGraw’s Giants. This time the Athletics won the series. After finishing third in 1912, they reclaimed the pennant in 1913 and again defeated McGraw’s New York club. In 1914 they won the AL pennant and were heavily favored in the series against the Boston Braves. In one of the great upsets, the Braves swept the A’s for the title.
Connie Mack (born Cornelius McGillicuddy Sr, 1862 - 1856) during his tenure as the Philadelphia Athletics baseball manager, early 1910s. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
As the same time, the Federal League started and offered big salaries to AL and NL players. Several A’s were rumored to have already signed to with Federal clubs when the World Series began, and Mack did not want to get into bidding wars for players. There were other factors figuring into Mack’s plans. There was an economic downturn in the country, and the A’s attendance declined while it was winning titles.
The club drew 588,905 in 1910, but four years later only 346,641 bought tickets. The club lost money that season, as did several other clubs; only three reported a profit.
Mack saw baseball as a business, and recognized that economics drove the game. He explained to his cousin, Art Dempsey, 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.” Norman L. Macht, who wrote a three-volume biography of Mack, believes, “What he said to Dempsey was a business fact of life and not… his plan or intention.”
Mack was constantly collecting players, signing almost anyone to a contract to assess his talent; he was looking ahead to future seasons, when his veterans would either retire or hold out for bigger salaries than Mack could give them. He also believed fans got bored with winning, and he’d sell more tickets while competing for a championship than winning titles year after year.
With his players getting older and not wanting to get into bidding wars with the Federal League, Mack decided to rebuild his team. After the 1914 season, he sold Collins to the Chicago White Sox for $50,000. Bender and Plank went to the Federal League – some sources indicate Mack asked for waivers on Bender and Plank for the purpose of releasing them in October, 1914, thinking they were well past their prime. After carrying an ill Coombs for two years, Mack released him before the 1915 season. Coombs then signed with Brooklyn. He sold Barry in mid-1915 only after it was evident the team was going nowhere.
CIRCA 1903: Cover image of a baseball manual published by Drexel Biddle titled 'How To Play Base-ball`` written by Connie Mack. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Baker, one of the game’s best players, wanted to renegotiate his contract, which Mack balked at; Baker later retired to become a farmer in his home state of Maryland. (Mack sold Baker to the New York Yankees for $37,000 in February of 1916.)
The team was 43 and 109 in 1915, the largest drop in victories from one season to the next. Mack continued to sell off members of his championship team. The following year, Mack was reduced to recruiting college players and amateur players.
“It was to become a modus operandi for Connie Mack over the next few years to bring swarms of sand lotters and kids just out of school, put them in Athletics’ uniforms, and let them play a few games. If he looked at enough young players, Mack reasoned, he would discover some bona fide big leaguers. Sadly, the ones he looked at were not future stars; or, if they were, he did not recognize them as such,” wrote David M. Jordan in his team history, The Athletics of Philadelphia: Connie Mack’s White Elephants, 1901-1954.
The 1916 team won only 36 games and lost 117, a league record for losses that stood for 86 years. Starting with 1915, the A’s finished last in the league for seven consecutive seasons.
But Mack was part owner and his job security was never in doubt. What was questionable was his ability to keep the club solvent. Unlike other owners who were rich from business interests, Mack’s only source of income was the club; and while successful, Shibe did not have particularly deep pockets. The sportswriters sold their stock to Mack, who purchased it with a $113,000 loan from Shibe, making them equal partners.
But speculation as to why Mack broke up the team dwelt on another financial reason.
Bruck Kuklick, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia 1909-1076,” says rumors were rife the A’s laid down on purpose.
“After the Series of 1914, there was a lot of suspicion, probably justified, that the A’s had laid down in the Series. This was the period of the entrance of big-time gambling into the sport, culminating with the 1919 Series,” said Kuklick. “Mack was suspicious of some of his players, did not want to deal with the fall out, and so sold them off. The Philly papers speculated on all this at the time.”
John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, said, “Mack told (sportswriter) Red Smith the reason he broke up the team after the 1914 World Series was not the Federal League but because gamblers had fixed the series.”
Macht thinks there was no chicanery.
“Among the many ridiculous myths that dangle from history’s thread of repetition is the rumor that Connie Mack suspected his boys of throwing the 1914 series,” he wrote in the first volume of his biography, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball.
According to Macht, “The sole alleged evidence is a purported letter of unknown date written by Connie Mack to an unidentified friend in which Mack supposedly voiced his suspicions. The letter is said to be in the archives at Notre Dame University. Nobody there can locate it, nor has anyone seen it.”
Original Caption) Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, is one of the few real oldtimers in the business. He is giving Joe DiMaggio, Yankee batting ace, a few pointers on batting. The game between the two teams was postponed because of rain.
A decade after breaking up his championship team, Mack began to build another competitive team. Baker told him about a teenager with great ability named Jimmy Foxx. Then he bought a team in Portland, OR, and on that team was catcher Mickey Cochrane. Other players such as Al Simmons, Mule Haas, Max Bishop, and Joe Boley were brought on board.
In 1924, Mack purchased a left-handed pitcher, Robert “Lefty” Grove from Baltimore of the International League, for the enormous sum of $100,600. In 1927, the team finished second with 91 wins. In 1928, the A’s battled the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig during September, but fell 2.5 games behind them. In 1929, the A’s won the pennant by 11 games, then vanquished the favored Chicago Cubs in the World Series in five games. In 1927, they drew 605,529. In 1928, the team drew 689,756. In 1929, the A’s took over first place for good on May 13 and defeated the Cubs again in the World Series. The club drew 839,176. Before Memorial Day, it was a fait accompli the A’s were going to win the pennant, and club drew 139,000 more fans than when it was challenging New York for the pennant.
Mack believed a team that was in the hunt would outdraw a team that would win a championship. If that is what he believed, then why, with fans knowing the Athletics would be in the World Series in May, did the attendance increase?
A few weeks after the A’s won the 1929 World Series, the stock market crashed. The A’s again won the pennant, in 1930, but drew 721,663, a drop of 118,000. In 1931, the A’s finished 13 games ahead of the Yankees and won 107 games, a record for Mack, but drew 627,464; a loss of 95,000 fans from the prior year. The A’s lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
In 1932, the A’s won 94 games, but finished second to the Yankees by 13 games, and drew only 405,500, which was the third highest in the league. At the end of the season, Mack sold (future Hall of Famer) Simmons and Haas to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000.
“In 1932, the US was in the worst period of the Great Depression, and Mack at this time sold players to make ends meet, believing that his attendance would tank no matter how good the team was, and he was probably correct,” said Kuklick. “It did leave a ‘scar that never healed’ on the immediate neighborhood, however.”
“None of this goes against the fact that Mack was a cheapskate with a very constricted and old-fashioned business mentality. Very little idea of deficit spending, of civic commitment, or political savvy of how to get help from city politicians,” added Kuklick.
John P. Rossi, a retired history professor and native Philadelphian who has taught baseball history and authored four books on the subject (and is an occasional writer for BallNine), said “Philadelphia was hit very, very hard” by the Great Depression. “Unemployment in Philadelphia was around 20 to 25 percent. I think that was a comfortable excuse for him that he did exactly what he did with the earlier (1914) team. I think part was a cold-blooded financial thing, and he might have actually believed he could build another team, like he did the other two times.”
1933 was the turning point for “The Mackmen.” The club fell to third place. Foxx won the Triple Crown, Cochrane had a terrific season, and as for the other six starters, the lowest batting average among them was 289. But the pitching was poor. Thirty-three year old Grove was his usual self, going 24-8, but George Earnshaw, also 33, who had won 86 games in the previous four seasons, managed only five wins against 10 losses with an ERA of 5.97.
The team’s ERA was 4.81, compared with 3.44 in 1929.
Baseball Magazine features a portrait of baseball manager Connie Mack
That team finished 79-72 and managed to draw only 297,138 fans, good for sixth in a league of eight teams. That’s when Mack had his fire sale, selling Grove, starting pitcher Rube Walberg, and Bishop to the Boston Red Sox for $125,000 and two players, and shipping Cochrane to Detroit for $100,000. It became known as “Black Tuesday.” A reporter said Mack appeared “pale and shaken” after making the sales.
Mack said he’d never trade slugging first baseman Foxx, but he shipped him to the Red Sox with pitcher Johnny Marcom (who won 31 games for the A’s the previous two seasons) for pitcher Gordon Rhodes, who spent one season with the Athletics and went 9-20, catcher George Savino, who never played in the majors, and $150,000.
By 1935, the A’s were in last place again, a position they would occupy for much of the next twenty seasons.
Mack was confident he could again build a winner (after all, he’d done it twice before). But another championship team never materialized. Aside from some good teams in the late 1940s, the A’s were terrible. In 1950, the equally futile Philadelphia Phillies won the National League pennant, and were the new fan favorite. It was also Mack’s 50th, and final, season as manager.
Mack, then 88, let his sons, Earl and Roy Mack, operate the club. Their half-brother Connie Mack, Jr. ended his involvement with the team, selling his stock to Roy and Earl; but they squabbled regarding how to guide the team, further disrupting the Athletics’ management and profitability.
In 1953, rumors were floating that the A’s were for sale, and there was a chance the new owner would move the club.
The Mack family did not have the funds to keep the team viable. There was a “Save the A’s” campaign, hoping to find local investors to buy the club and not move it.
“The city didn’t make much of an effort to keep the team,” said Rossi. “And you know (for fans), it was like ‘okay, but we would like to have them’ but they didn’t really seem to care because the Phillies had become the fair-haired team by then. And the other thing is, and I think this is a factor, the mayor, Joe Clark, thought sports were a waste of time … and why waste money on a team or who cares about a new ballpark. It never seemed, “We can’t let this team get out of the city.’”
After the 1954 season, Roy and Earl Mack sold the team to Arnold Johnson for $3.5 million. His plan was to purchase the Athletics and relocate it to Kansas City (later, Charlie Finley would buy the team and move it again, to Oakland).
Mack was at the Kansas City Athletics home opener in 1955. He passed away a year later.
The Reach Sporting Goods Company uses artwork featuring a large number of major league stars to promote its baseball equipment, printed circa 1910 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Among the Baseball Hall of Fame players are Frank Chance, Ty Cobb, Ed Walsh, Christy Mathewson, Chief Bender, Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, Home Run Baker, Connie Mack, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
In the preface to his book, Jordan wrote, “I was an A’s fan growing up in Philadelphia, at a time when our numbers were decreasing. It took some strength of character, I thought, to root for the Athletics. Because what we got for our loyalty was Connie Mack, whose better teams were well behind him, and a team that never had enough money or front office imagination.”
“When my A’s left after the 1954 season, I just felt devastated,” Jordan said recently. “I had been following them since I was eight years old, listening to them on the radio all the time, and heading out to Shibe Park whenever I could – and disliking the Phillies at the same time. Suddenly, while I was halfway through college, they were gone. In that ’54 season I went to about 45 A’s games, even though they lost about 40 of them. In those just-under-twenty years, I was able to become totally involved in A’s baseball and Princeton athletics – and suddenly my A’s were gone. It took a while for me to adopt the Phillies as my team, because I had been so disdainful of them for so long.”
Kuklick thought the city’s reaction to the breakup of two championship teams “was muted.” While 1964 remains the genesis of “nega-delphia,” in which fans expect the worst, did Mack’s breaking up the teams lay the groundwork for unflinching pessimism?
Macht said, “All of this was more than 100 years ago and is irrelevant to today’s fans or the 1964 Phillies. In the 1930s, Mack didn’t break up a championship team at all. They last won in 1931; he sold off players in 1934 after they finished third, and then because the Depression had killed attendance while he was paying higher salaries while they were winning – and he was broke. He lost money in the stock market crash and was in debt.”
“His legacy is more how he built two great championship teams from scratch, which is of little or no interest to today’s (Philadelphia) fans who weren’t even born when they left town 70 years ago and has no relation to the ups and downs of the Phillies,” said Macht.
My friend Chuck Darrow, as serious a baseball fan as you’re ever likely to meet, says this about the Phillies:
“Asking Philadelphia to forget 1964 is like asking Chicago to forget Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.” But he also thinks Mack is somewhat responsible for a fan base that booed Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, and many other great players in all sports.
“The argument can certainly be made that this (started) the Philly sports franchise template of creating disappointment, disillusionment, and despair for the Philly fan base. The problem, as I see it, wasn’t so much Mack getting rid of his best players; but the cynicism behind it. I believe his stated philosophy was that financial success was easier to attain and maintain by having teams that were almost-good-enough, but not quite, rather than by having great teams,” said Darrow.
“But more to the point, Mack failed to deliver on that: Under his 50-year control, the A’s were, overall, either world beaters or laughably lousy; obviously the latter was far more the case. Combine their historic futility with the abject miserable-ness of the Phillies for decades on end, and you absolutely have the seeds of the soul sucking life of a Philly sports fan – and the negativity that exists in the DNA of so many Philadelphians today when it comes to their pro sports teams,” he said.
So what is Mack’s legacy in his adopted city? As Macht points out, several generations of fans have never lived in Philadelphia when it had two teams. What it meant for me, and doubtless many other baseball fans who came of age well after the A’s left town, is it’s sad to learn there was a second team in Philadelphia, and that its manager was considered one of the game’s greatest – one who won five World Series (the Phillies in their history have won only two). It’s nostalgic, but sad nostalgia.